POETRY: 40 Sonnets by Don Paterson

From the 2015 Costa Poetry Award shortlist. Also a 2015 T.S. Eliot Prize nominee.

This is Scottish poet Don Paterson’s seventh collection, and not the first time he’s turned to sonnets. He has edited an anthology entitled 101 Sonnets, and also written a critical work called Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

All but one of the poems in this new book have the sonnet’s traditional 14 lines; “The Version,” right in the middle of the book, is a short prose story about writing an untranslatable poem. However, even in the more conventional verses, there is a wide variety of both subject matter and rhyme scheme. There is a fairly standard abab type of pattern to some rhymes; other times there are seven rhyming couplets; sometimes the lines don’t rhyme at all. When they do, they are often slant or half-rhymes.

Topics range from love and death to a phishing phone call and a footpath blocked off by Dundee City Council. Two of the most interesting poems are all about the jolting sounds. “At the Party,” in Scots dialect and with only word or syllable per line, is full of hard consonants. “Séance,” likewise, repeats the same few consonant sounds over and over, softened by the sibilance of S. “Speke,” it begins, but every utterance thereafter is a strangled, garbled approximation of those letters rather than a proper word.

A few of my favourites are “A Powercut,” set in a frozen lift – “this blackout, this airlock, this voiceless stop”; “Seven Questions about the Journey,” an eerie call-and-response poem that perhaps echoes the four questions Jews ask at a Passover meal (“Is it too late to call? Is there still time to confess? / –The moment’s passed”); and “Mercies,” a sweet elegy to an old dog put to sleep – this one reminded me of Mark Doty.

There weren’t quite enough stand-outs here for my liking, but I appreciated the book as a showcase for just how divergent in form sonnets can be.

Rebecca Foster
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40 Sonnets by Don Paterson
9780571310890|Faber & Faber

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