Poetry in the Age of Superior Television Drama: A Review of Don Paterson’s Zonal

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by Don Paterson
(Faber & Faber, 2020, 64 pp. £14.99)

What does poetry do? What place does it have in the early 21st century anglophone world, this “age,” as Don Paterson puts it, “of superior television drama”? What singular function might it serve as distinct from, say, those other superior amusements of videogames, jazz, podcasts, World Cup soccer, graphic narratives, or haute cuisine? As a major stylistic departure from Paterson’s previous collections of concise, formally assured, and more generically traditional lyrics, Zonal insists readers at least recognize that such hulking ontological questions are being entertained.

Zonal sprawls in breezy, prose-like lines spanning multiple pages of speculative discourse, mulling over fantastical preoccupations with virtual reality, fatalism, time travel, alternate universes, the devil, doppelgängers, and robots. With its genre-bending metaphysics siphoned through Twilight Zone conceits, Zonal channels Wallace Stevens’s dictum “All poetry is experimental poetry” more than other recent titles by fellow New Generation poets such as Glyn Maxwell, Lavinia Greenlaw, and John Burnside. Yet the poems work. One of the briefest in the collection provides a characteristic example of the imaginative leaps, zany scenarios, hyper self-consciousness, and high-stakes humor common to the book but uncommon in contemporary poetry. Here’s the whole poem:


There are days like this when I remember I am living in a glass box
……… marked Earth creature in his own habitat
except the visitors have long gotten bored at the sight of the bald ape
……… who sits all day
scratching at a piece of paper, eating sullenly from a cereal bowl, or
……… playing his funny little twang-box
and have wandered off in search of more interesting exhibits. Last
………week I tried the door
and found it unlocked. I guess with everything falling apart, security is
………their least concern
and I can now go out if I wish, explore the burning planet, try to
………converse or breed with the weeping natives,
but to be honest I think I have become institutionalized and I am
………disinclined to wander far.

At their most piercing, the poems in Zonal cut straight to the heart of what it means, right now, to be human. “The Song of the Human” informs, eerily, the isolation so many currently face during this global pandemic. “Eerily” because the book’s publication date was March 5, 2020, meaning that all of the poems in Zonal were written before COVID-19 locked the world down. Though ostensibly about an “Earth creature” caged as an exhibit on another planet, “Song of the Human” hums with an unsettling, prophetic urgency: The world does seem to be burning, we do feel institutionalized, abandoned, weeping, hurt.

Perhaps the most painful phrase in “The Song of the Human” occurs in the middle. Given that the poem takes place in the present tense (“There are days like this”), “Last week” implies that the narrator has spent several days contemplating leaving his “glass box” without ever taking a step. “Disinclined” is equally painful. The speaker is not “unable” (which would imply physical restriction) or “unwilling” (which would imply a strong sense of free will), but “disinclined.” This Latinate modifier suggests the knowledge of choice but a hesitancy to make one, as if the narrator were waiting for a more powerful force to decide for him.

Throughout Zonal, Paterson is able to inhabit characters in such strange circumstances, dramatizing the experiences of these “natives” so convincingly, that even the most unbelievable scenario is made palpable. Paterson does this, at least partly, by bringing the details of his own life to bear on each sci-fi narrative: the “bald ape” writing, slurping cereal milk, playing guitar. In fact, it’s only through these narratives of extremity that it seems possible for Paterson to access certain aspects of his own life. In this sense, the poems wobble along the tightrope of Eliot’s impersonality and Lowell’s confessions, flirting with both without committing to either.

Maybe the more relevant question to ask is “How do we know this book is poetry?” One of the most reliable, if idiosyncratic, gauges comes from Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” What does poetry do for the 21st century reader? For one, it presents us with the opportunity to embody, envision, imagine, explore, contain, and otherwise deal with the more complicated aspects of contemporary experience, and it does so in such a way as to establish an intimate and mutually dependent relationship between writer and reader. Without either, neither exists.

