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40 Sonnets (Shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Poetry Award & the 2015 TS Eliot Prize for Poetry) by Don Paterson - (Faber and Faber, 2015); hdbk, £ 14.99: Review by Dominic Smith
From one son of Dundee to another, Don Paterson, allow me to commend this finely wrought collection – it pulls off something quietly virtuoso that reads keen, true and varied. I sensed something redeeming and intimate about this work, so forgive me if I contrive this review as something like an open letter. This does not commit me to some fallacious claim to know your intentions, nor some perverse attempt to alienate other readers, as if the two of us could be alone with your words. It’s just that, where other registers failed, this seemed like the one most appropriate to 40 Sonnets, and instead of being exclusive, it is intended to be suggestive: a way of inviting others in.
You had me from “Wave.” If one were being doctrinaire, one would presuppose an elaboration of one idea to be sufficient for a sonnet, but you have rolled some very big ideas into one another here. A wave, it seems, is pure “becoming”, without “being” beyond the ephemerality of its breaking. But you had me picturing a wave as a protagonist in some grand cosmology, as if it were a survivor seeking shore, and you had me expecting that it would hit without much ado, before turning that idea on its head in one matter-of-fact concluding line. This is an instance of what I mean by “quietly virtuoso.” Another occurs midway through 40 Sonnets, with “The Version”, which is as fine a piece of philosophy on poetry as I have read: you are theorising here, but not from the kind of arch postmodern perspective that nods and winks (that I sensed you deride in other poems – “A Fable of the Open Book”, “A Scholar”), rather, I sensed a joyous yet serious play with paradox, imparting truth of a kind that only good farce can.
Lest one should have no taste for this, other things that 40 Sonnets gets right demand attention. Most simply, it abundantly contains verses that stop the reader dead:
When I was ruined by love, I took a vow
that if I loved again, I’d love the less;
so when I spoke love, spoke it to excess,
as love will make its mirror anyhow. (“A Vow”).
If one seeks catharsis, 40 Sonnets contains it (“Funeral Prayer”, “The Self-Illuminated”). If one seeks downright ribaldry, it contains that too (“To Dundee City Council”, “An Incarnation”). If one seeks meaningful cultural allusion, 40 Sonnets provides it (to the jazz of Radka Toneff and John Abercrombie, and to the poetry of Porter, Parna, and Du Fu).
If I sensed a bum note, it was in the consideration of the political. I think you handled things very well in “The Foot”, which faces up to our collective responsibility not to look away from Gaza. But I was less sure what you were getting with “The Big Listener” (for Tony Blair). Perhaps, however, that uncertainty is a product of how the media greases time today, and perhaps that is what you were using poetry’s memorialising powers to get at.
I said that 40 Sonnets achieves something “redeeming and intimate.” The irony is that I’m now struggling to describe what I mean without effecting the distanced “grammarie” satirised in “A Scholar.” Biting the bullet, what I think makes 40 Sonnets “redeeming and intimate” is a recurrent sense of bathos: your poems often reach conclusions that appear matter-of-fact and anti-climactic, but that sow seeds for what came before to take on new aspects. This is redeeming because of the type of metamorphosis it effects, and intimate because the reader is encouraged but not required to effect the gesture. I’ve witnessed this in your work before (“Two Trees”, “Rain”), but it must not be reduced to a studied “trope.” As I’ve said, it is “redeeming and intimate”, and, to your immense credit, has more to do with nous and feeling than “grammarie.”