‘Marginalised and Pigeonholed’: a re-evaluation of Evangeline Paterson

 
 

Matthew Stewart urges the re-evaluation of Evangeline Paterson as a major poet of her generation

 

Blurbs tend to get a justified bashing these days for their breathless praise and jargonised code, and there’s no doubt the current trend is towards their use purely as a marketing tool. However, in the past they tended to be more nuanced. In fact, browsers at bookshops often relied on them to dodge a bullet or to discover unexpected treasure. One such example is Anne Stevenson’s back-cover endorsement of Evangeline Paterson’s selected poems, Lucifer, with Angels (Dedalus Press, 1994). It reads as an excellent summary of her work and provides this essay with an ideal point of departure:

There is an exhilarating wide-openness about Evangeline Paterson’s work. Free of mannerism and self-conscious effort, her poems flow naturally and unembarrassed from a lyrical source that is not untampered by wit. Evangeline Paterson keeps her balance without sacrificing her strength of feeling. Her poems are wise, very womanly, but they are never preachy. They are perfectly clear without lapsing into cliché or sentimentality. In a juster world, her books would sell in thousands; her popularity among those who still believe poetry can be a comprehensible and entertaining art is assured.

 

The above text was, of course, written well before Evangeline Paterson’s death in 2000. However, if her poetry was somewhat side-lined during her lifetime, it’s been even more marginalised by the wider poetry community since her death, in part due to an absurd pigeonholing of Paterson as a religious poet. That’s not to say faith wasn’t a girder in the construction of her poems, but it is to clarify that many delicate, never preachy layers are present even in certain pieces that continue to be used in services and sermons to this day.

 

One such example, and perhaps her most famous poem, is ‘A Wish for my Children’. It’s still widely quoted and Gordon Brown, for instance, read from it at Damilola Taylor’s memorial service. It’s drenched in self-effacing wit, as in its closing lines:

 

...and may you grow strong
to break
all webs of my weaving.

 

In fact, in thematic terms, there’s a strong argument that Paterson’s speciality is the perceptive empathetic observation of human relations, loaded with understanding and compassion for the invisible limits we place on ourselves. The ending to ‘Incident in the High Street’ provides an excellent example:

 

…till they came to the crossing,
where Mrs. Debrett, not thinking what she did,
offered an arm (who knows to what shade
of daughter, companion on shopping sprees,
or husband, always there till sadly missed)
and Miss Delaunay, goaded by fears that had driven her
all through her frozen life to her lonely bedsit,
looked the other way

and the traffic roared, like the sea of waste that washes
around the world, quenching so many flickering
candles and spent stars, and the teashop became
a harbour beyond their wavering strength to reach.

 

The above extract is also illustrative of Paterson’s use of line and language. Her sentences flow with a natural, inevitable ease, while she encourages syntactic structures to chafe against line endings to emotional effect. Moreover, any judicious invocation of abstracts is always undercut by a juxtaposed element of physical experience, such as the teashop in this poem’s penultimate line, yet another example of her dry wit.

 

Paterson’s poems are packed with a cast of characters that come alive with a flick of her pen, such as Auntie Grace, who’s ‘unsure on her feet/but head screwed on”, or Moriarty, the publican, who ‘draws pints/all night with an arm like a lever” or Mrs Kavanagh, who’s beautifully portrayed throughout the poem ‘Leaving for the Hospital’, which concludes with one of Paterson’s most remarkable quatrains:

 

She looked once at the house in the grey light,
and looked away, and did not look again,
but oh how her thoughts and fears and wishes clung
like straw to the hedges as she went down the lane.

 
The cadence shifts delicately as the quatrain advances, accelerating in the last two lines to reflect the car’s movement away from the house. This shifting cadence, in turn, adds to the ending’s subtle yet dramatic emotional impact.
 
At this stage, it’s worth underlining the breadth of Evangeline Paterson’s geographical and historical reach. In no way should she be labelled as a parochial poet. She has excellent poems against apartheid, poems of myths and histories from a host of different countries and cultures, such as ‘Pyotr’, which shows her range in its startling opening lines…
 

I Pyotr, eight years old,
was man of the house that winter,
with father away, when little Vladya
weakened and died, mother and I watching

and I said to her ‘What shall we do now?’ ‘Come’
she said, ‘let us hurry. I want to show this
to God…’

 

And then, amid all the surprises, there’s a remarkable eco poem written long before the term had been popularised. Titled ‘Non-Biodegradable’, it begins as follows:

 

That tattered streamer of plastic, snagged
on the highest unreachable twig of hawthorn
signals distress all winter long

like the shredded flag of a shipwreck longtime
jammed in rocks. Though spring may lap it
to tenderest leaves, and murmuring summer
soothe it, it struggles and tugs to be free...

 

Page after page, Evangeline Paterson moves the reader intensely. Lucifer with Angels has accompanied me now for twenty-five years, ever since I bought the book following her encouragement to me as a young poet. She was the first magazine editor (at Other Poetry) to accept my work for a decent journal, and my gratitude soon turned to admiration.

 

Paterson not only deserves four-figure sales figures, as mentioned by Anne Stevenson (who’s an underrated figure herself), but she also merits wider critical recognition as one of the most outstanding poets of her generation At this stage of the game, the gaping absence is a Collected Poems, a chance to read all the poems from her earlier books, Bringing the Water Hyacinth to Africa (Taxus, 1983) and Lucifer at the Fair (Taxus, 1991), plus her later work, which remains uncollected and inaccessible to the reader to this day. The first question, of course, is who might publish such a book. The second question is who might buy it. Over to you…

 

Matthew Stewart

About Matthew Stewart

Matthew Stewart works in the Spanish wine trade and lives between Extremadura and West Sussex. His first full collection, The Knives of Villalejo, was published in 2017, and his second full collection is forthcoming from HappenStance Press in November 2023.