Auden once compared weather to poetry, in that each makes nothing happen – except the other, as today’s poem attests. My own mixed feelings about the glorious British summer might be apparent from how much of the last week I’ve spent thinking about Don Paterson‘s ‘Rain’; a show-piece for its author’s natural fluidity, turned here to demonstrating literature’s powers of absolution.
by Don Paterson
I love all films that start with rain:
rain, braiding a windowpane
or darkening a hung-out dress
or streaming down her upturned face;
one long thundering downpour
right through the empty script and score
before the act, before the blame,
before the lens pulls through the frame
to where the woman sits alone
beside a silent telephone
or the dress lies ruined on the grass
or the girl walks off the overpass,
and all things flow out from that source
along their fatal watercourse.
However bad or overlong
such a film can do no wrong,
so when his native twang shows through
or when the boom dips into view
or when her speech starts to betray
its adaptation from the play,
I think to when we opened cold
on a rain-dark gutter, running gold
with the neon of a drugstore sign,
and I’d read into its blazing line:
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.
Paterson’s ‘love’ for an element so physically present, and yet so transient, can be so generous because it is generic. ‘All films’; ‘all things’; ‘all was washed clean’ – the lens is deliberately wide enough that, like the ‘one long thundering downpour’ which soundtracks the poem, it can take in any number of particular works. Indeed, the poem is unwilling to allow us to identify and individualise each filmic reference: ‘the girl’, ‘the dress’, ‘her upturned face’, like many of Auden’s figures, have a definite article but a wholly indeterminate context. We can see this in what Paterson doesn’t write – ‘his Scottish twang’, ‘his Northern twang’, would fit as neatly (for example) with the poem’s chatty rhythms as the ‘native twang’ which actually features. Like the rain itself, the writing works by eroding all specifics.
We could, if we wished, attempt to reconstruct a narrative – not one film, but a type of film. As in Bill Manhire’s ‘An Inspector Calls‘, the figures share a certain iconography. They are mostly female – women and girls with ‘streaming’ faces, ‘ruined’ dresses which ‘darken’ before a ‘fatal’ outcome. Set alongside the references to ‘the act’, ‘the blame’, what seems like a suicidal leap, and ‘the milk, the blood’ as fluids with a history of gendered imagery, we might be looking at a tale of a woman abandoned by her lover, a classic-Hollywood tragedy of sex and violence.
If so, however, the poem keeps the attendant emotions firmly at bay; the baptismal, Biblical purification of the final flood is the ultimate triumph of form over content. What seems most important about such films is that their script and score are ’empty’ – mere shells, forgettable repositories for the weather which precedes and pervades them. With ‘forget the ink’, the poem takes its own step towards emptiness, a gesture at its own erasure.
Its formal devices mimic the subject’s continuous stream: it’s a series of steady quatrains, all but two lines of which (‘dress’/’face’) fall into full-rhymed couplets. The series of four ‘-ing’ words – ‘braiding’ … ‘thundering’ which begin the poem plunge us into a world of uncompleted motion, in which more than half the lines run on over the breaks, connected by the simplest conjunctions (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘so’). Punctuation scarcely allowed to impede the downward flow of text, but the first full stop divides ‘Rain’ into two sentences which are nearly perfectly matched – without the final line, they would form two connected sonnets.
But they don’t. Having started with ‘all films’, the poem concludes that ‘none of this matters’, and the isolation of the final line prolongs it, like its subject, beyond its own closed world. The reader has already gone from ‘I’ to ‘we’, but the obliterating collective power of the ‘flood’ seems to be such that the individual, and the poem, are now subsumed completely. Paterson chooses to place ‘Rain’ last, both in the collection to which it gives its name (published by Faber), and his entire Selected Poems. Whatever you make of the rest of the book, it’s a bold closing gambit.