Rain by Don Paterson
“Life is no miracle.” So begins Don Paterson’s poem “The Day,” encapsulating at once his assessment of life as a futile, godless, and lonely enterprise, hastily sandwiched between a vast nothingness that precedes birth and follows death. If Paterson intends to give the reader naught but the bleak, however, he outdoes himself in a way: as his poems stroll about the ashen void, they often breathe life into embers of remarkable beauty. Indeed, the magnificence of Paterson’s verse lies within his ability to shed light (if only a candle in his mind) to an understated tenderness that lies within his nihilistic verse.
Rain, Paterson’s most recent collection of poetry, is dedicated to the memory of New York poet Michael Donaghy, and functions as a patchwork elegy, the somber tone of which resonates forcefully with the archetype of woe evoked in the title. To his credit, Paterson never lapses into the bitter sentimentality characteristic of so much paperback fiction these days, perhaps due to his utilization of various poetic forms, from the conventional free verse, rhymed verse, and iambic pentameter; to the traditional Japanese renku and two quatrains in Old English; to the “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze,” which embraces at once elements of verse, prose, and a tone reminiscent of a mildly obsessive fan attempting to start a blog. Each poem brings its own individual sorrow and unique heritage to the overall feeling of Paterson’s work, which, in general, leaves readers feeling as if they are a leaf carried briskly along a rain gutter during a shower: briskly floating along, contemplating the final plunge down the drain.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable elements of Rain is the re-evocation of personas in several of the collection’s poem -- personas that further engage in and thwart Paterson’s pervasive melancholy. Certainly Michael Donaghy appears several times, as “m.d.,” “Don Miguel,” and “Michael” in Rain’s penultimate poem, and Paterson’s sons, his wife, and an abundance of other literary, artistic, and familiar characters appear with frequency as well. In particular, the poems that feature one of Paterson’s sons, who bears a defect from birth, show incisive tenderness (here, from “Correctives”):
The shudder in my son’s left hand
he cures with one touch from his right,
two fingertips laid feather-light
to still his pen…
…some of us have never known
the one hand’s kindness to the other.
Paterson bridges not only the gap between the “shudder” and the “feather-light… touch,” evoking the fragility of human life, but also the gap between author and poem. Through successive invocations of characters from his life, Rain becomes a deeply personal narrative of mourning.
Rather than exhibiting a smattering of poems intended to aggrandize his own voice or breadth of literary experience, Paterson focuses his poetic energies inward and lets his guard down, as if readers are meant to peruse the author’s heartbrokenness at their leisure. The acknowledgement of yearning from reader to author is most prominent in “Two Trees,” where each tree strains “on its shackled root to face / the other’s empty, intricate embrace. / They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout. / And trees are all this poem is about.” Paterson does not thrust his sorrow upon his readers; rather, he puts it on display, knowing full well that as readers we can look, but cannot touch. He confronts the human tendency to seek compassion from others -- even from the dead -- and condemns it as a futile enterprise. Truly, humanity’s efforts to unearth its own roots and enjoin in an empathetic embrace that ends in the “knowing” of one another seems not to bear fruit, but is also impossible not to attempt.
Ultimately, Rain’s darker philosophical undertones regarding the subjectivity of human experience will likely ensure its enduring relevance of Paterson’s work. In “Motive,” for instance, Paterson proposes, “so for all that we are one machine / ploughing through the sea and gale / I know your impulse and design / no better than the keel the sail.” As are the keel and the sail, human beings irremovably fixed at a distance from one another. Here, Paterson finds good company within literary history. Indeed, even Dickens engages in a similar discourse as he contemplates, in A Tale of Two Cities, “the wonderful fact to reflect on, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” Like Dickens, Paterson suggests that we can never truly know each other, but he incises further into the nature of human subjectivity with the juxtaposition of keel and sail: like the “Two Trees,” the minds of human beings are set at a fixed distance from one another, unable to move close enough to sate their innate curiosity, and equally powerless to turn away when the grief of not knowing becomes unbearable.
In evoking such tragic stasis, Paterson succeeds in cultivating a collection of poems that are a joy to turn over in one’s mind. By artfully balancing crushing sorrow and bleak metaphysical nuance with intimate and tender human gestures, readers may lose themselves in verse that nearly makes one forget, as Paterson reminds us in the closing line of “Rain,” that “none of this, none of this matters.”
Rain by Don Paterson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux