A swirling, sparkling stew of philosophical musings and bons mots
THE FALL AT HOME Don Paterson (Faber, £16.99)
Iread here that I write something called ‘pastiche aphorisms’. In the land of the terminally ironised, one can no more prove one’s sincerity than the inmate of an asylum his soundness of mind.” Don Paterson makes it clear that his aphorisms are not parodies but the real thing: clever, concise statements intended to convey a general truth. It’s a sideline that the Dundee-born poet has kept up alongside his award-winning poetry since 2005, and the one quoted above is an example of the hundreds contained in The Fall At Home, which generously includes his previous two collections, The Book Of Shadows and The Blind Eye, as a bonus. Paterson stresses that these “sudden momentary convictions” don’t need to be statements of lasting truth (maybe that’s why some have mistaken them for pastiche). If they’re believed for as long as it takes to write them down, that’s enough.
Without any apparent order or scheme in play, there’s no telling what one will stumble across next. Amidst sardonic observations and a few good jokes, we find musings of a philosophical or spiritual nature, reflections on ageing, the thoughts that pass through a writer’s mind as they’re working. Some might be based on memories of old friends or ideas that never developed into finished poems. Just as many are gnomic, contentious or just plain irritating. On the same page as a genuine epiphany, one can come across a flippant passing fancy or a maxim that doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny.
Paterson will always be a poet first and foremost, but this swirling stew of spontaneous thoughts offers an unguarded view of the workings of his brain in all its complex glory, laying bare the flashes of insight, whims, heresies and the conflicting and contradictory sides of his nature that are just as authentically him as any carefully-honed
sonnet. With no obligation to reflect more than the truth of a single moment, he’s free to put thoughts on paper that, in the more sustained and concentrated effort of writing a poem, might never have surfaced.
The aphorism indelibly associated with the likes of Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and George Bernard Shaw, longgone well-heeled wits sprinkling bons mots effortlessly, if self-consciously, into uplifting after-dinner conversation. To devote a book to them in this day and age might seem like the kind of folly that only the Reader’s Digest would contemplate. And yet, putting it aside for a few minutes to check Twitter, I’m confronted with a tweet from Limmy – “Just think, animal actors don’t know they’re animal actors. The dog that played Lassie, the pig that played Babe, none of them. No idea.” – which could have been slipped into Paterson’s book with no-one being any the wiser.
The aphorism may not be a thing of the past at all, but a form that’s only now found its true medium, the soul of wit guarded by a 280-character limit.