Year of First Publication: 2009
Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011
Number of Pages: 61
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Sub-Genres: Contemporary poetry
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I really wanted to like this book. Especially since I believed this author was going to turn out to be one of my new favorite poets. I was taken in immediately by his technical brilliance, by the way he crafts his poems and makes these awe-inspiring, mind-bending little devices out of words. By the time I reached the end, though, I wasn’t nearly so excited.
In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Don Paterson is a Scottish poet and the author of eight books of verse, of which Rain is his sixth. I first discovered him thanks to this video by BookTuber Cinzia DuBois, in which she reads his poem “Fit” out of his latest book, 40 Sonnets. You could have called it love at first sight/listen: I then began looking up Paterson’s poems elsewhere, but the Poetry Foundation and the Scottish Poetry Library will only get you so far. I bought Rain because 40 Sonnets hasn’t been published in the US at the time and I didn’t want to wait to get it from a British seller.
What first attracted me to Paterson’s work was his style and language, seeming perfectly modern without avoiding form, rhyme, meter, and all of the other devices that we usually associate with older poetry. The little bit of his work that I had read prior to this collection was enough on its own to convince me that Paterson is an absolute master of poetic form. On that point, Rain is fantastic: Paterson uses a wide range of forms in this collection, everything from sonnets to the Japanese renku, and even some less traditional forms—for instance, his poem “Unfold,” a tribute to the late Japanese origami master Akira Yoshizawa which consists of a single blank page.
There are some truly beautiful things in his book. “The Rain at Sea” never ceases to amaze me, nor does “The Lie,” “Miguel,” or “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?” “The Bowl-Maker,” a version of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, is one of my new favorite poems, and “Motive,” I’m happy to tell you, uses metaphor to explore the mystery of love in such a way as would do John Donne proud.
But . . .
While Paterson is a brilliant poet, I can’t say that I especially enjoyed Rain overall. This had mostly to do with the bleak, materialistic worldview presented in the collection.
One thing that you’ll notice very quickly is that this is a dark book: among other topics, its poems deal primarily with illness, lost love, and death. In the midst of his lamentations, you can feel Paterson straining to make sense of what seems senseless, to form an answer to the question, “Why do things like this happen?” And Paterson’s answer is there is no answer. The universe is meaningless, directionless, accidental. He summed it up more succinctly in the final lines of “Rain,” the last poem in the collection:
forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters
and none of this, none of this matters.
As you can probably guess by now, I disagree: I actually do think that there’s an order and meaning to the universe. I even believe there’s such a thing as transcendent reality. And I think the best poetry—the best art, really—reflects that reality. I’m not saying that all poets need be religious, but they do have to have something of an “impulse towards the transcendent,” as Seamus Heaney called it. Paterson, it seems, is drawn to the transcendent, or at least to the idea of transcendence, but refuses to believe it exists. In his search for meaning, he has turned up empty and only has himself and his art to fall back on. For me, these kinds of poems just aren’t enough.
So in the end, Rain was sort of a let down. It had something of what I like in poetry: perfect word choices, biting wit, stunning imagery. But the one thing it lacked just so happened to be the main thing that I go to poetry for in the first place: a conviction of some greater meaning beyond the material world, and especially beyond myself.