An Expansion and an Evening with Don Paterson
This past spring, Topping & Company Booksellers of St Andrews, located on Greyfriars Garden, announced the expansion of its business into the next-door vacancy. The popular book shop offers a warm atmosphere and welcomes the eager mind. Topping, unlike your average bookstore, remains open from 09:00-20:30 and extends free coffee and tea to any leisurely reader looking for a perch to peruse their favorite texts. That’s what I love about Topping, and that’s what the town loves. Topping recognises the town’s demand for the charming shop and hopes to curate an even larger space, where it can further host guest speakers, writers, poets, etc. to appease any St Andrews bookworm. To excite the local community, Topping has adverts for its next round of visiting writers posted on the window of its recently acquired location. I took notice of award-winning poet Don Paterson’s September 14th reading and made the trip.
Dundee native and University of St Andrews professor Don Paterson spoke on his most recent publication The Arctic, named for The Arctic Bar in Dundee, this past Wednesday at Topping. Paterson’s list of accomplishments includes the Eric Gregory Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize, and the Forward Poetry Prize. In St Andrews, Paterson teaches in the university’s School of English.
Paterson addressed his Topping audience down the main book-lined corridor of the shop. Students, townspeople, and family filled every seat. Paterson introduced The Arctic and committed to reading nearly all the poems in the text. What could have been a slower, sleepy forty-five minutes turned out funny, casual, and almost conversational, as Paterson spoke calmly and wove through each poem. At the opening of his recitation, Paterson warned the audience that he had little to say about each piece because he’s yet to read them widely and establish a sense of what the public needs to know about the collection. As the recitation progressed the audience learned increasingly more about each poem. Poems varied in content: stories of love and mourning, personal anecdotes and references to the death of Paterson’s late father, references to Greek mythology, and political commentaries. And more so than he anticipated, the poet made off-hand notes, carefully contextualising his work, welcoming the audience, and involving it. He spoke as though he was too exploring this collection for the first time, arriving at each poem with surprise and a subtle eagerness.
Paterson writes extensively on his father’s death and opened the recitation and his collection with ‘Repertoire’. I found this poem particularly beautiful, as Paterson alluded to his father’s relationship to live music performance.
‘He told me he could get right through a song
By forgetting his hands, and fixing on a space
Above the sea-line, so its empty plane
Could clear the garbled switchboard in his brain
Of any tune not soldered into place’
The poet memorialises his father’s mind and creates this image of clarity, one that his father resorted to, and ultimately encapsulates the musician’s own form of therapeutic reverie. Later, Paterson read ‘Test’ and described his newfound understanding of death. A short but effective poem, so fixed that it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
‘So for the record: when we die
Our hearts don’t slow like steps or clocks
But whirr like small wings in a box
Now lit up by a crack of sky’
Paterson’s ‘Letter to a Young Poet’ spoke directly to the St Andrews students in the audience. He writes:
‘We too thought our contemporaries were doing vital work’ and ends the stanza by claiming ‘we were awarded the greatest prizes for our very first books’. I enjoy the timelessness identified here, the notion that cultures and trends evolve, content shifts, but the outlooks people have on growing up are unchanging.
Paterson feared not the poetic turn to political commentary. One of the final in the
collection, ‘Spring Letter’, discusses Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine and ultimately mourns the Ukraine losses, while identifying Paterson’s more philosophical takes on war:
‘Because gods don’t wash away our sins
but out conscience. As order forms around them
we imagine that the gods like hierarchies…
But gods like two things: everything and nothing’
I haven’t read The Arctic carefully enough, or enough times, to write a review or fully form my opinion. However, I left the event especially impacted by one of Paterson’s final remarks. Writing poetry, he explained, ‘can make a logic out of your pain’. This final thought allowed me closure. The collection was not merely an assemblage of grief-stricken poems, rather a practice in remedial reason.
Topping & Company Booksellers is expanding, and that’s good news. If you’re uninterested in poetry or think the bookseller’s events irrelevant, I advise you to reconsider. I don’t practice poetry, and I hadn’t read Paterson’s work until I followed along during his September 14th reading, but his recitation and sincerity made me grateful for my copy of The Arctic and for Topping’s 2022 expansion.
Photo by Helen Lipsky