40 Sonnets By Don Paterson - book review: Subtle play with all human life in 14 lines

Simply extraordinary: all life, human or otherwise, in 14 lines.

James Kidd
Tuesday 15 September 2015 17:38 BST
40 Sonnets
40 Sonnets

Don Paterson's 40 Sonnets does pretty much what it says on the dust-jacket. In doing so, it joins a noble band of sonnet cycles from Petrarch's Canzoniere to Shakespeare's 154, John Berryman's Sonnets to Chris to Christina Rossetti's numerically apt 14-work "Monna Innominata".

Paterson knows enough to situate himself within this tradition. Several bitter-sweet love poems nod to Petrarch, Dante and George Meredith's 16-line sonnets in Modern Love. The witty notes of "A Vow" echo the metaphysics of George Herbert or Shakespeare: "When I was ruined by love, I took a vow/ that if I loved again, I'd love the less…"

But Paterson knows too that the sonnet has always been there to be messed with: Keats packed his one-sentence protest poem "If By Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chain'd" into 14 knowingly unfettered lines. Paterson's own experiments include an existential phone call ("An Incarnation") and the best sonnet to date inspired by Gregory House MD: "Where a man must face the smaller man within/ or remember where he stashed the Vicodin". "Shutter" has 27 words, "Séance" uses just five letters, scrambled into netherworld static that teases as nonsense, weird song or ludic game.

The unnerving "A Powercut" chases its tail, beginning and ending with "This", to make its own enclosed space. But its juggling of form and content explores a recurring preoccupation with the unstable relationship between mind, spirit and body. The fantastic opener, "Here", meditates on the heart not as lyrical image but as pulsating engine of everything Don Paterson is, was and could be. In this, the self becomes something akin to metaphor – elusive, insubstantial, alienated.

Silence and the struggle to describe the ineffable runs throughout the 40 diverse works. As Paterson writes in the Keatsian "The Eye": "All I mean is soul just can't allude/ to that pretty trance you might know twice a year/ when the ape is somehow home enough or mind/ is lost enough for both to disappear, but what it leaves unguarded and unblind.'

That pregnant "unguarded" (undefended but also careless) is typical of his careful linguistic invention. His handling of sound and rhythm in "Wave" and "The Air" is beautiful as well as philosophical. But he can also do sardonic anger (about Dundee City Council) and tender pathos in "Mercies", about watching your dog being put down. 40 Sonnets is simply extraordinary: all life, human or otherwise, in 14 lines.

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