Monday, October 22, 2012

Review: New Light for the Old Dark

It is an audacious move for a poet to include a poem titled “Digging” in his first collection. Fortunately, the similarities between Seamus Heaney’s celebrated meditation on work, identity and tradition and Sam Willetts’s vivid portrayal of heroin addiction and recovery end there. Willetts’s “Digging” concerns the junkie’s search for a vein, the “lantern-show flicker of tail-chasing, nameless days // spent waiting, cheating, waiting”, before “the waking-up to all that’s lost”. It’s a remarkable poem, owing to the manner in which the subject matter is handled - jangling rhythms and vivifying phrasing - and not merely the subject itself. Poignant firsthand experiences never guarantee good literature: many a misery memoir testifies to that. Yet the blurb for New Light for the Old Dark is oddly keen to draw attention to the autobiographical nature of Willetts’s material. More should be made of his descriptive finesse, plain yet telling observation, and ability to transform despair into affirmative revelation.

Aside from the harrowing world of drug dealers and addicts, this volume contains poems on complex personal relationships, Willetts’s mother’s escape from the Nazis in Poland, and much fraught foreign travel. “Tourist” in particular successfully combines these themes, depicting the poet’s visit to Warsaw in pursuit of a fuller understanding of his mother’s history. Here, a failure to find answers leads “back to tourism” and the effacing effects of development, where “huge cranes were moving, courtly, confident, / building another new Warsaw”. This sense of erasure - the past collapsing before we can truly come to terms with it - is central to Willetts’s work. It pervades poems addressing twentieth-century horrors (in “August 9th”, the atomic bomb is seen “blowing out the walls and windows of history”), as it also filters into quieter pieces such as “Honest John”, where the poet John Clare, exhausted and delusional, keeps “walking back to what does not exist”.

Yet for all the isolation and darkness, the strength of Willetts’s poems stems from their uncovering hope and beauty in unexpected places. “Starlings” sees “a vast / reach of birds” as “the opening and closing of a hand”, while the anchor in an unusual riddle poem is beautifully envisioned: “best man / in the wedding of the sailor / to the sea”. At times syntactically clumsy and given to overreaching for effect, Willetts’s work is not without faults. But New Light for the Old Dark introduces a poet of compelling talents, whose best work is both affecting and cerebral.

first published in the Times Literary Supplement

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Don Paterson's Selected Poems

The title poem of Don Paterson's first collection, Nil Nil (1993), tells the sped-up tale of a football team's inglorious decline. Yet its panoramic sweep takes in much more than sport. The comedy and search for ontological significance typify the mix of the quotidian, the surreal and the mystical which remain a hallmark of his writing. "From the top, then, the zenith, the silent footage" we witness a "fifty-year slide / into Sunday League", but the missing dash found in a football score also makes the title a strange double negative. "Nil Nil" is both nothing and everything, it seems to say. Both poem and collection introduced readers to a striking new voice.

Sean O'Brien has written that "few poets can have covered as much ground in 20 years as Don Paterson". Reading this remarkable Selected Poems, which ranges from the ludic depths of Nil Nil to the plainer cadences and frankness of 2009's Rain, one is inclined to agree. Yet, coupled with "Nil Nil", Rain's title poem brings us full circle, as another double negative surfaces between release and restraint: "and none of this, none of this matters". Alongside the poetry's stylistic variety and growing tonal authority, what Paterson's selection from his six volumes to date reveals is the underlying thematic consistency of his oeuvre.

The poems are often full of seeming paradox and contradiction, a feature which can wrong-foot just as it provokes and delights. "I took myself on for the hell of it," says the poet of playing pool against his double in Nil Nil's "The Ferryman's Arms", a sense of poetry's artifice jostling with the conviction that a poem should enact some seriously complex thinking. The persona is swaggering yet (literally) divided; the planetary order of balls on the pool table is undermined as "physics itself becomes something negotiable"; the false doppelgänger ends up seeming truer than the departing speaker; strangeness swells up everywhere through initially grounded reality. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Just as the speaker's lover in "The Trans-Siberian Express" is seen "shedding veil after veil", these poems seek truths beyond the waking dream-world through which we blunder. The darkness comes to envelop Nil Nil. A handful of poems explore social class, not least the punchy "An Elliptical Stylus", but these also tend towards eerie territory, or else unpick the constructed nature of the self.

