The dandified brilliance of Don Paterson's first two collections allowed casual readers mistakenly to see him as a wizard of poetry-lite. Landing Light (2003) confounded such assumptions by bringing that virtuosity to bear on more complex material, such as parenthood and fidelity, to extraordinary effect. Rain, which extends and deepens this project, is also a lament for Paterson's comrade-in-arms, the poet Michael Donaghy, who died in 2004.
Far from any Shakespearean notion of gentleness, Paterson's Rain is grainy as a black-and-white movie: "I love all films that start with rain". In the title poem, water cleanses a human state of something like Original Grief: "all was washed clean in the flood /we rose up from the falling waters /the fallen rain's own sons and daughters". But the book's centre of gravity is the extraordinary seven-part "Phantom".
In this chiaroscuro meditation on presence and absence, "The night's surveillance" denotes our accompaniment by grief, fer, and regret. Death undoes not only the self but the meaning that self brought to things: "it reached into the room/ switched off the mirrors in their frames/ and undeveloped your photographs".
"Michael Donaghy the poet" speaks to – and through – the grieving narrator. Like Dante's Virgil, he has become our expert guide to the nature of death, which is to say of life. In an astonishingly Hughesian foundation myth, "[Matter] made a self to look at death,/ but then within the self it saw its death;/ and so it made a soul to look at self,/ but then within the soul it saw its death;/ and so it made a god to look at soul".
What stops that sounding like Ted Hughes is Paterson's characteristic iambic metre, which evokes the authority of tradition. But this is not traditional elegy, with its comforting closure. Paterson shines the "black sun" of "the void" on the living too: "We come from nothing and return to it./ It lends us out to time". This troubled, troubling sequence is a contemporary, secular equivalent of Hopkins's "Terrible Sonnets"; demanding not intellectually, but emotionally.
The ghost of Donaghy treads more lightly elsewhere, especially through a cluster of poems "after" (one can never be quite sure with Paterson) Desnos, Cavafy, Li Po, Vallejo, Quasimodo and Robert Garioch. These "versions" reveal a poetry exploring and extending its capacities in the face of what a more glib writer might have called the inexpressible.
Along with Paterson's earlier versions of Rilke, they haunt the diction of poems such as "The Error". Which other contemporary would risk borrowing Eliot's "eye-beam"? – where paradox, associated with the Metaphysical poets, is transformed by a highly contemporary sensibility into images of opposition and reflection.
That contemporaneity is showcased by the Forward Prize-winning "Song for Natalie 'Tusja' Beridze", a joyous masterclass in rhyme and electro-geekery. For there's plenty of living in this subtly interrelated book, too. "The Handspring", with its "world swung up on your fingertips", is as deft as the cartwheel it captures in four lines. "The shudder in my son's left hand/ he cures with one touch from his right" represents not only "all /(thank god) his body can recall" of momentary oxygen-starvation, but a glancing tribute to friendship, "the one hand's kindness to the other". It's hard to imagine a more tender leave-taking than "The Swing".
With their sense of an individual consciousness pressing freshly on the reader, these poems gleam with authenticity. Rain is a truly important book, not only in the development of this must-read poet, but because it engages with the rough and tumble of life in a way we recognise as true. Read it now, before it becomes famous.
Fiona Sampson's 'Common Prayer' was shortlisted for the TS Eliot PrizeReuse content