Having published The Floating World (Pig Press) and Brief Lives (Oasis Books) in the Eighties, Alasdair Paterson returned to writing with on the governing of empires (Shearsman, 2010), Brumaire and Later (Flarestack Poets), in arcadia (Oystercatcher Books) in 2011, and Elsewhere or thereabouts, (Shearsman 2014). His latest collection, My Life As A Mad King, is a wonderfully playful, energetic sequence of villanelles. The madness of the king is mirrored in the gradual break up of the villanelle’s refrains, repeated rhymes and their repetition in the final stanza. The nineteen line structure of five tercets and one quatrain remains intact until the final ‘Villanelle the ultimate and’ which consists of twenty two words. Here each word per line, apart from the elongated seventeenth line, and their repetition encapsulates the essence of villanelle. The linguistic wordplay is highly controlled and compressed with the possible variants of each set played out within a confined word field.
A pandemonium of smoke and fire
a panoply of wine and roses
a pantomime of flesh and blood
A panjandrum of cap and bells
a pantaloon of shreds and patches
a pandemonium of court and spark
Paterson has the ability to tease and freshen language, and invest his word play with precision and dry humour. This is a work of quiet authority testing a difficult form. Indeed, beyond Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath and Elizabeth Bishop’s famous examples it is hard to recall other memorable villanelles. Paterson deftly plays around with clichés and misplaces repeated lines, sometimes reduced to one word, in order to explore the boundaries of the form. His villanelles are rhythmic, ramshackle and fun, punning on rock album titles.
A banquet of greased beggars
a glass with added glass
a saucerful of secrets
A locket drenched in lachrimae
a joint spiced with jacquerie
a saucerful of sanctitas
The sequence culminates with the aged narrator losing his memory:
A man walks into an oubliette / I forget what happens next / forget what happens next / forget
And moves into the final villanelle with its chilling opening:
My Life As A Mad King is a joy to read and yet another wonderful sequence from Oystercatcher Press.
David Caddy 12th July 2016