Paterson's follow-up, the irony-laden and audaciously titled God's Gift to Women (1997), is represented here by some of his most arresting poems. "A Private Bottling" beguiles with heightened lyricism and colloquialism, achieving a gently damning commemoration of the poet's former lover, both lifted and undermined by its intoxicated context of late-night whisky sampling. The tonal range is extraordinary. Where "Addenda" develops delicate snapshots of the poet's brother's lost life, the unsteady formal prowess of "Imperial" reinforces just as it collapses notions of male authority in a subtle send-up of the Renaissance love poem. Combined with the unreliable narrative of its Marvellian centrepiece – part dramatic monologue, part seemingly confessional catharsis – God's Gift documents the exhilarating struggle between Paterson's wilful sassiness and a meditative lyricism fighting for more ground.

These issues were neatly sidestepped in The Eyes (1999), a book comprising loose "versions" after the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. Notable for their unabashed spiritualism, the poems also deliver a refreshing anonymity amid the clamour of much contemporary verse. As "Poetry" has it: "Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water / sings of nothing, not your name, not mine." Similarly in "Sigh", a fountain "sings", yet "speaks / its love-song / to no one".

It will be a shame if The Eyes – not least "Advice", "Profession of Faith" and "Siesta", all included here – is solely remembered as catalyst to the marked turn in Paterson's work evident from Landing Light (2003), in which the dark ego of the divided self blends with the emotional scope inherited from Machado. A sizeable, even baggy fourth collection, it is represented here by more work than from any other volume. Starting with "Luing", a declaration of our capacity for love, we come to poignant sonnets for the poet's sons, moving through polished rehearsals of the doubling motif and a fantastic reworking of "The Forest of the Suicides" from Dante's Inferno, before arriving at arguably Paterson's most ambitious poem to date, "The White Lie". This philosophical treatise expounds – just as this Selected Poems reveals – what he has long seen as poetry's transformative responsibility, as the world we think we know is "reconsumed in its estranging fire". It sets the tone for 2006's Orpheus, a version of Rilke's masterwork which sharpens the questing at the sonnets' cores: "But is that true?", "What was real in that All?", "O, where are we now?"

For many, Paterson's most recent collection, Rain, placed him among the front rank of English-language poets now writing. It is well represented here, with poems such as "The Swing", "The Circle", and the disquieting elegy for the late Michael Donaghy, "Phantom", all testifying to a stepped-up musical intelligence, a pithy idiomatic ease that owes debts to Robert Frost and Robert Garioch, and the undiminished ability to elevate and surprise, revivifying traditional forms with panache. Dynamic, interrogative and unsettling; crafted yet open-ended; fiercely smart, savage and stirring – from the get-go, Paterson's poetry has been essential reading. This Selected Poems blazes with the best of his meteoric ascent.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 19 May 2012

Emil Cioran

'This is how I recognise an authentic poet: by frequenting him, living a long time in the intimacy of his work, something changes in myself, not so much my inclinations or my tastes as my very blood, as if a subtle disease had been injected to alter its course, its density and nature. Valéry and Stefan George leave us where we picked them up, or else make us more demanding on the formal level of the mind: they are geniuses we have no need of, they are merely artists. But a Shelley, a Baudelaire, but a Rilke intervene in the deepest part of our organism which annexes them as it would a vice. In their vicinity, a body is fortified, then weakens and disintegrates. For the poet is an agent of destruction, a virus, a disguised disease and the gravest danger, though a wonderfully vague one, for our red corpuscles. To live around him is to feel your blood run thin, to dream a paradise of anemia, and to hear, in your veins, the rustle of tears ...'

- from 'The Parasite of Poets',
in A Short History of Decay