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Don Paterson, Landing Light, Faber

Is it Francis Ponge or François Aussemain who said “The bed sees us add ourselves to the world, then subtract ourselves from it”?

No, it’s not that master of the modern prose-poem, Ponge, it is in fact Aussemain, Don Paterson’s Francophone alter ego, the convincing near-forgery who briefly reappears in this new collection. The quotation here – it goes on in this entertaining and rather beautiful fashion for over nine lines of lyrical prose - is from an epigraph to the continuation of Paterson’s now long poem “The Alexandrian Library”, early appearances having occured in previous books. That poem, except for the Aussemain quotation, is reading rather tiredly now, as if it can’t escape from its own Borgesian fractals, and perhaps, now that it has reached the point of triptych, it is time for it to be laid to one side, maybe in preparation, if it survives reflection, for a booklet or fine press publication in its own right.

This is an unsettled collection, sequentially awkward (although miscellenea have their place, too), and even technically rough-and-ready at times. There are, for example, the rhymes Paterson contrives for his translation of Dante’s thirteenth canto of the Inferno: for example, “razor-clawed” with “tortured”; “tearing me” and “hearing me”; “of this hell” and “is so incredible”. Perhaps these and others can be read as para-rhyme, suitably harsh for a poem about the pains of hell. I certainly like the cheekiness of “which I unlocked” rhymed with “heard no click” – there really does seem considerable thought behind that rhyme as it is so obviously muted (while remembering the deadlock of –ck, and pushing the “d”, almost, at the granularity of syllables, chiasmus-like, back into the centre of the line) – but the translation as a whole feels not always so deliberately misshapen.

Of course, who can fault the ambition? - even if members of the Dante cult attest too. And translations are always in some sense a new work. The ambiguity over whether Paterson’s Machado-inspired collection The Eyes is being marketed as more Paterson than Machado is unwisely resurrected in the note to Landing Light which describes The Eyes as one of the Scottish poet’s “three” collections, and Machado is again uncredited. With this brought to mind, some readers will find the number of translations in this new book (Dante, Rilke, Cavafy), while they seem fine in themselves, cause for the nagging thought that a publishing treadmill is being trundled here and translations are one way of keeping supply up. The poem “’96” suggests a writer’s block thankfully evaded – “no poem / all year / but its dumb // inverse / sow’s ear/ silk purse – but the collection as a whole feels transitional, a struggle for both poet and reader.

There are advantages to the unsettled. Paterson’s use of a Scots in some of the poems here is confident, if derived ultimately from Hugh MacDiarmid’s imagistic interwar experiments, but learning from the disconcerting viewpoints in W. N. Herbert’s more recent Scots texts, too. The lines “Lass, they say / oor nation’s nae / words for love / the wiy we have / for daith, or deil”, from “Twinflooer”, revisit an already very much visited part of the Scottish literary landscape – the relationship between the Scots language, Scottish nationhood, and the capacity to express emotion – seeming to lyricise it away from Herbert’s jagged “Forked Tongue” to something more botanical, before re-introducing harshness with the image of the double flower “nailed thegither / wame to wame” [belly to belly].

The Scots language is available for other tones besides this kind of near-reverential disgust (and the trope of self-disgust?), but even Paterson’s English language poems, the great majority of this collection, seldom fully escape it. A variant however is grim humour, as in the set-piece “St Brides: Sea Mail”, in which an islander reports the extinction of the local bird, whose carcass has been traditionally used as an airworthy model aeroplane. The nod to Douglas Dunn’s “St Kilda’s Parliament” is decidely jocular – perhaps parliamentary democracy is a glancing rather than a deliberate target (“The last morning / we shuffled out for parliament / their rock was empty”), but this poem is probably more in the spirit of a shaggy dog story than anything else. There are a number of other poems of that kind, and the reader might feel that, to change metaphors, there is actually more propulsion in these poems than there is aeroplane. A few of the shorter, more concentrated poems, are the more memorable ones for me. The enigmatic six-liner “America”, despite its seemingly portentous title, and its Patersonian interest in the grimmer aspects of the body, matches the impossible abstraction of naming a country with the physical facts of the anatomy – here, a drowned man “turned and curled and […] boked up” by the sea – before collapsing ideal and fact away from each other, “then came apart and fell into the surf”. It is a sullen highlight in a book which only raises expectations for the next collection.

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