Rain by Don Paterson

By Rob Packer

At first glance it seems the perfect opening metaphor: a poem about two trees lashed together, their branches intertwining over time and eventual separation so that:

each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.

But Don Paterson’s 2009 collection, Rain (his latest), also begins by prohibiting interpretation and the poem concludes:

They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

Don Paterson’s Rain

Over-interpretation is something all poetry readers dabble in every now and again—sometimes it really is irresistible—but in an extreme and simple example, I heard Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, say in this podcast that his mother is often interpreted as Palestine: he really is writing about his mother. For good measure, Paterson closes the collection with “and none of this, none of this matters”.

Ultimately this means you can concentrate on Paterson’s fantastic use of language that often rumbles along unobtrusively in subtly rhymed and effortless metre and end up leading you into a trap. Domesticity often hides something dark or unnerving, referenced obliquely and unexplained: a child tied up like some Frankenstein creation or a son’s hand that shakes because “one inch from home, we couldn’t get the air to him”. Paterson’s genius lies in the way he makes the unsaid say more than the said and he does this best in the opening to ‘The Story of the Blue Flower’:

My boy was miles away, yes, I admit it,
but the place was empty, my lines of sight were good
and besides, such things were unknown in this town –

Even without any details, these is a hidden menace below the surface: which “lines of sight”? Maybe he has a gun? And what things are “unknown in this town”? We assume the worst, but still aren’t sure. This menace reminded me of the Spanish theatre genre* of the esperpento, Valle-Inclán’s theatre of the grotesque, where language is colloquial and reality is deformed by the grotesque.

Rain is fascinating for its effortlessness, simplicity and often-grotesque imagery, but also for its varied poetic forms and influences that come from far and wide. There is a sequence of adaptations of poets like Li Po, Antonio Machado or Robert Desnos and a fantastic poetic description of Zurbarán’s masterpiece of dark and shadow, St Francis in Meditation (a personal National Gallery favourite). There is the strangely wonderful ‘Song for Natalia “Tusja” Beridze’, a poem about a musical internet obsession with a Georgian electronic musician, where I just enjoyed finding out just what Paterson is going to use as a rhyme (struggling/Googling, virusy/piracy and maxxing/taxing are particular gems). But some of the most entertaining verse comes in a 35-poem renku sequence**, where some made me laugh out loud and others are simple at first glance but incredibly deep: it’s impossible to choose favourites, but here’s one of the most bizarre ones:

Aha! The zip
for that idiot-suit.
And inside? Zip!

Don Paterson, Rain, Faber & Faber 2009


* Admittedly not one I know well, though.

** If you think of renku as a sequence of haikus, you get the right kind of idea.

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