for Douanier Rousseau
the fishermen are patient
their lines settle in clear water
their wide-brimmed hats
will keep off
on the boulevards meantime
carriages come and go
doctors to quiet basements
and children to circuses
music masters to doleful violins
and lovers to strange ceremonies
of whalebone and gardenias
the fishermen are unimpressed
over clear water
where the rod’s end dances
the world is almost
and everything that matters
about to happen
first published in Poems for Douanier Rousseau, (Glasshouse Press, 1975)
“The years are not always kind to your poems, especially if you’ve been writing as long as I have. The newer ones tend to be the favourites, poems nearer to who and where you are now, to what accommodation you’ve reached with the language. They may also be the ones whose faults you’re most blind to. The one I’ve chosen, though, is one of my oldest. It was written in 1974, in Liverpool, not so long after I’d started writing poetry with the encouragement of Ann, an artist who was to be my wife, and in the context of the rich poetry scene in that city and my excitement in beginning to read widely and try things out.
“I got very interested in the work of the French outsider artist Henri Rousseau, called Le Douanier after his day job as a customs man in early 20th century Paris. Rousseau specialised in imaginative scenes such as tropical rainforests, inspired by visits to the Jardin des Plantes, exotic visions interspersed with paintings of Parisian life. So among the chaise longue in the jungle, the flute-player by the Amazon and the sleeper on the desert sand menaced by a lion, there are scenes such as this: fishermen in the suburbs by the Seine.
“I’d noticed then what remains true for me now, that sitting with an idea and a piece of paper (I still use notebooks) takes you into a space that’s neither quite the present or the future, a place ‘where the rod’s end dances’. Not too long launched into the world of 9-5 work, I identified with these (presumably weekend) fishermen, just as I did with the Sunday painter Rousseau. What is described and how it’s described was meant to express something of this moment of creative focus and expectation, something too of Rousseau’s life and times and ‘naïve’ eye, but it also amounted to a tentative piecing together of my own first style. More influential than anyone on the latter was the French poet and champion of Rousseau, Guillaume Apollinaire.
“The poem was part of a batch that won an Eric Gregory award in 1975 and was published in my first pamphlet Poems for Douanier Rousseau (Glasshouse Press). Later it was anthologized in a few places, such as Roger McGough’s Strictly Private (Kestrel, 1982) and most recently in Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving Poems (Bloodaxe, 2015). In one collection it was printed (unknown to me) without the lovers and their strange ceremonies, presumably in case these frightened the horses. Somewhere along the line it lost its dedication to Rousseau, which is now restored. It’s had an interesting life out there but the poem still seems fresh, written by someone I sometimes wonder about. It prefaced many things, in writing and in life, wonderful things and sad things. And when my artist daughter had her first exhibition of her work, she called it Everything that matters is just about to happen.”
Alasdair Paterson’s most recent collections are Elsewhere Or Thereabouts (Shearsman Books 2014), Silent Years (Flarestack Poets 2017) and My My My Life (Shearsman Books 2021). Born in Edinburgh, he began writing in Liverpool in the 1970s, later taking a 20 year sabbatical from poetry before starting to write again after retiring from university life. He lives in Exeter, where he organizes and presents the monthly Uncut Poets reading series.