Lamps in videogames use real electricity
Zonal, Don Paterson, Faber, 80pp, £14.99 (hardback)
If All the World and Love Were Young, Stephen Sexton, Penguin, 128pp, £9.99 (paperback)
At first glance, Zonal looks like a change of direction for Don Paterson. He made his name as a colloquial formalist, someone who could make rhyme and metre feel like the natural way of writing poetry in English. In this book, the carefully managed forms that dominated his work till now have been replaced by a longer, looser and less metrical line. It’s the first thing you notice in the first poem, ‘Death’:
His trick – by which I mean the way he’d convince you of his earnestness –
was to actualise at some random and unpredictable post, unruffled, immaculate
like he’d been there all along: vaping at the turn of the stairs, taking a leak in the
But the subject matter here indicates that Paterson is still playing the same high-stakes thematic games, writing about ‘death, doubles and the void’, to use his own words. If you ever meet death playing pool in a pub’s back room, odds are you’re in a Don Paterson poem.
Each of the pieces here takes its cue from an episode of The Twilight Zone’s first season. That show’s favoured brand of chilling parable, which tends to actualise some specific version of hell, fate or infinite recursion, dovetails nicely with the anecdotal monologues and terrifying metaphysics that have long been Paterson’s stock-in-trade. As a result, Zonal feels less like a group of lyrics and more like a set of brilliantly managed sci-fi parables, little machines that run out Rube-Goldberg-like towards their unexpected conclusions.
In the poem quoted above, for instance, a salesman ends up selling himself slowly to a personified death. The twist is that he does it out of pity, once he realises Death is a pathetic figure: ‘a slave to his work, he’d always thought, / but really just a slave, hand-to-mouth, hardly ever in the same town two nights in a row.’ He goes knowing he’s been hustled, but sad to see the toll the hustle takes on death: ‘I could see in his eyes that over the years he’d lost more than a few of us this way, / this old play, and each of us had cost him like a life.’
In ‘The Way We Were’, a man consumed by nostalgia retreats to his sofa with some form of memory-viewing technology. He rejigs the tech, allowing him to insert his current, aged self into his old memories and relive them as though they were real. What follows is a horrifying and brilliant variation on the theme of second childhood, with the speaker detailing his aged avatar’s appearance in a series of increasingly old memories. He ends by remembering the beginning of his binge-watch:
. . . I am already looking back on these as the best of times as for days now
I’ve been locked in a two second glitch-loop, where I am stuck with my mouth on the full breast
of my young beautiful mother, who looks down at me and will not stop screaming and screaming.
It’s a horrifying image, but it’s also just a compressed time frame. The whitebeard speaker is, ultimately, what his mother gave birth to. This is a favoured technique of Paterson’s, which he uses like time-lapse photography, to show us how our first-person, human perspectives limit our understanding of reality. One speaker learns to slow reality down to one image every few hours. ‘I thought this must be the way / trees know the world, humans blinking in and out of the frame like ghosts, if they see us at all.’ In Paterson’s oeuvre, being alive is often more ghostly than being dead. ‘Almost everything in the room will survive you’, goes one of his aphorisms. ‘To the room, you are already a ghost, a pathetic soft thing, coming and going.’
The abiding tone of the book is memento mori. In ‘The Garden’, the speaker is asked at the end of his life to pick his happiest moment, in which he will be fixed eternally. Seeing that moments of success, redemption, even lovemaking would jar, repulse and torment him repeated eternally, he makes an unusual request to the gardener:
So he dug a shallow trench in the black soil by the flowerbeds, just my length, and I lay down in it;
and he stopped everything again, and gently filled the bed until the earth covered my legs, my body and my face
and placed a sign nearby that I should not be disturbed.
In ‘The Deal’, a speaker offering immortality cautions us, ‘Without death, this place becomes the hell it is.’ This is a Parfitian, and ultimately a Buddhist understanding of human existence. It holds that hell is a condition suffered only by the living, and death only terrible until you consider the alternatives. We don’t often talk about poets as though they were thinkers, and Lord knows you don’t need a PhD to enjoy these engaging, skilful and sometimes hilarious poems. Nonetheless, if you can see past the narrative élan, the gags and the diamond-sharp phrasemaking, it’s increasingly clear that Paterson is the most philosophically interesting poet of our time. Zonal, like the rest of his body of work, is required reading for anyone interested in contemporary literature.
