by Don Paterson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 61 pp., $24.00
Where’s the Moon, There’s the Moon
by Dan Chiasson
Knopf, 64 pp., $25.00
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 …