Helena Nelson reviews The Arctic by Don Paterson (Faber, 2022)
Reading The Arctic is like playing Janet to Don Paterson’s Tam Lin. If you don’t know Tam Lin of border ballad fame, the eponymous hero is stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. To get him back, Janet has to hold tight while he changes shape and form multiple times. She does this for reasons of true love. The message is clear. If you really value someone or something, you must, whatever the challenge (snake, lion, ball of fire etc), hang on. Persistence pays off.
That’s why (as a loyal Paterson reader) I hung on through all four parts of part four of ‘The Alexandria Library’, ‘Ten Maxims’, ‘Saudade for Brexit’, ‘Echoism’, no fewer than thirteen parts of ‘from Cool Tricks for Kids’ (God help us if there are more), ‘Dot’ (the equivalent of burning coal) and certain other poems that aren’t … to my taste.
But it’s not the poet’s job to suit my taste. It’s his job to be himself, isn’t it? – whatever that might be. In fact, reviews of The Arctic in The Guardian and The Scotsman praised the author’s astonishing miscellaneousness and versatility, as if such features were new to him. But so far as I can see (with the exception of Zonal, 2020) his collections have always been lucky-bags. Inside the mix, nonetheless, there’s invariably a handful of delicious poems. Even the occasional one that reveals the naked man.
Or not. One can never be wholly sure in this age of masks. Also he has a thing about the ‘self’, which means he must be doubly self-conscious when writing in the first person. If charged with the phrase ‘the true self’, I hate to think what he could turn into. Furthermore, anything I can say about him is already anticipated inside The Fall at Home (Faber, 2018), his volume of collected aphorisms, from which I intend to quote passim.
Meanwhile, back to the versatility issue. I’m guessing the protean nature is something innate. It’s not his fault. His collections comprise a set of poems that have come to him over four or five years, and they arrive in dramatically different shapes and forms (“Poetry isn’t a calling. It’s a diagnosis.” The Fall At Home, p.11). Extreme variety isn’t typical in poetry, but it’s typical for him.
Extreme variety isn’t typical in poetry, but it’s typical for him
Which means my usual approach doesn’t work. Ordinarily, I dip in and out of a book to get the ‘feel’ of the poet’s voice, as well as their general method (or range). You can’t do that with Paterson, or at least if you did, you might get a false impression. There’s a fair bit in The Arctic that would drive me away. And yes, it’s true that “Inconveniently, books are all the pages in them, not just the ones you choose to read.” (TFAH, p. 163) – but life is short and we’re not just here to keep Faber’s sales up. I want my fix. I want the sort of poems I know he can write.
The jacket text of The Arctic helpfully suggests how to approach the miscellany. “The Arctic”, we learn, “is the name of a bar” (true, it’s in Dundee) “frequented by the survivors of several kinds of apocalypse. The poems here are as various as the clientele […]. Other voices enter the fray in renderings of Cavafy, Montale and the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral …”. So okay, you get the general idea of different speakers, that we’re in post-apocalyptic territory, and we’re based in a bar. But really I don’t think this explains how The Arctic works.
If you start at the beginning (in this case it’s helpful), you’ll find the book’s epigraph is from Antonio Porchia: El hombre que no se aflige apenas existe (“The man who does not grieve barely exists.”) So the central theme of grief confronts you, plain as a pikestaff. The opening poems focus on the death of the poet’s father. Here, for example, are the first few lines of ‘Snaba’:
I hadn’t heard the word in forty years
until then, at the ragged hem of sleep,
just once, in his bedside voice: that word
only he would call me by, and only
when I was sick, or cried out from a dream.
Why would he console me with it now?
‘Snaba’ was once Paterson’s father’s comfort name for him. Now, his father’s deathbed evokes another time when he was the one confined to bed, and his father the visitor:
I was sixteen, and shivering and raving
in the last bed of the ward, when I thought
they were all trying to kill me. Snaba, he’d said.
This is acutely personal experience, in the relaxed iambic pentameter the poet often employs for truthful matters. ‘Snaba’ is moving. It will be anthologised, and it should be – and if you haven’t read it yet, please do. In fact, the first six poems of this book, though varied in shape and form, are good and strong, straight from the emotional heart of the collection: a death, an aching loss, necessary retrospection, and the balance of holding onto the ones you love. So yes, he is open, human and vulnerable to start off with, and these are the kind of poems I am looking for.
… he is open, human and vulnerable to start off with, and these are the kind of poems I am looking for … But then it gets more difficult
But then it gets more difficult. He moves into different modes and voices, some of them hard to warm to, although individual taste is undoubtedly a factor. Such elusiveness will be familiar to readers of previous collections. (“A style is a strategy of evasion.” TFAH, p.170) Some of this is a sort of game, and some of the time I enjoy it. All the same, it’s not easy hanging on through the prose and the prosy, the seriously annoying one, the illegible one, the witty-clever ones I don’t ‘get’, the angry Covid ballad, and the dozen ‘versions’ from other poets. ‘Versions’ (not translations) are a key component of the Paterson mix, despite his own assertion that “[…] nearly all non-poet translators of poetry fail to understand the poem’s incarnation in its tongue is all there is of it.” (TFAH, p.144).
