It was “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita,” midway along the journey of our life, that Dante woke to find himself in a dark wood. Since the imaginary date of the opening of the The Divine Comedy is Good Friday 1300, and the poet was born in 1265, that makes him thirty-five, exactly halfway to the biblically approved span of a man’s life—though in fact, like most men and women of his era, Dante succumbed many years before he reached seventy.
Both Don Paterson’s Rain and Dan Chiasson’s Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon exhibit strong traits of being written nel mezzo del cammin of the poets’ lives: these poems refract the sober realities of middle age, in particular the joys and anxieties of fatherhood (both have two boys) and grief at the deaths of friends or parents. Chiasson explicitly defines his title sequence as presenting a portrait “drawn to resemble a person age 36 years, 3 months,/name Chiasson, Dan”—he’s one of those poets who rather enjoys deploying his own name in his poems.
At the opening of this sequence, which is loosely based on the children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig, he discovers that he has somehow arrived, rather like the Dante of the opening of The Divine Comedy, somewhere both puzzling and featureless, “crossing the midpoint between shores,/out in the middle of the colorless lake,/no longer approaching, no longer coming closer”; “where am I now,” he wonders, “has my boat capsized?” But wallowing in a sense of lost bearings can be indulged in for only so long by the harried parent: by stanza five he is sharing Steig’s picture-book animals with his son, and the sequence concludes with an intimate hymn to domestic life, based on the last of Steig’s pictures, “all grief erased. A family: a sketch of joy.”
Although never quite as warm or mellow as this, the persona we encounter in Paterson’s Rain is certainly much less belligerent and deliberately provocative than the knowing lad-on-the-loose of his early collections, Nil Nil (1993) and God’s Gift to Women (1997). These delighted in images like that of “the snot-stream of a knotted Fetherlite/draped on the wineglass”; in rhyming “blunt” and “cunt,” or titling poems “Dirty Weekend” or “Buggery”; and in demotic barroom anecdotes such as that told in “Postmodern,” in which a man circulates among his pub cronies a bootleg copy of a Swedish porno movie that he made with his camcorder. What he realizes, however, only when it’s eventually returned to him by someone with a “funny smile on his puss,” and he plays it again, is that he recorded more than just “these Swedes gien it laldy on the telly”:
He notices the reflection o’ himsel, wankin awa on the screen, clear as day. Then he stops wankin. But his reflection disnae.
That’s cuz it’s no’ his fuckin’ reflection. He’s only jist taped himself haein a wank, huzzee. Dye no’ get it? Will Eh hae tae explain it tae ye?
Rain does contain a couple of Scotch dialect poems, but they’re rather literary, and call to mind Robert Garrioch and Robert Burns rather than a raucous Glaswegian saloon.
Paterson, who was born in Dundee in 1963, is by some distance the most fêted British poet of his generation; indeed, like some sports team in its prime, he seems to have a stranglehold on the various honors available: Nil Nil won the Forward Prize for the Best First Collection, God’s Gift to Women the T.S. Eliot and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial prizes, Landing Light (2003) the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award, and earlier this year Rain was awarded the Forward Prize proper. He’s received the OBE (Order of the British Empire) and the Queen’s Medal for Poetry—though this doesn’t, I think, mean that Her Majesty has herself read and approved of poems like “Postmodern” or “Graffito,” a celebration of “the backside’s glorious schism” culminating in the poet’s scrawling “an X in red/across her arse’s silky-smooth hieratica.” Hieratica was the name for the most precious kind of papyrus used in Roman times, and its use in this line typifies this often quite difficult poet’s penchant for fusing the vulgar and the arcane.
Paterson has achieved notoriety in some circles for attacking purveyors of experimental poetry, whose “terminal seriousness and atonality” he sees as the self-indulgence of an academic coterie indifferent to the appetites of a wider poetry-loving public. In his intemperate introduction to the Graywolf anthology New British Poetry (2004) that he edited with Charles Simic, Paterson inveighed against the not particularly warlike tribe of small press poets in Britain, who garner far less—or maybe that should be even less?—attention than the so-called mainstream, as if they were carriers of some lethal virus, the poetic equivalent of H1N1, and threatened the very foundations of civilization. (Though he didn’t name names, it was fairly clear that he had in his sights the famously opaque J.H. Prynne and his followers, sometimes dubbed “The Cambridge School,” none of whose work was featured in the anthology, which made the assault seem even more bizarre.) Rereading his own work, I recalled his contempt for their “incomprehensible rubbish” while reaching yet again for the dictionary in an attempt to parse into sense one of Paterson’s own poems; the recherché aspects of his vocabulary can perhaps best be illustrated by a few of the titles from his first collection: “Orchitis,” “Obeah,” “Perigee,” “Beltane.” This in turn prompted the reflection that poetic difficulty comes in all shapes and sizes; surely the only sane approach to the matter must be along the lines of each to his or her own.
