I don’t understand poetry. But I’m not sure I know what I mean by the word understand. Poetry doesn’t get me anywhere. I never feel as if I’ve learnt something that I didn’t know before, although I wonder what I mean by know. Sometimes a feeling is captured and held there and for a few seconds at least you think you know what it means. This isn’t to suggest that the poet meant the same things. The poet can only do so much. Yet Paterson’s Rain exists in a class of poetry that does everything for me. I find it intellectually interesting but it has an emotional, almost physiological impact, it gets me in the gut.
‘We come from nothing and return to it’ is the first line of Phantom V. It’s not a particularly illuminating nor original thought and Paterson puts it quite baldly: but this thought is threaded through other poems in this collection with far more nuance and subtlety – and when his own children are the subject matter, the poetry becomes fragile, beautiful and permeated with aching grief. In The Circle Paterson’s son struggles to paint a picture, but at the same time his water jar captures an echo of the universe. In placing the child in such a vast cosmography, his efforts are simultaneously futile and colossal. The Swing touches on a similar theme – the moment of a child’s existence between two eternities:
I gave the empty seat a push
and nothing made a sound
and swung between two skies to brush
her feet upon the ground.
I’ve never read anything so gracefully poignant. My favourite poem of the collection (The Rain at Sea) I am not close to understanding: its power is its mystery.