by Don Paterson
Don Paterson is a young Scots poet who has twice won the T. S. Eliot Prize, most recently for his collection Landing Light (Faber and Faber, 2003) which also won the Whitbread Poetry Award; Landing Light has now been published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press and makes available here a remarkable work by an accomplished, mature poet.
In his T. S. Eliot lecture "The Dark Art of Poetry" delivered October 30, 2004, Paterson discusses what he refers to as the "secret formula for all poems," which he identifies as "the horseman's word--which gives the apprentice ploughman power over horses and women when it's whispered in their ears . . . . In Scots it's twa-in-yin; two in one." He goes on to elaborate how this notion relates to poetry:
The object of a poem is to place a new unity in the language (an exploded view, if you like, of a new word) that results from the love affair between two hitherto unconnected terms: two words, two ideas, two phrases, two images, a word and an image, a phrase and a new context for it, so on. . . . the process of the poem is that of a unifying idea being driven through the resistance of the form proposed by the marriage of two previously estranged or unrelated things . . . .
In a very real sense, this defining concept of poetic duality becomes the central focus of Landing Light, as much of the work there develops the idea of the dual nature of the world of human experience. Fundamental in this respect is the poem "The Landing," a parable in which the poet-speaker arrives after a long ascending journey at a landing where he sees
the complex upper light
divide the middle tread
then to my left, the darker flight
that fell back to the dead
and where he witnesses the early morning sunlight
pause just on the lowest step
as if upon a hinge
then slowly drew the dark back up
like blood in a syringe
This defining event, in which the light raises and sustains the darkness, thereby demonstrating their interdependence, leads the speaker to take in hand "the lyre/ that hung dead at my side" and strike notes that are echoed back to him by the song of a thrush; he recognizes, then, that his song is validated in that it partakes of and participates in both realms and that, as singer, he occupies a privileged vantage point:
No singer of the day or night
is lucky as I am
the dark my sounding-board, the light
This idea of the twofold nature of human experience occurs a number of times throughout Landing Light, and is particularly important, for instance, in "A Talking Book." Here, the speaker, literally a "talking book," speaks of the listener's desire for
that lenient and sweetening compromise
between the vision and his earthly term,
the happy marriage of the rose and worm.
We are fortunate, the book goes on, in that many things are normally hidden from us, not least that there are "two earths" and that we normally never meet ourselves except "in dreams or sickness," although there are brief moments when the two worlds meet:
It is always
dusk at the crossing, whatever your watch says.
what you see here is the world of men-as-mass.
the army of the underfolk will pass
quite unaware of you, stood half-transparent
in the muddle of your sub-enlightenment.
One stops in his slow march to make his sperm
and smear it on the ancient porphyry herm
on which another might then gently lower
herself, and then rejoin the silent river.
Such is your human love.
This underworld reveals the potential paucity and shallowness of human life; how we deal with this recognition ultimately defines who we are and how and what we choose to be.
The duality of the world, however, can itself be a dangerous thing, even for the poet, who may not always be granted the privileged position referred to in "The Landing." In "The Fraud," another parable, the speaker seizes on a "wellhead" and "made it my own" in order to gain its poetic power; the result, however, is not what he anticipates as his own nature becomes sundered into two parts, neither whole:
Now two strangers shiver
under one roof
the one who delivers
the promise and proof
and the one I deploy
for the poem or the kiss.
Whatever truth the speaker is capable of offering will be of only limited form and value because it will always be lacking in essential qualities.
The concept of duality, of two-in-one, appears in other forms throughout Landing Light, as well. One of the most significant is in relation to another idea central to the book, that of love is its many varied manifestations. In "Twinflooer," a poem (one of several in Scots dialect), the twin flower (Linnaea Borealis) becomes an emblem of lovers
wame to wame -- [wame = "belly"]
tynt in the ither [tynt = "lost"]
ayont a' thocht [ayont = "beyond"; thocht = "thought"]
a' deed, a' talk,
thir heids doverin [doverin = "nodding in sleep"]
unner the licht [licht = "light"]
yock [yock = "yoke"]
o the lift [lift = "heavens"]
Love, of course, has its limits as the world's duality reasserts itself in separation and isolation, as it does in "The Wreck" after the lovers have
gently hooked each other on
like aqualungs, and thundered down
to mine our lovely, secret wreck.
We surfaced later, breathless, back
to back, then made our way alone
up the mined beach of the dawn.
The struggle for love sometimes becomes too much, and there may arise a desire to escape from the pain it brings, a desire for peace though isolation; this process is shown in the first poem in the collection, "Luing," in which the "you" of the poem refuses "to take that lover's wound again." Under the circumstances, the "you" is advised to flee to Luing, a small Scottish island which becomes an emblem of retreat and isolation. Here, the "you" will regress into an innocent infancy again--"the fontanelles reopen one by one"--but with the consequence of mortality: "the first touch of light will finish you."
Isolation and escape are then not the solution. The final poem of the collection, "The White Lie," offers a more tenable answer. Love itself "will suffer/ no wholly isolated soul within/ its sphere," but at the same time "no one at one with all the universe/ can touch one thing." To participate in the world one must be separate from the world: "we must stay partly lost to find each other . . . ."
And this finding can take many forms, as one of the finest poems in the volume demonstrates, a sonnet dedicated to Paterson's son Russell:
"Waking with Russell"
Whatever the difference is, it all began
the day we woke up face-to-face like lovers
and his four-day-old smile dawned on him again,
possessed him, till it would not fall or waver;
and I pitched back not my old hard-pressed grin
but his own smile, or one I'd rediscovered.
Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin
and the true path was as lost to me as ever
when you cut in front and lit it as you ran.
See how the true gift never leaves the giver:
returned and redelivered, it rolled on
until the smile poured through us like a river.
How fine, I thought, this waking amongst me!
I kissed your mouth and pledged myself forever.
There is more to the thematic unity of Landing Light than has been touched on here, and much more than thematic unity to the collection as a whole. There is rich variety in the poems that make up the volume--lyrics, narratives, and translations from Rilke and Cavafy and a close adaptation of the "Forest of Suicides" canto from Dante's Inferno featuring Sylvia Plath (and, as "Waking with Russell" reveals, a whole thread of Dantean references running through the collection as a whole). Paterson's considerable formal skills are clearly in evidence, as well, evidenced by the equally rich variety of poetic forms--poems in couplets, quatrains, and terza rima, sonnets, nonce forms and shaped-verse pieces as well as free verse. Landing Light is a magisterial work, well deserving the prizes it has won and the attention of anyone who admires well-crafted poetry.