A Watchful Astronomy: Paul Deaton, Seren
Born in London and raised in Wales, Paul Deaton’s debut collection is as much about family as it is about nature. A difficult father-son relationship is at the heart of much of what he writes about. The figure of his deceased father is present in the Welsh landscape, the unrelenting rough weather and the all-too-brief dialogue. The father is the “Black Knight” in a series of sombre poems that come from a dark place. Deaton writes about this relationship with restraint. There is no bitter invective. Emotion is held in check. This is especially evident in the poem ‘Glass’ where he speaks of his father’s unbending nature and death. The single line “Yes, we wept” is followed by an epiphany:
I think now, if we can’t change
we can’t live, if our stones won’t crack,
we’ll never reveal the mineral elegance
of our best most colourful parts.
As the title suggests, these poems have an eye on the sky and an eye on the ground. In the title poem that opens the collection, Deaton observes that “Giant Jupiter, up there, [is] the same size as the stone in your shoe.” Mention is made of The Big Bang which is “louder than an April thunderclap”, of planets, meteors, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena but one senses that the father is also present in the “black horizons; mulish rough weather, April squalls; grass that gives way to weeds”. Deaton is a realist. The economy with which he combines his themes is exemplified in these lines from ‘Spring Tide’:
Life learns its quiet phases.
We draw close and then, it seems,
with no power of our own
pull apart. Find new orbits.
In a similar vein, meteorology and family relationships are conjoined in these lines from ‘Spring’: "Winter was bitter cold; / five months that had us by the throat, / five months in our house that were bone lonely."
The words “dark” and “night” appear frequently throughout the collection. There is a danger that this can be overdone and there are moments when the reader longs to escape from the grey end walls of these poems, the dark Welsh slate.
In other poems there are fine descriptions of a red brick farm, Brunel’s bridge at dusk, the play of moonlight over a courtyard and woods in winter. In the opening lines to ‘Fallen Night’ Deaton is not very far removed from Hughes in his forceful depictions of the wind:
All night the winds strike the sides
of the come-on-then-I-can-take-it house.
The sash windows struggle and strive
like live bait, wanting to break free from their frames.
The nature poems are keenly observed. Their strength lies in the fact that Deaton uses them as metaphors for the human condition. Nature is to be wrestled with, it is something that we pitch ourselves against. It is not merely celebrated for its own sake.
Paul Deaton is a prize-winning poet, and his poems have been published in journals with well-established reputations. The present collection comes with a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.