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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 272, Volume 49 Number 6, July - August 2023.

Cover of The Arctic
Hugh FoleyDon Paterson, The Arctic (Faber) £14.99
Satisfying the Ape

Don Paterson has had things figured out for a while now. In The Arctic, his seventh collection of original poems, if you manage to fiddle with the zoom on your phone camera, you’ll find in the tiny-font concrete poem, ‘Dot’, a self-ironisingly technical-sounding philosophical statement on the ‘arrogation of extrinsic purpose’ by ‘mind’, and the future of machine consciousness which fits quite neatly into the kinds of things he says in his formidable 2018 treatise, The Poem. But really, the pith of his system seems to be pretty much the same as it was when he wrote Nil Nil: the universe is indifferent and cold. Death gives structure to time and our experience. ‘Meaning’ in the universe is a kind of delusion borne of our pattern-making ape brains. Even acts of interpersonal miscommunication repeat the pattern of desperate, death-denying pattern seeking. Poems exploit our urge to find a source of meaning outside of ourselves, and for this reason should be tightly patterned, orderly things from which the bottom drops out, an ultimately arbitrary way of satisfying the ape while giving you a glimpse of the real, profound nothingness.

By now, Paterson’s cold, indifferent universe is familiar enough to feel cosy. The Arctic takes its title from a bar in Dundee where the speaker of ‘The Alexandrian Library’, his ongoing mini-epic, hangs out to await the end of the world by nuclear holocaust. It’s a good joke; the arctic is a nice warm stand-in for the Patersonian absolute zero.

And so the new book continues as he ...


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