40 Sonnets by Don Paterson

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Paterson is at his best when writing about heartbreak. “The Six,” this reviewer’s favourite piece in 40 Sonnets, speaks of a guitar picked up and played ‘like a novice / or like Orpheus,’ through which the player,

reasons out the things he’d say to her
and the song he plays is sad, because it’s now too late,
and joyous, as somewhere the heart has yet been won.

The sincerity and vulnerability of these few lines, particularly in the context of Paterson’s other more belligerent pieces, strikes a note of tenderness. 40 Sonnets is his eighth poetry collection, which illustrates his ease and ingenuity with the sonnet form. Presumably, it comes as a natural consequence of editing Faber’s 101 Sonnets (1999), and penning a new commentary on the complete sonnets of Shakespeare in 2010.

Overall, the collection indicates a sustained preoccupation with his established motifs: juxtaposition of heartfelt love poems and explicit diatribes, political comment next to personal loss, drinking and hangovers, and bitter retorts against frustrating reading audiences, as evident in “Requests”:

O tell us more about your dad,
or why your second wife went mad,
or how it was you had no choice
but to give those men a voice

go on with your brilliant proem!
Anything but read your poem.

The tone of sharp satire continues in “Apsinthion”; the title, the Greek word for ‘wormwood,’ refers to the apocalyptic star that appears in the Book of Revelation, which emerges first at the volta:

But when we heard the star would fall,
Did we choose to die like sheep?
Hell no – we were men, and blessed
To know the hour and place … I jest.
One by one we fell asleep
And that is how they found us all.

Contrasting bravado and cowardice in an American idiom is peculiar amidst the rest of Paterson’s mostly Scottish pieces, but its animosity sits comfortably alongside his poem “To Dundee City Council,” in which he makes his feelings about his hometown vividly known:

that fine baronial stair
you found cheaper to fence off than to repair,
thus adding twenty minutes to my trip
via ringroad, bombsite, rape tunnel and skip
to the library where poor folks go to die
or download porno on the free wifi.

The crude poetic tone in these poems treads the line between startling and bellicose, but is still darkly humorous, and consistently shrewd. By taking the sonnet form – which has such strong associations with canonical British literature and traditional, highbrow, poetic subjects – and repurposing it to a distinctly modern idiom, he demonstrates an astute and resourceful poetic gift.

Across this slim volume of poetry, Paterson enacts a consistent deconstruction of the sonnet form, beginning with “Here,” a sonnet composed entirely of rhyming couplets, through “At the Perty,” written in Scots and containing fourteen lines of one word each, to “The Version,” a three-page prose piece concerning poetic translation, that ends with a fantastical (and, one hopes, fictional) story about the poet being dropped by his agent, sued for plagiarism, and hunted down in his own house. The striking diversity of Paterson’s work, in just forty-four pages, is a pleasure to read.

In “The Eye,” he speaks candidly about ‘the self you slaughtered in the bliss / of her astonishing astonished kiss,’ immediately conflated with ‘the loch in starlight or the late quartet,’ the sum of which is an image of acute, heartfelt, nostalgia. Similarly, in “Radka Toneff,” a poem addressed to the Norwegian jazz singer, the speaker admits,

Radka, skylark,
you rose too far; though as it died away
I heard right through the song to what sung you.

The doubling of singer and song mirrors Paterson’s play with poet and poem. This is more formally demonstrated in “A Calling,” a poem inspired by the Actaeon myth of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the speaker looks at himself in ‘The black glass,’ which increases his uneasiness; his reflection, in both senses of the word, drives him to think of his writing as ‘ghost-dogs,’ that ‘thrash along the shore, / the dark sea at their back like the police.’ Following the Actaeon myth, then, the poems will tear the speaker apart, ‘right through the song to what sung you.’

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Don Paterson, 40 Sonnets Faber, £14.99

The epigraph to “A Calling,” taken from the Metamorphoses, reads, vellet abesse quidem, sed adest – ‘he would be absent, but present’ – a sentiment anticipated by the Antonio Porchia quotation that opens the collection: ‘Soy un habitante, pero ¿de dónde?’, ‘I am a resident, but where?’ These brief references to a greater sense of distance, or seclusion, underpins 40 Sonnets. The consistent emphasis throughout the collection on separation emerges with disarming openness in “Mercies,” the penultimate sonnet, which concerns the speaker’s dog being put down: ‘love was surely what her eyes conceded / as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial / quit making its report back to the centre.’

40 Sonnets needs no fanfare to commend it – it stands as a powerful indication of Paterson’s strengths and ongoing poetic experimentation. Honest, unyielding, vigorous: this collection elicits and encapsulates the drunkenness of things being various.

By Éadaoín Lynch