Don Paterson’s work has always been the loving labor of a doomster, albeit one whose impish wink and cynicism kept his own worst fears at bay. But his most recent collection of poems by him, The Arctic, largely drops the act. It’s a more straight-on look at the futile repetitiveness – which is not quite predictable enough to be called circularity – of life and art. “Because the Writer’s Union had decreed a cult of youth/ we were awarded the greatest prizes for our very first books.// We denounced the old and shamed them for their politics”, he writes in “Advice to a Young Poet”. Plus ça change.
The poem here that best suggests that stoic what’s-the-point-ness, “Dot”, is one of the longest but also one of the smallest: it’s virtually illegible, asking the reader to zoom in by some 350 per cent on a digital copy or use a monumental magnifying glass. It states that without “the idea of self” and “the fear of death”, “we will no longer be slaves of our own progress; telos will disappear as a structuring force”; it is a never-ending cycle, its end feeding back into its beginning. Why does Paterson make reading it so tricky? Perhaps because if such a lengthy, probably dense piece of philosophical wonderment didn’t play hard to get, we wouldn’t fancy it.
The focus on progress, or the lack thereof, is interesting in the context of Paterson’s fear of repeating himself. “The great danger, for me,” he has written, “is to continue to mine a seam long after it’s yielded up the last diamond… after a while, you’re not even bringing up coal anymore, just dirt.” He followed his more formally traditional 40 Sonnets (2015) with Zonal (2020), a book of poems inspired by Twilight Zone episodes, all long lines and chatty pseudo-disclosure. The creative distance abetted by that departure seems to have enabled him, in The Arctic, to take on old themes with renewed vigour, new vulnerability.
I have never been so touched by a Paterson poem as I was by “Snaba” (“snowball” in “childhood Scots”), an elegy for his father with a touch of Paul Muldoon’s “Quoof”. On his dying father’s face, he sees “that last astonishment/ I’d only seen before on the just-born”. “Hyphen”, pitched in a lyric-elegiac edgeland between “The House that Jack Built” and Tennyson’s “Mariana”, is also formally first-rate; indeed, many of these poems are a return to form in more ways than one.
The uproarious “To His Penis” (after the model of similarly titled poems by Robert Burns) is a brief return to waggishness. Elsewhere, Paterson puts twists on myths and aphorism. There is also a poem about Covid, and an Audenesque “Saudade for Brexit”. That kind of thing still feels modish or garish to me. A future reader may disagree.
Also worth noting is Paterson’s version of Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony”: “As your final delight, listen to the echoes/ of the marvelous instruments, the strange parade,/ and say farewell to the Alexandria you are losing.” It appears in this collection after Part IV of Paterson’s long-running “Alexandrian Library” series, Part III of which came 19 years ago in Landing Light. I assume this is the last we’ll hear of Alexandria.
The earlier Library pieces seemed to believe that we do not lose understanding so much as misplace it; in Part I, the narrator visited a molding bookshop filled with the works of lost or forgotten authors. In Part IV, we find him in a seemingly post-apocalyptic future, sheltering in the cellar of Dundee’s Arctic Bar, where survivors are trying to rewrite a library from memory: “whoever inherits this human codex/ will mainly major in footie and traybakes” . The speaker gives up on recalling lines of verse, instead devoting time to searching “for a viable planet”, a not-yet-ruined “second Eden”. In the face of climate chaos, Paterson’s earlier, almost cozy pessimism turns into embattled resignation.
Although the Arctic theme appears to some extent in “Snaba”, too, this book could be retitled “Now” – the word recurs 28 times. Now there has been total loss; now all my work absconds into forgetfulness; now things are changing far too quickly for a single “now” to be sufficient – and on, ad infinitum. The Arctic amounts to an attempt at a Blakean kissing the joy as it flies, knowing we will have to exit the cycle at some point, and knowing only too well that it will go on without us.
The Arctic is published by Faber at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit TelegraphBooks