My first encounter with Paterson’s work was his second collection, God’s Gift to Women, a Poetry Book Society recommendation. One of the things I love most about that collection is the way Paterson has mixed a whole host of different elements to create a real poetry personality – there are references to ancient Greek mythology bundled in with poems rooted in small Scottish towns – and the language is exceptional, weaving Scottish slang and colloquialisms with lyricism in a playful yet biting manner.
With Selected Poems (which brings together poems from his six collections up until 2012), I was expecting more of the same. A lot more of the same. And I wasn’t disappointed.
The collection is arranged chronologically, opening with poems from his award-winning debut, Nil Nil. The opener ‘The Ferryman’s Arms’ is a poem rooted in two worlds – a Scottish pub and the classical underworld, with the central character playing himself at a game of pool. There’s a very Scottish tinge to these poems and a playfulness that hints at what is to come in the second section, which is taken from God’s Gift to Women.
After poems from God’s Gift, we have poems of a much different timbre. This section is drawn from The Eyes – A Version of Antonio Machado and takes the reader on a very different journey. The poems are much more contemplative – through his abundant use of ellipses, Paterson meanders through the stanzas and these poems are full of dreams and sleep. One of my favourites is ‘Profession of Faith’ which includes the beautiful lines: full of beautiful observations such as:
“God is not of the sea, but of its nature:
He scatters like the moonlight on the water.”
The poems from Landing Light are a real mix and take us in a more tender direction, filled as they are with references to his son and love poems. There’s also a dollop of Scots in here, but the overarching sense is that Paterson is responding to changing situations in his life and addresses mortality with his version of the Inferno. Although ostensibly about love, there’s a deep sense of loss in ‘The Wreck’:
“But what lovers we were, what lovers,
even when it was all over.”
The next section taken from Orpheus is filled with sonnets – due to the form these are introspective, metaphysical and questioning life such as in the exquisite ‘Horseman’
“Isn’t this just our sinemy existence,
spurring ourselves on, reining ourselves back in?”
The beautiful ‘The Dead’ has one of my favourite descriptions of autumn leaves:
“the colours that they blaze from the dark loam
all have something of the jealous tang
of the dead about them.”
There’s a real continuation of maturity, moving from poems in the fifth section like ‘The Ball’ where he looks back at childhood with nostalgia and moves to Rain, which is much more about his life as a father. There are some beautifully tender poems to his sons here, but there’s also the witty and bizarre ‘Song for Natalie ‘Tusja’ Beridze’. The poems have become much more contemplative and we’ve moved away from the acerbic wit and use of Scots to statements such as “We come from nothing and return to it. / It lends us out to time.”
The last poem is the profoundly affecting ‘Rain’ where we see a glimmer of the dryness from earlier collections as Paterson wryly comments that “none of this, none of this matters.” When the poetry is this good, it definitely does.