Thursday, 21 January 2010

Landing Light - Don Paterson

This collection won both the Whitbread Prize and the T.S. Eliot in 2003, which is a bit epic.  And it IS great, despite the hole-picking I'm going through to try and appreciate it properly.  It lacked for me the stand out numbers I have usually found in collections that blow me away and which I usually use as a jumping off point for understanding the whys of a book.  It seems characterised more by tension and disparity than by an arching unity of idea.  I enjoyed it, and I need to read it a few more times - I can see the artistry, but I'm not in love.  That's such a personal thing with poetry.  It's an intimate exercise, the creative collaboration between poet and reader creates something that nobody else can experience and which neither expected.  The rhythms must echo in both, the allusions cast shadows in both imaginations, the imagery or the subject matter must whir in the lives of each.  There must be a stretching of minds, but that stretchin can sometimes lead to jumps that are too big to follow.

The  poems flit from form to form - there are poems in Scots and English,  some tell stories and some contemplate the soul, there is a translation (very free, as far as I can remember - my reading of Dante is many years old) of the forest of the suicides part of the Inferno and two poems described as 'after Rilke', there is a highly erotic poem that is nonetheless addressed to children.  Such variety is impressive.  This is why I can't find a real coherency in the collection I think.  It is undeniable that the man is a master of his art, but the poems don't stir or transfix me the way I want them to.  There is enormous skill with the language but it isn't foregrounded (which I usually love).  Subtle and probably lifelike and therefore difficult?  Or difficult to appreciate on one reading.  More work required.

The Wreck
But what lovers we were, what lovers,
even when it was all over -

the deadweight, bull-black wines we swung
towards each other rang and rang

like bells of blood, our own great hearts.
We slung the drunk boat out of port

and watched or unreal sober life
unmoor, a continent of grief;

the candlelight strange on out faces
like the tiny silent blazes

and coruscations of its wars.
We blew them out and took the stairs

into the night for the night's work,
stripped off in the timbered dark,

gently hooked each other on
like aqualungs, and thundered down

to mine our lovely secret wreck.
We surfaced later, breathless, back

to back, then made our way alone
up the mined beach of the dawn.

Don Paterson, from Landing Light (London, 2003)

In fact, just typing that out has made it more meaningful to me.  But even so the imagery is tangled.  The first part reflects the security of falling in love quite clearly despite the mixed metaphors - but the symbolism becomes less clear as the poem goes on.  The slipperiness of metaphor is one of the central joys of the poem.  Of course there is so much more to poetry than 'de-coding', but it's a natural thing to do when faced with words that seem to go somewhere and then slip sideways or turn back on themselves - and that's the fun part, that keeps the interest and piques curiosity.  It is there.  Perhaps comprehension is just further off than I'm used to?  Or not as natural to me as I have found with my favourites?

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