I think of these poem-versions as ‘covers’, a bit like Bruce Springsteen playing Bob Dylan. Even so, I don’t understand why there are so many. To me, they sound neither quite like Paterson nor the original author. The four Gabriela Mistral poems rendered in Hugh-MacDiarmid-style literary Scots are intriguing curiosities. I’m just not sure what they’re doing here. Agreed, the Scots is helpfully glossed, but that’s an additional bit of cross-checking for the reader. And yes, I know that “Poetry is always a struggle to read; therefore no one should have any interest in any poem which didn’t half kill its author.” (TFAH, p.25) . These poems may well have half-killed Mistral but I’m not convinced they’ve done the same to Paterson. Others may not agree, and if this was a book of translations, I wouldn’t be complaining.
Having said all that, two ‘versions’ here do strike me as compelling in the grief context. The first of these is ‘I am not me’ after Juan Ramón Jimenéz‘s ‘Yo no soy yo’. It comes immediately after a set of personal poems and it feels true to Paterson too. Moreover, it calls in a spiritual dimension that perhaps could only have got here through another poet’s voice. Leopardi’s ‘The Infinite’, near the end of the book, also contributes significantly. It draws on a mystical childhood memory, and helps lift the mood into affirmation.
But by this stage Tam Lin has turned back into a human being, and his alien selves are pages away, assembled variously in the middle of the Arctic or lost in the Alexandria Library. I don’t think Paterson is remorseful about any of his shenanigans. I suspect he deliberately riles readers (and certainly reviewers) with certain squibs and antics. If that is not his intention with ‘Dot’, a circular concrete poem in print so tiny it’s impossible to read (unless you have access to the pdf file, and even then you’ll regret it), I’d be interested to know what it might be.
I don’t think Paterson is remorseful about any of his shenanigans. I suspect he deliberately riles readers (and certainly reviewers) with certain squibs and antics
Some readers may remember that a long time ago (in God’s Gift to Women, 1997) Paterson published ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’. Below this lengthy title was a blank page. Despite lack of – well – subtlety, the Zen Master’s absence was widely anthologised. People paid for permission to use it. Success encourages poets to develop unfortunate habits.The trouble with jokes, though, is there’s no consensus on what’s funny. But there’s no agreement on what constitutes poetry either.
Or on what we find annoying. Which brings me to the piece that sent me chasing after a very wild goose. This was the ‘Ten Maxims’, one of those poems in short, numbered sections. As soon as I saw it, I knew I’d read some of it before. But where? It’s not what anybody could call a good poem. Here’s a sample:
My lad: don’t you forget her,
Heartbroken as you are;
It’s a waste of a good wound
To heal without a scar.
That could almost be Dwight Yoakam singing country. But eventually I figured ‘maxim’ is another word for ‘aphorism’. I peeked inside The Fall At Home and – bingo! – “To heal without a scar is a waste of a good wound.” (TFAH, p, 49). Problem solved. The maxims are the poet’s own aphorisms converted into rhyming forms. This is Don Paterson ‘versioning’ himself. However, whether or not a scar is a good thing, putting it into rhyme is not. The prose assertion reads better and, as the author himself says, “The lapidary coldness of the aphorism assuages a grief or a grievance far better than the poem. It erects a stone over each individual hurt.” (TFAH, p.91). Also, it took me a very long time to track down the originals (aphorisms have neither titles nor index). In fact, I only got sources for eight out of ten maxims. I failed on two although I know I’ve seen them. This was a bad Tam-Lin moment.
But I hung on. My reward was surely close (so was the end of the book). Then another snag occurred to me. It was one of his pesky aphorisms that made me think of it: “I can be flattered into doing anything, however wicked, and cajoled out of my worst behaviour by an unflattering comparison. I am no one, and whoever discovers this owns me.” (TFAH, p. 32). “I am no one”, eh? Well, he is not no one, and it would be hard to find anyone to compare him with. I want to believe he’s more True Thomas than Tam Lin. There is no one like him. And he is suddenly like no one.
Because you reach page 79, ‘A Winter Apple’, and the man disappears. It’s the Keats negative-capability thing. He stops being the wearily sardonic, wise-cracking polymath of the Arctic bar, slips into his own lines and is gone. His top-notch poems are like music. The technique is so good, you don’t notice it, or him. Here’s your invitation into ‘The Winter Apple’, a simple string of monosyllables:
Here, I got you one of those you like
Indeed, this poem is one of those I like. He wrote it just for me. Except any reader can feel that. Any of us could slip inside this lovely apple world with the speaker, who is everyone and no-one.
His top-notch poems are like music. The technique is so good, you don’t notice it, or him
And in the concluding piece, ‘August’, he summons formal intricacy via fluid syntax, gentle rhyming echoes, and imagery so rich it takes my breath. It feels completely effortless. Up to this point, I had thought ‘Snaba’ was the tear-jerker of the collection. But this incredible plum tree, its fabulous yield during the last summer before a relationship broke down, the tiny detail of the ‘father at a wedding / refilling and refilling his own cup’ – well, it just about finished me. We had a tree like that ourselves, once. I got to the end of the book with nothing at all in my hands, and I cried.
Helena Nelson is a poet, critic, and publisher, founding editor of HappenStance Press and Sphinx Review, and Consulting Editor at The Friday Poem. Her first collection, Starlight on Water (Rialto, 2003), was a Jerwood / Aldeburgh First Collection winner. Her second was Plot and Counterplot (Shoestring, 2010). She also writes and publishes light verse, including Down With Poetry! (HappenStance, 2016) and Branded (Red Squirrel, 2019). Her most recent collection is PEARLS: The Complete Mr & Mrs Philpott Poems (HappenStance, 2022).