While Zonal never posits any definitive answers, the book drops several hints. We find the first in the epigraph, a sentence by Argentinian writer Antonio Porchia, whose entire literary output consists of a single, slim volume of poetic aphorisms, Voices (1943), which Paterson has mined for the epigraphs of several previous books. W. S. Merwin translates the sentence as follows: “The sun illuminates the night, it does not turn it into light.” Given the privileged position that this sentence occupies in Paterson’s book, which concerns itself primarily with “death, doubles, and the void,” Porchia’s line suggests certain actualities: 1) The best that poetry can hope for is illumination of the phenomena of the physical world, including human emotion. 2) Poetry is not magic, it is not divine; it cannot create light, only shed light upon what has been previously ignored, overlooked, obscured. 3) The illumination of poetry is ephemeral, but so is the “night” which obscures its concerns. In other words, as long as we retain access to the guiding light of poetry, and provided that we can be clear-eyed about what poetry is, we may follow it to wherever it may lead.

The next, more substantial hint comes from Longfellow’s poem “The Arrow and the Song,” which Paterson uses as a kind of proem for Zonal. Here it is in its italicized entirety:

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where; 
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight. 

I breathed a song into the air, 
It fell to earth, I knew not where; 
For who has sight so keen and strong, 
That it can follow the flight of song? 

Long, long afterward, in an oak
I found the song there, still unbroke; 
And the arrow, from beginning to end, 
I found again in the heart of a friend. 

Written in quatrains of iambic-tetrameter couplets (with a nod to the “song” of the ballad stanza), composed almost entirely of monosyllabic words with Germanic roots, and employing two instances of antique syntax (“I knew not where”), this lyric parable, originally published in Longfellow’s 1846 The Belfry of Bruges, could’ve been written anytime within the last three centuries. Or, given the historical division since the 1765 publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry between oral and literary ballads, “sung” might be the more operative verb. (Before Percy’s Reliques, ballads had rarely been collected in print, but were literally sung on the streets and in the countryside to musical accompaniment by and for an illiterate or semi-literate population.) At any rate, Longfellow’s poem draws a distinction, albeit subtle, between arrow and song. Both phenomena travel through the air via human agency, both fall, and neither can be seen for very long; the archer or singer cannot know where either ends up, what either does or does not do after it leaves his/her sight, or cannot know until “long after” the event of shooting or breathing or singing has occurred.

This brings to mind an essay by Joseph Brodsky in which the exiled poet affirms: “Art, generally speaking, always comes into being as a result of an action directed outward, sideways, toward the attainment (comprehension) of an object having no immediate relationship to art.” “The Arrow and the Song” enacts this impulse “directed outward” parabolically. Given the poem’s provenance as pseudo-ballad, “song” here has an obvious connotation with lyric; the poet doesn’t know if the poem will live on “unbroken” in the minds of readers. Arrow and song, though differentiated in terms of their final effect (one lodges in a tree, one in the “heart of a friend”), are also linked, both grammatically and figuratively: The first two stanzas follow a parallel syntactical structure (“I shot . . . into the air,” “I breathed . . . into the air”); and the arrow either kills or ends up being learned by heart “from beginning to end.”

Read this way, the Longfellow proem resembles Chaucer’s envoi to Troilus and Criseyde (“Go, litel book, go litel myn tregedie”). As Chaucer’s poem serves not only as an adieu but as a prayer that the text of Troilus is not corrupted by errors of print, the Longfellow poem shoots the arrow of Paterson’s own “litel book” heavenward before it falls again to earth, disseminating to whomever and wherever it may. Though this poem, recontextualized in Zonal, serves as prologue, and Chaucer’s poem serves as epilogue, both poems can be read as invocations. Paradoxically, though, the “song,” which Paterson uses as a kind of invitation to learn by heart the much longer and looser poems that follow, is—with its brevity, meter, and rhyme—the most easily memorized text in the book.

