Selected Poems, By Don Paterson
The bloke's big book of metaphysics bloke
Sunday 27 May 2012
In January 1994, the Poetry Society organised a promotion of the 20 so-called "New Gen" poets. An attention-grabbing subset – Don Paterson, Glyn Maxwell, Michael Donaghy, Mick Imlah and Simon Armitage – gave a whiff of blokeyness to the whole crew. And you couldn't get much more blokey than the titles of Paterson's first two collections, Nil Nil (1993) and God's Gift to Women (1997).
Paterson claimed "language in the pub" as an influence, and his Selected opens with Nil Nil's first poem "The Ferryman's Arms", where pool balls are deposited "with an abrupt intestinal rumble", as a traveller opts to play himself. In "An Elliptical Stylus", the male voice gets threatening. An anecdote about a ridiculed father, it ends: "I'd swing for him and every other cunt / happy to let my father know his station, / which probably includes yourself. To be blunt." It caused a frisson at the time, but now seems rather an uncouth way to address the gentle reader.
Bloke-style, women are, however tenderly, frequently reduced to a body part ("the live egg of her burning ass") or even just a bloodstain. Curiously, God's Gift to Women's brusquely titled "Buggery" is here renamed "Imperial", giving a different resonance to its final lines: "the night we lay down on the flag of surrender / and woke on the flag of Japan". Even lovemaking is solitary: "hold me when I hold you down / and plough the lonely furrow"; "no man slips into the same woman twice". Still potting balls.
But there was always more to Paterson than drinking, fighting and fucking. One early poem, "Les Six", is written in the form of six imaginary picture captions, each beginning "With Cocteau ..." Another small joke is literally a waste of space: "On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Mountains and Not Finding Him" is a blank page.
For all the swagger, scope and formal dexterity of Paterson's attention-grabbing early poems, it is the metaphysical horror and understanding of the mature work that will linger in the mind. The joy of fatherhood mutates into terrified poems of damage and threat to small children such as "The Story of the Blue Flower".
In "Phantom", the shade of the late Michael Donaghy addresses the poet in ponderous tones, then confesses, "Donno, I can't keep this bullshit up." But his smile is a skull's.
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