Rain is the first of Paterson’s collections not to contain an installment of his long poem “The Alexandrian Library,” which came as something of a relief—I’ve never quite got the point of this overcooked literary spoof, one that comes furnished with fake quotations from an invented French penseur from the late nineteenth century, one François Aussemain (a Frenchification of the most British of the British, A.E. Housman?), who is cited as claiming things such as “We inhabit a world of impregnable reflections…” or “The bed sees us add ourselves to the world, then subtract ourselves from it….” Perhaps the problem with the poem is that it never really escapes the influence of Paul Muldoon, the modern master of the anarchic almost-narrative, in which plot and characters never quite come into focus, but beckon and shimmer like so many enticing mirages; one can see it must have been fun at the time thinking up silly names for books (The Use of Leucotomy [a kind of lobotomy] in the Treatment of Pre-Menstrual Stress, Urine—The Water of Life, Lady Bumtickler’s Revels), but the joke wears rather thin when expanded in Paterson’s baroque idiom over so many pages (almost thirty), and the story line is too disjointed to hold the attention.
Rain‘s “Phantom,” a seven-part sequence in memory of the poet Michael Donaghy, seems to me a much more successful attempt at a long poem. The American-born Donaghy died suddenly at the age of fifty in 2004. Rain as a whole is dedicated to his memory, and “Phantom” takes its place in the long tradition of elegies for poets cut off in their prime. Like Milton’s “Lycidas” or Shelley’s “Adonais,” “Phantom” makes use of a series of elaborate conceits that serve to palliate the brutal physical nature of extinction. In section one, night, or death, is figured waiting ominously outside Donaghy’s window, until the poet decisively crosses the room, throws up the sash, and looks his antagonist squarely in the eye:
Yet it did not stare you out of your own mind
or roll into the room like a black fog,
but sat there at the sill’s edge, patiently,
like a priest into whose hearing you confessed
every earthly thing that tortured you.
While you spoke, it 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….
Paterson’s vision of the world is an insistently secular one; “the skies are silent” as an earlier poem puts it, and “Phantom” permits no vision of Donaghy flaming “in the forehead of the morning sky,” as “Lycidas” imagined the drowned poet Edward King. Yet he makes use of Zurbarán’s great painting of the early 1630s, Saint Francis in Meditation, to drive the work of mourning and commemoration the poem seeks to accomplish. The elaborate vision of death quietly, almost ceremoniously extinguishing mirrors and photographs and books is succeeded by a fine ekphrastic meditation on the heavily cowled saint clutching a skull to his breast so hard that he can “feel the teeth/of the upper jaw gnaw into his sternum.” Zurbarán’s contemporaries would faint, it is said, at the identification with the saint’s agonized grappling with approaching death that the artist’s realism induced; such paintings encouraged the spectators to reflect first on mortality, and then on the state of their own souls. For Paterson, however, the painting’s “fetish-point” is not the skull or the saint’s hands clasped in prayer or the hole in the elbow of his ragged habit, but the “tiny batwing of his open mouth,” through which death is speaking: “I would say his words are not his words./I would say the skull is working him.”
For the unbelieving poet, death speaks not of salvation or damnation, but extinction: “We come from nothing and return to it.” The life and death of Donaghy are pitilessly dwarfed by the cosmic perspectives evoked in sections of the poem: the birth of the universe, its gases cooling and thinning and gathering, matter finally wrenching itself into life, humanity’s invention of a god to evade the unacceptable fact that we don’t go on forever, and our gradual loss of belief in that consoling fiction. Paterson figures death as speaking through him as he had imagined it speaking through Saint Francis, and of course it uses the voice of Michael Donaghy, who is also shown somewhat remorsefully brooding on the alarming priorities that a poetic vocation can encourage:
what kind of twisted ape ends up believing
the rushlight of his little human art
truer than the great sun on his back?
I knew the game was up for me the day
I stood before my father’s corpse and thought
If I can’t get a poem out of this…
Did you think any differently with mine?
The tension between human concerns and the elemental “great sun,” so graphically illustrated by this last question, dominates Rain as a whole. In “The Swing,” a somewhat elliptical poem that I think relates to an abortion his partner is about to have, he plays off the “coldness” of his “creed,” which acknowledges only the raw facts of empirical reality, against a vision of the future life that the aborted female fetus will never have; after erecting a swing in the garden for his twin boys who are “here-and-here-to-stay,” he gives
the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground
And in a rather weird sci-fi-ish fantasy called “The Day,” he pictures an alien couple on some remote planet engaging in a Frostian dialogue about the relationship between their love and the emptiness all around them.
Frost is undoubtedly the presiding genius of Rain—the desolate, disbelieving Frost, that is, of poems such as “Desert Places,” in which he takes a late walk through a snowbound landscape, looks up at the night sky, and declares:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
The rain of the volume’s title poem is as obliterating as Frost’s snow and stars; though it starts out in deliberately corny fashion celebrating downpours in B noir movies, it ends up tracing the origins of life back to water, a perspective that then makes seem ridiculous the “little human art” with which we attempt to imbue our lives with meaning:
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters
and none of this, none of this matters.
