Review: ’40 Sonnets’

The sonnet has always been a major concern in Don Paterson’s critical and creative output. Besides working with the form in each of his own collections to date, he has also edited and introduced the anthology 101 Sonnets and produced the wonderfully insightful commentary Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets. A great part of his interest in the format lies in the fact that he feels it is “perfectly fitted to the shape of human thought”. Nonetheless poetry collections consisting entirely of sonnets are rare occurrences, but this is the route that Paterson has taken for his latest offering, 40 Sonnets. Despite (or perhaps because of) the restriction of form, 40 Sonnets stays engaging and relevant throughout, tackling diverse topics from loss to contemporary politics.

Paterson’s diversity of method and subject matter accounts for the considerable success of his latest collection. A first reading immediately displays the verbal dexterity and sober elegance that typically enable his poems to achieve emotional poignancy while never falling into sensationalism: in ‘Mercies’, a recollection of having his dog put down, the animal:

lay back down, and let the needle enter.
And love was surely what her eyes conceded
as her stare grew hard, and one bright aerial
quit making its report back to the centre.

Paterson’s acuteness to the lyrical and dramatic potential of sound and syllable informs the collection at large. In the opening poem ‘Here’, pondering over the trauma of birth, his vivid soundscape pervades even the prenatal womb: “and her loud heart like a landlord at the door”, pulses one line about his mother.

Paterson’s gift for articulation structures a wide thematic spectrum. With unfaltering poise, he tackles politics (‘Tony Blair’); emotional alienation (‘The Vow’), and sexual politics (‘Le Joueur d’Échecs’). His feel for the elegiac underlines the entire collection, but this is often juxtaposed with themes of continuation and renewal. The final poem ‘The Roundabout’, echoing and reconfiguring the filial trauma of the first, tackles both the breakdown of a marriage and his ongoing relationship with his sons. His variety, however, also lies in his modes of enunciation: after the straight-up existentialist tone of ‘Francesca Woodman’, Paterson reverts to the comical and the satirical in his open letter ‘To Dundee City Council’:

Know at least I leave with my tail
between my legs, and setting sail
for that fine country called the fuck away.

But whatever the mood of Paterson’s writing, it consistently manages the shift from the personal to the universal, which is what makes them so relatable for the reader. Consider these lines from  ‘House’, a poem about —of all subjects— the eponymous antihero of American television:

We too have known the three o’clock abyss
between the differential and the kiss
where a man must face the smaller man within
or remember where he has stashed the vicodin.

Beyond his verbal gift, the force that energises 40 Sonnets lies in his varied approach to the sonnet form. Having once made the claim that the closing Elizabethan couplet (an English invention) lends itself perfectly to the aphoristic nature of English-language wit, he here writes sonnets economically split into seven sections. Each couplet encloses its own meaning while resonating with the whole, as in ‘On Francesca’s Woodman’:

‘The lens is no one looking back.’ No doubt,
but watch me watch me stare the bastard out

Or, in the desolate Q&A of ‘Seven Questions about the Journey’:

How do we look in our fine new leaving-dress?
Alone. Aghast.

Where are we going, so light and riderless?
Nowhere. Fast

But Paterson goes further. ‘At the Perty’, written in Scots dialect, is also a word sonnet (in which each line comprises one word only). ‘Séance’, organized around the letters s, p, k, e, and i punctuated by dashes, functions more visually than it does semantically. ‘An Incarnation’, with its particular formatting, enacts the confused frustration of a lagging telephone survey:

Yes                      No         No I can’t ‘confirm my identity’—
I know I’m me—        Eh?           Hang on you called me 

40 Sonnets is awash with verbal skill, lyrical subtlety, and formal cleverness. It is a testament to the resilience of the sonnet that a modern-day collection can comfortably hold its own, which Paterson achieves not only with the breadth of his subject matters, but also with his varied approach to compositional methods. Before such a compellingly dense collection, one cannot help but feel that this mastery is the work of decades — and it is. Issues of form and sound have been paramount in Paterson’s work ever since his first collection Nil Nil: he has written extensively about both, and the present collection seems like the crystallization of his artistic creeds. Wherever he goes next, creatively and critically, his progression will be likely be one of the most influential of his generation.

Pierre Antoine Zahnd

’40 Sonnets’ is published by Faber & Faber, RRP £14.99.

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