Friday, 7 January 2011

Three Reviews - Don Paterson, Sarah Howe and Joe Dunthorne

Don Paterson - Rain (Faber, 2009)
by Robert Van Egghen

I recently broke one of the unwritten rules of twenty-first century life and read the reader comments section of an online newspaper. It was a well-intentioned article about getting more children reading poetry. Most of the comments were dismissive, hostile or obscene, or sometimes all three. One though was quite baffling – “all modern poets are crap, apart from Don Paterson”.

You could be forgiven for assuming then, on the basis of that comment, that Paterson must be some sort of literary giant, towering above all other poets and rendering their efforts obsolete. Well then…you would be wrong. Rain is a good collection, but ultimately it falls short.

The good comes in the disorienting quality of the poems – the wry playfulness of ‘Two Trees’ where, having seemingly built the poem up to end with a great revelation, Paterson shrugs “trees are all this poem is about”; the nagging sense of loss in ‘The Swing’ where the narrator describes putting up a swing for his children but having done so sees only “the child that would not come”. But then, just like Frank and Nancy, Paterson goes and spoils it all by ladling big dollops of sentiment everywhere.

While the lesson, or moral, of the poem is left implicit (can the narrator not have a child, or are they choosing not to have one?), lines like “the bright sweep of its radar arc / is all the human dream” distort the focus of the poem, while the poem’s culmination in “I gave the empty seat a push / and nothing made a sound”, which desperately wants to be an earth-shattering ending but isn’t, ends up leaving us with the sense that Paterson has missed his cue. This is also the case with ‘The Circle’, written for his son. Yet, while you cannot dispute the sentiment or the context, Paterson’s ending the poem with “look at the little avatar / of your muddy water-jar / filling with the perfect ring / singing under everything” again means that what starts out as a subtle dialogue between father and son ends up striving for something metaphysical and missing it.

The poem for his other son, ‘Why Do You Stay Up So Late’ is better, and quite moving in its stark depiction of the complexities of the father-son relationship with the son trying to understand what it is his father does, ending with the bleak couplet “then I paint it with the tear to make it bright. / That is why I sit up through the night”. Yet too often, one of Rain’s main strengths, the formality of Paterson’s poetry, ends up becoming one of its greatest weaknesses.

The title poem apart, where the lyric acquires the force to brush such concerns aside, Paterson’s verse too often seems sing-song, as if the main focus of the poem is to find a good rhyme. ‘The Rain at Sea’ would be much more effective if it did not contain such clunky rhymes as “There would be all hell to pay. / I turned and shut my eyes and lay”. Yet, just when it seems that Paterson has rather overdone it, ‘The Lie’ appears, building its mystery slowly through its hypnotic AABA rhyme scheme before bringing the whole thing crashing down and leaving us dazed and disoriented with the ferocity of it all.

Rain then is a confusing collection; sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes both at the same time, and never clear whether Paterson meant it to be this way or not. It is a deeply earnest book, and yet it contains an ode to a goddess of Georgian techno. It beseeches us that “I fell to somewhere far below the earth” but at the end reassures us “none of this matters”. Paterson’s mastery of clear, direct English is to be admired, but the existential musings get tiring and the sentiment wears off after a couple of readings. Rain ultimately seems a strangely faceless collection, and what was so enchanting initially seems to have evaporated – the poetic equivalent of the Cheshire Cat.

Sarah Howe – a certain Chinese encyclopedia (Tall-Lighthouse, 2009)
by Joshua Jones

Sarah Howe’s debut pamphlet (part of Tall-Lighthouse’s Pilot series) is a strong beginning to her poetry career. She seems to operate in three modes: elegant lyric poetry, honed imagism and the lightly experimental, yet manages for the most part to retain a unity of tone. Though none of the poems are compelling enough to immediately rave about, or original enough to be beguiled by, the consistent strength and craft of this short collection is more than enough to satisfy for now, and hint at not only a lot more quality work to come, but a hybridity of style that is sorely missing from a lot of young poets I read, and that promises a rewardingly diverse debut full length as and when it comes.

In ‘Earthward’, a crystal clear meditation on the image of “the shadowplay/of trees/against the blinds” is compared to the way

        you stare

at a pale face across the bed
        so long
you hardly see it –
        fingers trembling,
vague as a street
        at night[...]

Which is a gorgeous piece of writing. However, as the short piece concludes, it morphs from merely pretty to subtle profoundity:

        they shook
with a gusting stutter
        more restless still
for being not
        the thing itself.