But in general the poems in Rain, in their energy and inventiveness, suggest that however fragile, misguided, or even absurd our constructions and emotional investments, they can’t help but matter. In the tour de force “Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze” Paterson allows a techno-nerd to voice in tumbling long-lined couplets his undying love for a female Georgian IDM (Intelligent Dance Music) programmer he has never met: “may you be blessed,” he rhapsodizes, “with a 2 Ghz dual-core Intel chip and enough double-pumped DDR2 RAM for the most CPU-intensive processes.”
This far-fetched love poem, for all its geekery and awkwardness, is also a tender tribute to our invincible propensity to use even the most abstruse terminology and technological gizmos as vectors for emotion, to make valentines out of “freeware convolution reverb” or a “golden midi controller,” of which he wishes her a device “of such responsiveness, smoothness of automation, travel and increment/that you would think it a transparent intercessor, a mere/copula, and feel machine and animal suddenly blent.”
In Beyond the Pleasure Principle of 1920 Sigmund Freud analyzed the way his one-and-a-half-year-old grandson developed a game of throwing away and then recovering objects, shouting out “Fort” (gone), then “Da” (there). Oscillations between presence and absence are at the heart of many kids’ games, for they temporarily allow the normally powerless child to feel like a human version of a “golden midi controller,” able to endure, and even enjoy, the thrilling vertigo of absence because he or she knows it will be succeeded by presence. “Hide and seek, hide and seek,” Chiasson observes in a poem in the sequence of that name:
the magic trick
of keeping time in play by yo-yo
mini-episodes of loss and recovery.
One day that game goes dark, and you want
a new game whose object isn’t loss.
The rule is: everyone stay close by, in sight.
This brief glimpse into the most lurid and unbearable of a parent’s worries might be compared with a poem in Rain called “The Story of the Blue Flower,” in which the speaker looks up from hunting a lost ball in the park to see two men lift his son from the swing “with a kind of goblin-like economy” and “hurry off his little flexing torso/to the orange van laid up behind the gate.” Chiasson rarely aims at the dramatic vividness and muscular force that are Paterson’s chief strengths: his poems unfold more like Japanese paper flowers in water, unobtrusively, stealthily; their unemphatic rhythms and fluid syntax seem designed to soothe rather than startle, and yet the poems gathered in this volume, and his two earlier collections, The Afterlife of Objects (2002) and Natural History (2005), time and again achieve an almost epiphanic intensity, one all the more effective for being so hard to account for.
In “Sleep and Poetry” Keats talked of poetry as like “might half slumb’ring on its own right arm,” and the best of Chiasson’s poems struck me as operating with something of this somnolent force. This may be because his poems are so often pitched to reflect the ongoing interplay between the conscious and the unconscious strata of the mind; though his work carefully registers objects and events, it is really concerned with their afterlives in our minds, most particularly as they filter over the shadowy border between waking thoughts and dreams.
The short poem “Man and Derailment” neatly captures the layering of timeframes and modes of perception that allow Chiasson’s poems to seem at once limpid and fraught with complexities:
When the man took his son down the ravine
to view, along the opposite bank,
the pileup of a passenger train,
backhoes and cranes, things the child had seen
only in miniature, now huge, hauling
life-size train cars out of the deep ravine,
inside his life-size head the quiet boy
wondered how he would remember the scene
and, once he knew his father better, later,
and later, knew himself better, what it would mean.
The backstory of the father’s own derailment seeps quietly into the poem as it progresses, while the gulf between the child’s toy cranes and backhoes and the “life-size” ones in use at the site of the wreck serves to model that equally puzzling gap between art and life. The boy’s head is “life-size” too, and able, even then, to wonder how this peculiar moment of shared witnessing of destruction will be remembered and interpreted by father and son in their later lives. The clash between full rhymes (ravine/seen/ravine/scene/mean) and almost-rhymes (bank/train/hauling) mirrors the unspoken dissonance between father and son. Yet there is no overt rancor in the poem; it’s a smooth, elegant single sentence that invites us to look further and deeper, but without insisting we do so.
Robert Frost, again, may be the poet lurking in the background. Natural History included a poem entitled “Poem Beginning with a Line from Frost,” the line in question being “as if regret were in it and were sacred,” from “West-Running Brook.” There’s undoubtedly regret in “Man and Derailment,” but the obliquity with which it’s voiced keeps judgment suspended, as it does so often in Frost’s seemingly direct but secretly devious monologues and dialogues. The various buoyant idioms deployed in Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon often seem a means of delaying or evading the finalities of judgment, of taking neither of the roads that diverged in a narrow wood; Chiasson’s sinuous, mercurial meditations and vignettes can at times seem to verge on dithering, a sort of poetic fiddling while Rome burns, but viewed from another angle they can, I think, be read as charting that peculiar but all-too-recognizable interval between hiding and being found, as encouraging us to love that ambiguous place in the selva oscura where we wait, on and on, simultaneously fearing and craving the arrival of a Virgil capable of explaining everything, once and for all.