Friday Jan 21

rain Rain
by Don Paterson
80 Pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, first American edition 2010, ISBN: 978-0-374-24629-7
Reviewed by Marilyn McCabe
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The Little Human Art: Don Paterson’s Rain
 
I’m uncomfortable with rhymed poems anymore.  Too schooled am I in the freewheeling “contemporary” approach, perhaps.  Or is that I have seen myself and too many other poets tripping over the sometimes awkward shoes of rhyme? At any rate, it is my own failing that I did not fall in love with Don Paterson’s poems in Rain until after he shed his rhyming shoes and stood barefoot in “Phantom.”
 
This is an extended poem in seven parts, inscribed “in memory of M.D.,” presumably the Michael Donaghy to whom the whole volume is dedicated.  Donaghy and Paterson, fellow favorites of the Brit lit world, were also band mates and doubtless chums as well.  And in this poem, Paterson considers the self and the self in the face of death.  This is a poem of impossibility – the impossibility of coming to terms with one’s own mortality, and someone else’s, and the impossibility of elegy.
 
Donaghy died suddenly at 50, and in the first part we meet presumably this man, at a window, with death/night staring back.  These are poems of watching and being watched, poems of reflection: looking and looking back. From part “I”: “The night’s surveillance. Its heavy breathing/even in the day it hides behind.”
 
Night/death is a live thing:
When you spoke it reached 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…
 
The gentle violence, if there can be such a thing, of that knife cutting those threads runs through these poems.  In “II,” which references a painting by Zubaràn, “St. Francis in Meditation,” recalls a skull in the hands of St. Francis held:
 
…along
the knit-line of the parietal bones
the better, I would say, to feel the teeth
of the upper jaw gnaw into his sternum.
 
And in “VI,”: “Your eye no eye but an exit wound.”
Poem “III” references painter Alison Watt’s exhibit of paintings inspired by classic paintings (presented in a show at London’s National Gallery also entitled “Phantom”), including the Zubaràn. Her works are large scale details of draped fabric. In this poem the fabric represents the mystery of mortality, the impossibility of understanding it: “the linen’s own materiality / and the folds depicted are impossible.”
 
As the series unfolds, the poems become weightier, more stiff and formal in tone, like the clothes one dons for a funeral.  Here is an example from number “V”: “But when the wind rests and the dark light stills, / the tree will rise untethered to its station / between earth and heaven, the open book turn runic…”
 
But finally the heavy elegiac mood is broken by the imagined voice of the dead man himself: “Donno, I can’t keep the bullshit up.”  In this poem the “I” seems to be not only the elegized but also the elegizer – meeting each other, as if in the pub after.  A last rueful chat. That bark of mirthless laughter over a pint. Life is for the living, after all, not the vain attempt to pen what’s lost.  Drink up, mate, they both seem to say.  “…what kind of twisted ape ends up believing / the rushlight of his little human art / truer than the great sun on his back?”
 
And yet the other poems in Rain nevertheless waltz in the rushlight regardless, considering the “dull things of the day / in which I see some possibility” (“Why Do You Stay Up So Late?”) and questions along the metaphysical line, such as “How did I blunder into here? / There would be all hell to pay.” (“The Rain at Sea”).  But the volume never shakes an underlying sadness, even the lively and ebulliently tech-speak “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze.”  There is little solace here.  The collection is beautifully haunted and chilled by the unknown, by that impossibility addressed in “Phantom,” and embodied also in, for example, the last line of the poem “The Error”: “…however deep we listen /…the skies are silent.”
 
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MarilynMcCabe Marilyn McCabe’s work has been published in a variety of literary magazines, including Painted Bride Quarterly, Nimrod, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Rhino, and she has received awards through the New York State Council on the Arts and through the Adirondack Center for Writing.  She recently completed her MFA in Poetry at New England College.  Her latest published work can be seen in the online magazine Praxilla: