Jeremy Wikeley reviews bandit country by James Conor Patterson (Picador, 2022)
Last month saw Anthony Joseph win the T. S. Eliot Prize for his collection Sonnets for Albert. Writing the day before the announcement, Graeme Richardson, poetry critic at the Sunday Times (they have one of those now) cited the shortlist as evidence for the poetry ‘establishment’ being a little too cosy. No doubt it is. Poetry, that is – Richardson’s characterisation of the shortlist itself was not especially convincing. In one especially cheap dig, he points to the fact that one of the judges has a child who once worked for Faber. Poetry is a small world, but Faber is not exactly a family secret. Carcanet was missing this year, it is true, but I am not sure it qualifies as an outsider, however deserving. And talking about an absence of “conceptually or linguistically complex poetry” is an odd way to refer to a list which includes Zaffar Kunial’s England’s Green (Richardson’s own favourite).
Richardson is also sceptical of the number of debuts, with first collections making up half the ten books nominated. This, I think, is something worth talking about. The cult of youth is alive and well in poetry, with what little attention and resources there are, often targeted at arbitrary age categories (though many will be surprised to learn of the “water fountain of subsidies and grants” he refers to). For the writers who benefit, early success isn’t necessarily all it is cracked up to be. The publisher gets a shiny, new toy, but the poet will never know where a little more resistance might have taken them. All the Eliot debuts, Richardson argues, “demonstrate missteps as the writer works towards a voice,” including the one I am supposed to be reviewing here, James Conor Patterson’s bandit country. And all are summarily dispatched: Patterson’s “experiments with a Newry dialect” are “ultimately unconvincing” because “accented English keeps slipping into received pronunciation”.
Throughout bandit country, Patterson notates what the blurb describes as a “hybrid dialect of Newry-streets and Scots and Irish-inflected English”. For most readers the dialect will be the first thing they notice. For many it will represent a barrier to entry, but it is the kind of barrier I am grateful for. It makes you pay attention. This is the beginning of ‘ghost estates’, a creepy little parable about real estate and financial speculation written, so the notes tell us, after Anthony Haughey’s photojournalism project ‘settlements’:
in eacha these i picture the dead
wrapped in carrion, as in evenin wear
for the gatherina some smart party.
Patterson’s Newry dialect extends a tradition on these islands which goes back at least as far as Robbie Burns. Other irregular contemporary practitioners include Don Paterson, the outgoing editor at Picador (Patterson’s publisher), whose most recent collection, The Arctic, includes a piece in Scots dedicated ‘To His Penis’. Since all but a handful of the poems in bandit country use dialect to some degree, none read as an exercise: the soundscape infuses the poems, even where the exact speech varies. I found the way in which Patterson blurs the line between dialect and ‘received pronunciation’ a kind of statement in and of itself. Ultimately what is going on in bandit country isn’t so much an ‘experiment’ as one of modern poetry’s central tasks: mining and replenishing the resources of ordinary speech.
Ultimately what is going on in bandit country isn’t an experiment but one of poetry’s central tasks: mining and replenishing the resources of ordinary speech
Patterson has said he set out to depict “the real Newry, and not just the Newry of atrocities and headlines that were foisted upon us”, and the book contains a number of dramatic monologues alongside personal memories and reflections. (Newry is a city near the Irish border. In 1974, at the height of the Troubles, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees described the area as ‘bandit country’.) Acts of imagination like this are political, but they are also particularly associated with expatriates, whose homelessness writes our own sense of home. In one interview, Patterson evokes the Dublin of James Joyce’s Ulysses, written while the author was in Europe, as well as his own family’s experience of migration between Britain and Ireland over several generations.
Two of my favourite poems in the collection, ‘bar story’, about a meeting of two parents, and ‘prosopagnosia’, are rooted in moments of transit (prosopagnosia is the inability to recognise faces). In the latter, the speaker mistakes their father sitting in a car for someone about to steal “our 2004 silver volvo sedan”. Eventually, however, they get in,
trustin that someone wasn’t plagiarisin
your creator’s blueprints
for a doppelganger,
an that my own creator
remains beside me, drivin.
Through the repetition of ‘creator’ Patterson retrieves the strangeness and potency of the original idiom.
Inheritance – political, personal, and also literary – is a constant theme here. I lost track of the number of poets referenced but at a minimum and in no particular order we get Coleridge, Dante, W. H. Auden, Douglas Dunn, Rimbaud, Philip Larkin, Vahni Capildeo, Ciaron Carson and Seamus Heaney. In one particular case, a line from Dunn serves as the conclusion for a whole poem. The quote feels like a placeholder for new words yet to come:
when, as dunn, has it, i have been inside
my head … falling in love, preparing this good life
This overreliance on authority is touchingly open: it is good to look up to writers, especially good ones. (Patterson also writes about Dunn in a recent issue of The Dark Horse magazine.) But it creates problems. It is a line from ‘after suffering’, Patterson’s poem ‘after’ Auden’s ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ which Richardson singles out for criticism: “Evoking second-hand the violence of the Troubles [Richardson writes] the effect can be comical: “The sorta thing I imagine there mighta bin / had I lived through the eighties”.”
What is funny here (or at least awkward) isn’t the language or the evocation of violence but the attempt to paint the poet / poem back into history and literature while wading around in very big boots. The genius of Auden’s poem derives in large part from his use of syntax: each stanza is a single sentence, tightly wound, so that by the end the “boy falling out of the sky” is as much side-lined by his place in the poem as he is by Breughel’s painting. Patterson’s version retains the shape, the rhyme scheme and something of the idea of Auden’s poem but where the original is pure thought, the copy keeps on drawing attention to itself, from “the sorta thing I imagine there mighta bin” to the slightly self-conscious final lines:
i think about this, and about my parents & brors,
press book selected flights and i go back home t vote.
Arguably one of the things that marks bandit country as a debut is the way in which so many of these weaker poems read like preliminary sketches for the better ones. ‘prosthetics’, for instance, written for the late Ciaron Carson, hones in on the way in which objects, homes, poems and people can (and can’t) become extensions of ourselves. The poem borrows lines from Carson, but perhaps precisely because Patterson is focussed so closely on the whole problem of imitation, it also becomes something genuinely new, and genuinely affecting:
prosthetics require sometin to have bin lost in the forst place, an
since my life has essentially bin one long
steady process of accumulation up t now, each loss found becomes
sometin else entirely, which is anor waya
sayin that unexpected loss can lead t unexpected gain. which is
anor waya sayin, mo chara,
that from the gains you’ve given me, i now give back to you in the
form of an outstretched imitation of the original.
Elsewhere, a series of prose poems (‘london mixtape’ and london poem) felt flat to me, lacking the explosive charge the form needs to get off the ground and with little to engage a stranger in the strength of feeling which produced them. ‘postscript’, another prose poem of a similar length which rounds off the book is both more intimate and more expansive, a beautiful evocation of the thrill and disorientation of commitment, in which Patterson casts romantic love as a kind of endless recurrence: “a possibility which leaves me both terrified & elated: replacing face after face til ivryone’s face is yours”.
The best poems in bandit country are very, very good indeed. Some of them, rather ominously, aren’t in dialect at all
I’m not sure if any poet really knows what does and doesn’t work in their own poetry, especially when they are just starting out. bandit country comes in at over seventy pages, including pictures, which feels long for a first book even by contemporary standards. A judicious editor might have done more to weed out the rehearsals. Even so, the best poems in here are very, very good indeed. Some of them, rather ominously, aren’t in dialect at all.
Jeremy Wikeley is a London-based poet and critic. He is working on a first collection.