With drop-dead delivery, Don Paterson wonders, "What do you call the opposite of epiphany?" This Scottish poet and musician is only half joking. Like any wisecracker on Letterman, Paterson knows that comedy depends on its proximity to truth and tragedy. A good Michael Jackson gag almost certainly leans on Michael's proclivity for pajama parties and plastic surgery, the sad if not tragic truth. But make no mistake, Don Paterson is no joker. In his new volume, Landing Light, on the local Graywolf Press, he shows himself to be a fine poet who, on occasion, uses humor, dark and deadpan, to poke and prod things of great importance.
In "The Alexandrian Library," for instance, Paterson makes this devastating yet hilarious observation:
Your life has a smack of the prequel about it--
a bit underfunded, with you just a trifle
miscast in the role of the younger yourself.
"The Alexandrian Library" is something of a tour de force and one of several long poems in the book. A poem ripe with sex, albeit much of it "goes down as a horrible fuck," the "Library" whiles away most of its 10 pages in bed.
Landing Light is an intricate and complex work, donning a variety of dictions, devices, forms, and languages. Poems speak back and forth from page to page, while others introduce the ones that follow. Paterson has carved out a big honking slice of pie, big enough to accommodate Dante, Rilke, and Cavafy along the way, yet Landing Light's overriding characteristic is cohesion. It's tight, sometimes to a fault. The book opens with sunrise in "Luing" and closes with a sunset in the "White Lie." (No one will be surprised by the white-hot sun straddling the horizon emblazoned on the dust jacket.) This bookend strategy might come off corny in less skilled hands, but Paterson joyfully sabotages his own conceit by making the sunrise a harbinger of death and the sunset a last chance for redemption:
Only by this--this shrewd obliquity
of speech, the broken word and the white lie,
do we check ourselves, as we might halt the sun
one degree from the meridian
then wedge it by the thickness of the book
that everything might keep the blackedged look
of things, and that there might be time enough
to die in, dark to read by, distance to love.
As counterintuitive as this image is, the setting sun ends Landing Light on a hopeful note. (Cautious about spooning too much sugar into the tea, the poet equivocates a bit, "I post this more in testament/than hope or warning.")
Poems like "White Lie" show Paterson to be a poet of precision, concision, and regularity--and here is where he stumbles on occasion. Maybe it's his intermittent rhymes, which generally seem invisible if not pleasurable. Maybe it's his rhythm, which grows metronomic in stretches. Maybe it's his diction, which defaults to Treaty of Versailles formality too often. But before the lines stiffen with rigor mortis, Paterson usually fends off the flatline with something surprising like "tenderized menfolk" or "analphabetic." Still, you may find yourself wishing things were a tad messier, that Paterson would hold the moment in the twilight of knowing and unknowing a nanosecond longer.
Being a musician might account for Paterson's unflinching discipline. Above and beyond his affection for rhyme, Paterson imbues his lines with a particular musicality and uses music as a recurring theme. He even goes so far as to include a concrete poem, a piece in the shape of a guitar, which is ballsy if not a little batty. Still, the poem succeeds against all odds:
blown-egg feel, the cone
of air before it, wired and tense
as a lover by a phone. Bert
Kwakkel, my Dutch
so much wood out of the wood
Such touches of whimsy aside, Landing Light is a serious endeavor. Yet it moves forward unburdened by arrogance or desperation and with not a little well-timed humor. To sift through songs, sex, and our ordinary wasted moments and find the opposite of an epiphany--surely this is an epiphany itself.