Yet “The Arrow and the Song,” which appears unattributed in Zonal, wasn’t written by Paterson. This intertextual pilfering isn’t an accident. Like Chaucer’s Troilus, which borrows from the source text Il Filostrato by Boccaccio (1338), Paterson’s Zonal borrows from the first season of The Twilight Zone (1959-1960), particularly the episodes written by Rod Sterling (the guy who voice-overs, before each episode, “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man”). But Paterson’s borrowings are much more oblique than Chaucer’s. As Paterson writes in the prefatory note to Zonal, the poems “sit from [The Twilight Zone] at such various and odd angles, moves and distances: for those familiar with the originals, some will be obvious or easily guessed, while others will seem wholly unrelated.” The only explicit reference to the show, however, occurs in “Feeling Things,” which begins with a summary of episode nineteen in which a WWII Army lieutenant can foresee which of his men will die next. We encounter a similar allusion in “The Lonely,” which borrows the title and premise of episode seven, both texts concerning men of the future who have been given female robots to keep them company. The first line of the Longfellow poem, too, was used as the title of episode fifteen, “I Shot an Arrow into the Air.” Otherwise, the Twilight Zone referents stay fairly hidden, serving as more launching pads than archetypes.

The poems in Zonal might best be classified as speculative experiments within the meditative mode by way of what Paterson calls “science-fictional or fantastic autobiography and monologue.” These are poems that embody the mind thinking about the mind thinking. At least, that seems to be Paterson’s intent: to present a record of the poet considering a subject, reconsidering, disagreeing with himself (sometimes to the point that the existence of the self and the poem is called into question), disparaging one thought, hijacking another, circling back to an original premise considered afresh or moving on to something else entirely—all in the service of the poetic act of discovery, of learning and saying something new about a subject, even if that subject is language itself.

Yet these meditations (a mode that has its origins in spiritual practice) have been scrubbed clean of any residual smears of devotional zeal, a quality that unites Paterson with his contemporaries, poets writing meditative poems during a time and in a civilization largely bereft of belief. What replaces belief? Obsession. Some of Paterson’s include language, imagination, humor, work, sex, television, poetry, diatonic arpeggios, American billiards, and non-alcoholic beer. One gets the feeling, though, that Paterson would chuckle or even wince at such a question, the way he might yawn at Stevens’s assertion “God and the imagination are one.” More apropos to Paterson’s aesthetic would be a recalibration such as “The imagination made God” or, since the death of God is nothing more than another myth about God, the way Modernism’s attempt to supersede Romanticism became a continuation of Romanticism, “The imagination is God.” That proclamation, though, sounds too tidy, too safe, for a poet who reminds us in The Poem: Lyric, Sign, Metre (2018) that “the physical law on which this universe is founded is a rebarbative, amoral, murderous enormity.”

However true this statement might be, Paterson’s existential nihilism doesn’t prevent him from entertaining certain conceits associated with belief. Consider the structure of Zonal. Playfully, the book begins with “Death” and ends with “Lazarus,” implying that what we encounter between death and rebirth is a foray into some inscrutable, dreamlike zone (void, sure, but with at least the possibility of parole). “Death,” the poem, is a tragi-comic narrative in which a menswear salesman tries to bribe Death by offering to replace Death’s shabby duds with the finest and most fashionable “kit.” (Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work out so well for the salesman.) “Lazarus,” on the other hand, presents an apocryphal tale in which the titular character uses his rebirth to transform from “a shifty git” to “a decent and honorable man,” albeit reluctantly and only at the behest of his wife who points out what a unique opportunity Lazarus really has. “It was true,” Paterson muses, “what kind of a gift was rebirth into the same person?”