Critics have been raising eyebrows about book-length conceits recently. A series of infantile and imbecilic funding strictures put in place by the Research Excellence Framework system at UK universities has incentivised poets to focus in depth on one subject across a whole book, or section of a book, since this provides a more ‘quantifiable’ sense of the ‘worth’ and ‘impact’ of their poetry. The effect has been to homogenise and flatten the output of many poets. I have never met or read or even heard a whispered rumour of a poet who approves of this system. But small objections like that don’t hold much water with funding bodies.
But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If they are given the room and space to think, poets will continue to gravitate towards the subjects that attract them, and just as the ‘careful-what-you-wish-for’ hellscapes of The Twilight Zone attracted Don Paterson, so the sixteen-bit azure skies of Super Mario captivated Stephen Sexton.
If All the World and Love Were Young, then, is structured around the levels of the 1990 video game Super Mario World. Receiving a well-deserved Forward Prize for Best First Collection, Sexton said he planned to write about Super Mario because it was ‘the very silliest thing I could do’. It might be true, but this is far from a silly or flippant work. In fact it is an outpouring of joy and loss, a book-length aria about the death of Sexton’s mother and his lost childhood.
The poems take their titles from levels or features in the game that correspond to the stages of his mother’s illness. These dual worlds overlap in the poems as they do in real life, where reality is rarely circumscribed by the limits of the actual. In ‘Yoshi’s Island 2’ Sexton writes, ‘Pixels and bits pixels and bits their perpendicularity: / one of the worlds I live in is as shallow as a pane of glass.’ The way this shallow world bleeds into our one is a constant concern of this elegiac work. (The relationship, incidentally, goes both ways: I will never forget when it was pointed out to me that lamps in video games use real electricity.) The glass of the television is as real, as illusory as a photograph of someone’s past, in ‘the sepia-warmed wedding pictures’ taken ‘long before we were born / in our relatives’ glowing eyes whose faces are written in light’.
The descriptions of the alien hospital landscape Sexton’s mother inhabits whilst dying are touching and brutal, and no image exists in this book that does not in some way register the fitful passage of time, the left-to-right sweep of our existence:
From the window one sees new wards under construction skeletal
scaffolds and platforms the tang of diesel fumes miserable clouds
chainsaws buzzing in the distance and she wakes to car after car
bringing women and fatherly men who will turn into fathers.
This isn’t far from the sprung rhythms used by poets like Hopkins and Dylan Thomas, and Sexton is very much a poet in that overflowing, lyrical tradition. To be intolerably boring for a moment: the line is very long, normally around fifteen or sixteen syllables, only five or six of which are stressed. This loose, rushing trimeter is only sparsely punctuated, making the hundred-or-so pages of this book a surprisingly swift affair. The reader feels like a flat stone skimming the surface of the poem.
It’s almost a shame, since there’s plenty in this book worth pausing over. This description of Albrecht Drer’s drawing of a rhino, for instance:
under the hides of carburised iron thick
as armour plating fixed in place with rivets pinned along the seams
a polished gorget at the throat
Or the simpler descriptions of increasingly unbearable situations: ‘And then the talk of opiates of comfort and what’s possible / of a cloak threaded with morphine’; ‘Every other day I think I see her passing by the window / or crossing a bridge or walking ahead of me in the village’.
In these quieter passages, Sexton succeeds in the Orphic task of holding two worlds together for a fleeting moment. And for all the insistent modernity of its pixellated nostalgia, this is a book in an old tradition. The poet, lost far from home, passes through different levels and worlds in pursuit of a dead loved one, moving slowly towards a greater understanding of the cosmos and his place within it.
If Sexton’s video games are another realm, then Paterson’s are simply our realm, only more clearly delineated. In one poem his Grand Theft Auto avatar finds itself on a beach next to a female NPC (non-playable character). Looking for some form of interaction, he tries to turn to her ‘with a lopsided smile or some other charmingly weary salutation’, but all he can do is punch her in the head. ‘It was literally all I could do’. She punches him back twice and calls him a motherfucker:
. . . for all that I suspected there was something in the excess of that second blow that spoke of her affection,
I knew we were the prisoners of circumstance.
For Paterson, it’s not clear the distinction between the two worlds matters: in-game or IRL, we are still sequestered within the avatar we ourselves have fashioned, just as Orpheus, in this world and the other, remained a prisoner of his own free will.
Review by John Phipps.
To buy Zonal by Don Paterson, visit Faber’s website.
To buy If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton, visit Penguin’s website.
John Phipps is a writer. He lives in London.
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