Looking South by Stuart A. Paterson (Indigo Dreams Publishing, www.indigodreams.co.uk £8.99); ISBN: 978-1-910834-54-1
For a while there it looked as if Stuart A. Paterson could be lost to Scotland and become an honorary Mancunian. But Lancashire’s loss has been Caledonia’s gain as his homecoming a few years back spurred a prolific output of writing that should grab the attention of anyone seriously interested in the state of Scottish poetry. If Paterson seems ubiquitous at present – on radio, TV, in pamphlets and magazines, and giving readings wherever there’s the whiff of an audience – that surely attests to his devotion, or addiction, to his calling. You get the impression he’d read from atop a bus shelter, if requested – or even if not, for the hell of it.
That imperative to get the word out permeates ‘Looking South’, the natural successor to his previous Indigo outing, ‘Border Lines’. Here, he’s produced a volume of poems that is at once a lovingly crafted exploration of his native terrain around the Sandyhills coastline, and an insightful contemplation of its relationship to the rest of the planet. The world at his muddied and sand-caked boots becomes a metaphorical compass-point; landscape, objects, flotsam, detritus and the elements are its imaginative nerve-ends. Pubs and their people – and dogs – populate the lines, or turn up like strays who can’t resist having their shout. The effect can be fantastical as Paterson’s blurs the distinction between reality, fiction and rife local rumour. In the paired poems, ‘Anthony Hopkins at Douglas Hall’ and ‘Hopkins in the Stewartry Again’, the light-touch humour and descriptive warmth is irresistible, as he imagines the great actor striding purposefully down the coastal path, “his eyes fixed on pre-history,/foreign Gaels, ferm touns, dancing,/wild nights in little inns with farm girls,/though more likely his stash of Chianti/buried under the bench of Douglas Hall”. You’d be hard put to find a poet who can evoke the particularities of his locale so compellingly for the outsider. MacCaig comes to mind for the fondness and clarity of his vision; and, a skip across the Irish Sea, John Hewitt, who understood too how names and language steeped in history and myth can register beyond their immediate familiarity (“I take my stand by the Ulster names, each clean hard name like a weathered stone”).
In ‘Migrants’, Paterson goes so far as to imbue the elements with Greek chorus character: “We’ve never been here before, claim the waves/in rows of lazy declamation”. The title metaphors contemporary human effluvia, but it is the waves as unwanted, then welcomed, travellers that gives the poem its unexpected resonance: “don’t say you all look the same to me/with your urgent jumps, your bearded headbutts/on virgin, unprotected sand”; and “Each of you’s different I say, not new/or old, each liquid curlicue itself/an evidence of journeys only ever/taken once”. In ‘Abigail’, it is the storm – already, very usefully, granted personalised feminine naming by the Met Office – that echoes human turbulence: “Good luck Abigail, give it your worst,/holler at holiday homes & darkened/caravans until your fragile lungs/are fit to burst”. You can’t help but wonder with what relish he’d tackle a storm named Stuart. In ‘News’, the local and the global converge as he considers distant ‘natural’ and unnatural human disasters, from earthquakes to sinking boats of refugees, and observes: “On Portling beach the morning tide/has left a memory of a person,/a tragi-comic skeleton perched/wistfully on the skerries looking out”. The jolt to our consciousness, or complacency, is reinforced with the skull “wide-eyed, open-mouthed/as if warning everybody in the south/of river spates, lost balance, last/ones for the road, red-lettered bills,/missed calls, inactions, life-defining sanctions”.
This is unmistakably Paterson, as surely as if he were speaking to us up close. Much is said about poets’ ‘voices’, but his has the distinctiveness of a signature (extending to his favoured use of ‘&’ instead of ‘and’), and it’s a quality that enhances the thread of intimacy to this collection. Energy moves through the poems like a voltage – the words fair tumble out and somersault down the page, always with a cadence and sonic charge that invites you to read them in a gulp. Few poets can manage that with such apparent ease. In ‘The Range of the Awful Hand’, the language cascades: “because it’s Scotland, because it all breaks/down to revelling in glorious mistakes/& promises we know will last the length/of elections, seasons, the present tense.”
In his foreword to this book, Tom Pow describes Paterson as a poet ‘of attitude’, and that’s something that seeps through these poems. The pastoral is laced with class consciousness. Geography is political. The sands, the hills and seascapes are the settings for historical incidents and events that so often echo into the present and a world we recognise from our local to international news. In ‘Margaret Wilson’s Abjuration’, he confronts the political savagery and misogyny that condemned a young Scottish Covenanter in 1685 to death by drowning while tied to a stake. The poem, for me, recalls Heaney’s ‘The Punishment’; it’s an exemplar of how a singular incident can inform a poetry that connects past to present: “Oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew wheel/& keen above the mud, the river no/longer here, the harbour disappeared,/a granite finger scratching thin, wet air/where once, briefly, Margaret Wilson’s voice/in shaky prayer abjuring gods & men/for all girls ever silenced by them”.
This is one of those rare poems that excites a sharp intake of breath. My pencilled note on the page is confined to one word, “brilliant”. Underscored. If ‘Looking South’ does not solidify Paterson’s reputation as one of the foremost contemporary Scottish poets, there’s something wrong with our collective critical faculties; though I would guess his readership is growing fast, both north and south.
– Neil Young