The way it blurs the personally observant and phenomenological questioning with such grace is the key to the poem’s success. And it is this understated yet assured grace that allows a collection of sometimes disparate styles of writing to feel so comfortable together.

My other favourite is ‘Yangtze’, the most interesting of the three that are explicitly about the poet’s dual heritage. It opens with solid images: “The moon glimmers/in the brown channel”, “Declining cliffs/sink beneath vast water”. But as it progresses the poem itself begins to sink beneath its certainty of what it sees and records: “below/a sunken valley persists”, and a fisherman’s nets “catch not fish/but the wizened finger/of a submerged branch”. The lines begin to break more abruptly, the voice deliberately becomes even less sure of itself, and it ends with a repetition of the opening lines. The unknown, the new, the journey into a strange land the speaker feels, but isn’t, a part of, is brilliantly conveyed through the writing’s shifting epistemological register.

I have very few complaints about any of the rest of the poems. There are stutter-steps in some of them, the odd clunky line break (‘Hypothesis’) or overwrought technique (‘Night in Arizona’). But each of the pieces are a pleasure to read, and I look forward to following Howe’s development as one of the most consistently quality new poets I’ve read.

Joe Dunthorne - Faber New Poets 5 (Faber, 2010)
by Joshua Jones

This is a decent, if not exactly groundbreaking pamphlet. I’ve been uncertain as to whether or not I should bother reviewing the Faber series. My views on them are paradoxical, and inevitably end in disappointment: I expect something great, and they have such potential to bring new poetry to a wider audience; yet I also expect them to be bland and to neglect the more interesting, less mainstream styles and writers. Katchinska’s was excellent, and I really enjoyed Sam Riviere’s. There are others I won’t even comment on, and just one I’m yet to read. I was going to write about Jack Underwood’s, but I think I’ll just wait until he gets a full collection out.

Anyway, back to Dunthorne. It has compelling moments. ‘Cave Dive’ is beautiful, and succeeds through not overwringing its extended metaphor. Time and memory blur, ending with beguiling fluid clarity: “From his lips/he scatters balls of glass”. ‘Sestina for My Friends’ is absolutely hilarious; I have nothing to fault. It’s funny and light, at the same time as being subversively intelligent, self-aware and succinctly contemporaneous.

The rest of the poems are fine. They’re meticulously constructed, but they read more like an MA portfolio than a debut publication. I want to be stunned by a new poet, I want them to justify me reading them and not one of the other, equally talented, equally MA’ed writers less lucky or connected. Dunthorne, sadly, doesn’t do that here. The poems are, however, well-written enough and have enough character to keep my eyes open for a collection from him as and when.

Which brings me to the last poem, ‘Workshop Dream’. It’s very funny, recalling the New York poets and all their acolytes in tone and featuring the laugh out loud line

We stepped out onto the beach. The water
made the sound: cliché, cliché, cliché.

It is both a celebration and a satire of an individual’s collaboration with MA Creative Writing culture. The problem is it doesn’t really penetrate. It’s perfectly enjoyable, a wry admission, but little more. One could, if one were so inclined, read it as a shrug-shouldered laugh in the face of less commercially visible/viable work that doesn’t wear its shiny, clinical postgrad badge bright for all to see (and thus tends to be more ignored). The other issue it brings to mind is what I’ll call The Luke Kennard effect. So many young male poets today simply read like less talented versions of Luke Kennard. Perhaps I’ve just read too much Kennard, but masses of poets seem content enough not to/unaware enough to step out of the shadow of the American-influenced absurdist postmodern/poststructural satire he has perfected. The wonderful line quoted above, for example, is pretty much exactly the same as a line from a Kennard poem (owls cooing ‘Ted Hughes, Ted Hughes’, and another of his poems, from The Harbour Beyond the Movie, does the same kind of thing. Can’t remember which off the top of my head).

I would feel bad about writing around Dunthorne’s poetry instead of solely about it, but I don’t. It’s not original or engaging enough, for me, and there are plenty of other poets whose work deserves and demands more attention. So, while it’s a polished, funny short collection, it’s simply not in the same league as a lot of other good writers around at the moment (Michael Pederson, for example, or Laura Elliott, or Agnes Lehoczky, &c, &c). Still, his novel Submarine is really fucking good, one of the best first novels I’ve read in the last few years. So maybe buy that instead and ignore my bitching about his poetry.

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