Wave

by Don Paterson

copyright ©2015 by Don Paterson

For months I’d moved across the open water
like a wheel under its skin, a frictionless
and by then almost wholly abstract matter
with nothing in my head beyond the bliss
of my own breaking, how the long foreshore
would hear my full confession, and I’d drain
into the shale till I was filtered pure.
There was no way to tell on that bare plain
but I felt my power run down with the miles
and by the time I saw the scattered sails,
the painted front and children on the pier
I was nothing but a fold in her blue gown
and knew I was already in the clear.
I hit the beach and swept away the town.

Notes on the Poem

Don Paterson's "Wave" is unique as it brings to life in tricksterish fashion an entity we don't usually expect to see depicted quite this way. While singular, we realize that this poem from Paterson's 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection 40 Sonnets also reads well with some excellent companion pieces. In a review that delights in 40 Sonnets like a delicious box of chocolates, Kate Kellaway in The Guardian hastens to celebrate and praise this poem first:
Wave makes this explicit and is a perfect subject for a sonnet, the form a seawall. I love the unlaboured wit, gathering momentum, human appropriation of water, the moment of breaking as a “full confession” and the effortlessly achieved (although I bet it wasn’t): “I was nothing but a fold in her blue gown” – a beautiful line. And I love the acceleration at the end, the sense of completion, with the sea crashing into town like a joyrider.
Before it was even part of this collection, an earlier iteration of the poem published in the New Yorker intrigued this reader. Agreeing with our observation about the trickster quality of the poem, this reader remarks on lovely aspects of the poem that "all lull us into imagining a sunny poem, until the final line fells us." Yes indeed, this sonnet concludes with a wallop of a punchline. Just as the sea is an enduring and central source of fascination, inspiration and symbolism for many writers (here is a great examination of its powerful influence on Walt Whitman), so does it challenge artists to avoid cliché and find new ways to use and characterize it. Clearly, Paterson has done that by allowing us to get into its "head" and hear its "thoughts" firsthand as it works up to its devastating revenge. We realize this poem pairs superbly with Sue Goyette's Ocean, an entire collection / "biography" devoted to this enigmatic entity's allure.

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