by Don Paterson
reviewed by Sarah Kafatou
The Scottish poet and musician Don Paterson, already recognized with the Forward, Whitbread, T. S. Eliot, and Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prizes, proves his mettle and worth again in this latest book.
Rain is dedicated to the memory of Michael Donaghy, another poet and musician whose combination of playfulness, emotional seriousness, formal inventiveness, and intellectual accomplishment won him the love and admiration of his peers, and who was much missed when he died at the age of fifty in 2004. Donaghy and Paterson were close friends, and in “Phantom,” an elegy in seven parts, Paterson writes of how the night
reached into the room
switching off the mirrors in their frames
and undeveloping your photographs;
it gently drew a knife across the threads
that tied your keepsakes to the things they kept;
it slipped into a thousand murmuring books
and laid a black leaf next to every white;
it turned your desk lamp off, then lower still.
Related concerns animate the beautifully elegiac poem “The Rain At Sea,” in which “the sea reached up invisibly / to milk the ache out of the sky.”
The book also includes a series of thirty-five very short meditations on death, followed by one on living. Described by the poet as renku, a traditional Japanese form consisting of a series of short semi-independent syllabic verses, these alternating two-and-three-line rhyming aphorisms are sometimes poignant, sometimes insouciant, and sometimes both at once. Appropriately for a man in mid-life and mid-career, Paterson offers this couplet as the last, thirty-sixth link in the chain:
Too late to blame, too soon to thank—
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In addition to his writing, teaching (at the University of St. Andrews), translating (in 2006 he published an outstanding version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus), editing (of five anthologies so far), book reviewing, and commitments as a husband and father, Paterson is an accomplished jazz composer and guitarist who performs, records, and tours with the ensemble Lammas. Rain includes, in a tour-de-force of specialized vocabulary, a poem addressed to the techno-music artist Natalie Beridze. Rhymed as though by Ogden Nash, its verses convey some admiration mingled with considerable apprehension regarding the genre as well as the artist: “O Natalie, how can I pay tribute to your infinitely versatile blend of Nancarrow, Mille Plateaux, Venetian Snares, Boards of Canada and Nobukozu Takemura / to say nothing of those radiant pads—so strongly reminiscent of the mid-century bitonal pastoral of Charles Koechlin in their harmonic bravura… / …Though I should confess that at times I find your habit of maxxing / the range with those bat-scaring ring-modulated sine-bursts and the more distressing psychoacoustic properties of phase inversion in the sub-bass frequencies somewhat taxing.”
Articulate and inventive to an extraordinary degree, Paterson is nonetheless not immune to periods of silence, and even of writer’s block. Verbal gymnastics aside, this book resonates in the end to its deepest, most direct and heartfelt note:
He’s three year deid, an aa I’ve done is greet
Wi’ a toom pen an nae elegy but och.
I’ve jist nae hert to mak a poem o it.
Published on June 21, 2013