Selected Poems, Don Paterson (£14.99, hbck, Faber)

An excellent, comprehensive selection of Don Paterson's work, made by the author himself, covering all of the published collections since 1993 - Nil Nil, God's Gift to Women, Landing Light and Rain - and selections from Paterson's collections of versions of Antonio Machado and Rainer Maria Rilke, The Eyes and Orpheus.

Nil Nil
(1993) introduces themes and styles that Paterson has perfected in his subsequent collections: a studied musicality, strong rhythms and traditional form, coupled to personal experience and sometimes demotic expression, as in 'Morning Prayer', which exemplifies his colloquial bravado coupled to a classical lyricism. The poem 'Nil Nil' itself explores the vernacular nostalgia of football league. Elsewhere, sex and relationships abound in the early poems, as do familial anecdotes tempered by more knowing, self-reflexive metafictional or postmodern moments. 'Amnesia' couples all of these effects together to present a poem about sexual education in which two recalled sexual conquests sandwich a moment of limbo in which 'the room stopped like a lift'. The beginning of the poem shows the focus on rhythm, phrasing and vocabulary, which characterises much of Paterson's work:

     I was, as they later confirmed, a very sick boy.
     The star performer at the meeting-house,
     My eyes rolled back to show the whites, my arms
     Outstretched in catatonic supplication
     While I gibbered impeccably in the gorgeous tongues
     Of the aerial ordersÉ

A favourite is simply titled 'Poem', after Ladislav Skala, which reveals metaphors within metaphors and sets up the existential interests that will later emerge in the versions of Rilke's Orpheus

God's Gift to Women
continues the themes set up by the earlier collection, introducing some darker undertones, but developing the formal concerns of stanza, rhyme schemes, rhythm and traditional shape. 'Imperial' continues the sexual relationship themes, while 'A Private Bottling' is a tour de force poem centering on whiskey, and which brings the formal poetic concerns and the demotic, erotic subjects together in a long poem of considerable power. Sitting up all night drinking the narrator waits for dawn then slips

     Back to the bed where she lies curled,
     Replace the live egg of her burning ass
     Gently, in the cold nest of my lap,
     As dead to her as she is to the world.

There is a considerable playfulness on offer in Paterson's work, from his blank page poem 'On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him', to the listing of '14:50: Rosekinghall' and the erotic liveliness of many of the poems in these first two early collections.

The selections from the later Landing Light
demonstrate the more formalised  lyric poet, with poems that are demonstrably in a post-Heaneyesque mode of empirical lyricism, tempered by a Muldoon-esque play of language: everyday concerns, direct address, traditional stanzaic forms, controlled quatrains, linguistic play and formal daring, but also with the addition of a little mystery and lyric heightening. The vocabulary often reaches after the 'poetic' in these later poems - Paterson is the kind of poet who will call it Michaelmas instead of Christmas, who will write of 'creed' rather than belief, and who comfortably emulates Dantean ideas and effects in his poems. Childhood memories are abundant, as are poems about being a father ('The Thread', 'Waking With Russell', and 'Letter to the Twins'), which are, amongst other things, tender, fatherly, and faultlessly formal. Paterson is comfortable in nature, in the outdoors, but is never a 'nature poet'. There are ballad-like poems in 'The Forest of Suicides', 'The Hunt' and 'A Fraud', and a sense of myth and history which lend the work scope and range. Paterson's models and subjects by now have become broadly classical - he's quite happy to write poems about 'the lyre' - and there are several poems about poetry itself - the excellent 'A Fraud' and 'The Rat', which serves as a moral fable for all writer-teachers. These selections from Landing Light also show some formal variety in the half-rhymed couplets of 'The Wreck' and a couple of poems in Scots.

The selection from Paterson's most recent collection Rain
(2009) continue the mode into which the poet has now comfortably grown: lyric assuredness, writing about the familiar and familial, taking on poetry itself and its classical big themes. Take 'Why Do You Stay Up So Late', in which the father-poet explains to his son why he sits up all night writing poetry, collecting 'the dull things of the day' until he can find some possibility for poetry in them and then 'paint it with the tear to make it bright'. It's touching and impeccably achieved, although there is something a bit antique in his repetitive Dickinson-esque quatrains of several other poems, with their na•ve rhythms and rhymes, their attachment to poeticised lexis, and their overly-insistent tetrameter.

The poems selected here from his versions of Rilke's Orpheus
demonstrate a different kind of lyric poet in full command of the mythic, existential mode of the beautiful, stand-alone traditional sonnet:

     Be; and at the same time know the state
     Of non-being, the boundless inner sky,
     That this time you might fully honour it.'
              (from 'The Passing')

These are plangent, forceful poems; a rallying cry to full spiritual being and lyric expression. In a similar, yet slightly more surreal style, the versions of Antonio Machado, published as The Eyes
, show Paterson as more than simply a lyric traditionalist - there's a formal range and variety to these poems (which encompasses visual poems too) and a more symbolic, elemental approach to poetry, language and experience. Overall, this Selected Poems brings together Paterson's very best work over nearly 20 years, and shows the breadth of approach and subject that has, quite rightly, made him one of the most notable traditional lyric poets of recent years.

     © Andy Brown 2012