Favourite Poets: Don Paterson – The Unicorn


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The Unicorn

So true and so beautifully worded; it isn’t just the unicorn that’s being conjured to life here on the page, but everything we will into existence by wanting it to be real badly enough (if only that was something that worked all the time…)


Favourite Poets: Don Paterson – The Dead

Our business is with fruit and leaf and bloom;
though they speak with more than just the season’s tongue—
the colours that they blaze from the dark loam
all have something of the jealous tang
of the dead about them. What do we know of their part
in this, those secret brothers of the harrow,
invigorators of the soil—oiling the dirt
so liberally with their essence, their black marrow?
But here’s the question. Are the flower and fruit
held out to us in love, or merely thrust
up at us, their masters, like a fist?
Or are they the lords, asleep amongst the roots,
granting to us in their great largesse
this hybrid thing—part brute force, part mute kiss?
Another beautiful poem! (When aren’t Paterson’s poems beautiful though, even when they are brutal?) Definitely one you can read through and interpret and reflect on, as well as just appreciate the artistry of these woven words. Love, love, love.

Favourite Poets: Don Paterson – Wreck

But what lovers we were, what lovers,
even when it was all over—
the bull-black, deadweight wines that we swung
towards each other rang and rang
like bells of blood, our own great hearts.
We slung the drunk boat out of port
and watched our sober unreal life
unmoor, a continent of grief;
the candlelight strange on our faces
like the tiny silent blazes
and coruscations of its wars.
We blew them out and took the stairs
into the night for the night’s work,
stripped off in the timbered dark,
gently hooked each other on
like aqualungs, and thundered down
to mine our lovely secret wreck.
We surfaced later, breathless, back
to back, and made our way alone
up the mined beach of the dawn.
I’ve read this three times through and am still struggling to find the words to say why I love this so much. The description and metaphor use, the imagery, that sense of holding on to something that you know you have to let go but have such ties to; I suppose the thing is that this is so relatable to anyone. Beautiful.

Favourite Poet: Don Paterson – Why Do You Stay Up So Late?

I’ll tell you, if you really want to know:
remember that day you lost two years ago
at the rockpool where you sat and played the jeweler
with all those stones you’d stolen from the shore?
Most of them went dark and nothing more,
but sometimes one would blink the secret color
it had locked up somewhere in its stony sleep.
This is how you knew the ones to keep.
So I collect the dull things of the day
in which I see some possibility
but which are dead and which have the surprise
I don’t know, and I’ve no pool to help me tell—
so I look at them and look at them until
one thing makes a mirror in my eyes
then I paint it with the tear to make it bright.
This is why I sit up through the night.
This was my first introduction to Don Paterson’s work and still a firm favourite, the imagery for me is more than about just that sense of introspection or consideration of mundane things and savouring things from them that I get from this, but also of creating a picture of a solitary figure sat – by firelight, because who doesn’t love a flickering flame – thinking their day over and trying to find some good.

Favourite Poets: Wilfred Owen – Disabled

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

My final offering for my favourite poems of Wilfred Owen, and in my opinion, saving the best for last. I first read this in my grandparent’s house when I was quite young, the poem hitting me even if I didn’t quite capture all of its meaning. And then I read it again as a teenager in English class, my heart wrenching for the thought of this man sat alone and abandoned, staring out the window at the youth, the life that was once his. Knowing his sacrifice is for the eternal greater good, yet his own personal sacrifice so much greater; there will never be a time when this poem doesn’t reduce me to almost-tears (and actual ones at times). Such beautiful, sorrowful imagery.

Favourite Poets: Wilfred Owen – Anthem For Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Another beautifully performed poem here.

The hopelessness of this poem, the certainty of what is facing this youth, is heartbreaking. I think it captures such a poignant moment, it’s like we are the parents of these children watching and waving from our garden gates as they march off down the street, jubilant and excited about what they are about to do but not really understanding what it is to face. And we, having seen it happen countless times before can hope that the same fate will not fall on them, but in our hearts we’re already preparing for it. Just a beautifully sad poem.

Favourite Poets: Wilfred Owen – Smile, Smile, Smile

Head to limp head, the sunk-eyed wounded scanned
Yesterday’s Mail; the casualties (typed small)
And (large) Vast Booty from our Latest Haul.
Also, they read of Cheap Homes, not yet planned;
“For,” said the paper, “when this war is done
The men’s first instinct will be making homes.
Meanwhile their foremost need is aerodromes,
It being certain war has just begun.
Peace would do wrong to our undying dead,—
The sons we offered might regret they died
If we got nothing lasting in their stead.
We must be solidly indemnified.
Though all be worthy Victory which all bought.
We rulers sitting in this ancient spot
Would wrong our very selves if we forgot
The greatest glory will be theirs who fought,
Who kept this nation in integrity.”
Nation?—The half-limbed readers did not chafe
But smiled at one another curiously
Like secret men who know their secret safe.
(This is the thing they know and never speak,
That England one by one had fled to France
Not many elsewhere now save under France).
Pictures of these broad smiles appear each week,
And people in whose voice real feeling rings
Say: How they smile! They’re happy now, poor things.

I think that this poem is fairly timeless. Take out the mentions of the countries and this could be about any war in our history. I hear Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War every time I read this and I think the two together are so impactful; it’s all very well to command people to their possible deaths from behind the safety of a desk, to make false promises about an ‘after’ these soldiers might not get to see, but the reality of it is that so many of our veterans are all but abandoned when they return home. Mental health issues, difficulty gaining employment in civilian life, breakdown of relationships, homelessness; the list of ways we fail our soldiers feels endless.