Don Paterson was born in Dundee in 1963. To date he has published five collections of verse: Nil Nil (1993), God's Gift to Women (1997), The Eyes (1999), Landing Light (2003) and Orpheus (2007).1 He has also written several dramatic works (including four for radio), published two books of aphorisms, essays on poetic craft, and is a prolific editor and anthologist. He is one of the most lauded poets of his generation in Britain. Robert Crawford has written: ‘[Paterson's] sudden rise to pre-eminence … is as astounding as it is justly merited. Not since the work of Hugh MacDiarmid in the 1920s has Scottish poetry felt such a remarkable surge of marvellously controlled poetic language.’2
The first poem in Nil Nil is ‘The Ferryman's Arms’.3 It begins:
About to sit down with my half-pint of Guinness
I was magnetized by a remote phosphorescence
and drawn, like a moth, to the darkened back room
where a pool-table hummed to itself in the corner.
With ten minutes to kill and the whole place deserted
I took myself on for the hell of it.
As an introduction to Paterson's work, these lines are incisive. His pages are plagued by pulls towards recesses, the subconscious and negation, often figured through a play between darkness and light. The seemingly throwaway phrase of the sixth line could stand as Paterson's motto: ‘I took myself on for the hell of it.’
The poem's speaker beats himself:
I went on to make an immaculate clearance.
A low punch with a wee dab of side, and the black
did the vanishing trick while the white stopped
before gently rolling back as if nothing had happened,
shouldering its way through the unpotted colours.