Zonal is packed with such unlikely, uncomfortable, and hilarious insights. One highlight is Paterson’s pithy description of a hangover in, appropriately, “The Old White Male Poet: an Allegory”: “my mouth a scrub fire and my head a barn door a sugar mule was trying to kick off its hinges.” Another, from “You Guys,” a cutting takedown of a fictionalized literary nemesis (“the minor English poet Alan Jacket”), reverberates with more disquieting implications:

Monsterisation—the hideous caricaturing of the other—often receives
………its clearest expression
when its subject differs from us not in kind but in degree …
which is to say we use our very kinship to hate someone with whom we
………closely identify;
thus they become a highly efficient means of externalizing our self-
………loathing, as well as the fear on which it is founded.

In spite of the witty, joking-in-the-face-of-the-void, gallows humor Paterson employs throughout the book, this passage reveals the utter seriousness of Zonal. As in “You Guys,” whenever the poems lapse into cultural criticism or pastiche, Paterson almost always polishes the “hideous caricature” into a surface shiny enough to reflect his own image. By doing so, the poet achieves a kind of credibility that finger-pointing never could, and invites readers to peer into the glass to see ourselves.

One of the more subversive poems, “A Crucifix,” refers to a figurine of Christ as “a poor wee gobshite falling off his stick.” But the poem quickly shifts from class-clown blaspheming to genuine sympathy for the bloody, human pathos of Christ’s Passion: “I was gluing your old crucifix back together . . . holding the cross in one hand, / Jesus in the other, and thinking, absently: why the fuck am I sticking him back on.” This kind of leap in sensibility, which no doubt results from a condition of Paterson’s mind (the compulsion to examine a subject from multiple angles), becomes not only one of Zonal’s most astonishing accomplishments but it also determines how the poems move: associatively, one insight bubbling up from the next. “A Crucifix” continues:

because although I did not believe in him, I believed in his right
to believe what he wished of himself, in the right of any man or woman
……… to make their own meaning
in a universe that has none beyond that which our conscious minds
……… supply.

In his essay “Narrative Beauty,” Mark Jarman observes, “As lyric beauty is in the singing, narrative beauty is in the telling.” The discursive-narrative strategies of poems like “A Crucifix,” which tells what other poems might show, raises an important question about the limitations of genre. Suppose there is a poetry spectrum that runs between, on the left, Valéry’s “La Poésie pure” (pure lyric, pure song) and, on the right, a political speech or advertisement, a rhetorical message delivered in prose using certain poetic techniques and designed to persuade an audience (Churchill’s 1940 “We shall fight on the beaches” address to the House of Commons, for example, which leans heavily on anaphora). If a poem abandons most formal conventions associated with the lyric poems of, say, Longfellow (brevity, sonority, compression, meter, rhyme), adopting instead conventions normally associated with prose (length, discursiveness, narrative, prosy lines akin to Simon Armitage in Seeing Stars or C.K. Williams in Flesh and Blood), at what point does the poem shirk or surpass the generic designation of “poem”? Does such a question matter? Should it matter?

It sounds like a dodge, but I would answer, “Yes, if it matters to the poet.” For an artist as restless as Paterson, the question of genre must matter, if only as a force to press against, to see how far the classification of “poem” can bend before it breaks.

Describing the uses of metonymy in The Poem, Paterson writes: “It is through this quiet pursuit of the half-said thing that the reader enters into a state of co-authorship—and what makes poetry a more interactive art form than just about every other, bar the videogame.” Videogames have users, TV dramas viewers, and poems readers. Surely readers and gamers are among the least passive participants, to such an extent that “audience” doesn’t seem like a misnomer. In Zonal, Paterson proves this again and again by asking us to entertain oddball conceits, imagine alternate realities, and inhabit strange worlds. Considering how fully Paterson embodies these worlds (the devil, for example, participating in “recreational torture”), each poem makes the task of co-authorship a unique pleasure, allowing us to create these worlds for ourselves, an activity by which we enlarge our own sensibilities. This level of interactivity feels more necessary now than it has in a good long while. Read Zonal. It will make your head explode.