Sometimes, in autumn, the doors between the days
Fall open; in any other season
This would be a dangerous mediumship
Though now there is just a small exchange of air
As from one room to another. A street
Becomes a faint biography: you walk
Through a breath of sweetpea, pipesmoke, an old perfume.
But one morning, the voices carry from everywhere:
from the first door and the last, two whirling draughts
zero in with such unholy dispatch
you do not scorch the sheets, or wake your wife.
In the ordinary course of things a vehicle moves forward and the air around it stands still. In a wind tunnel the usual paradigm is reversed - the air moves and the vehicle stands still. As the title of Don Paterson’s poem is “Wind Tunnel” I suppose we might begin with this idea in an attempt to unpack the piece. In the first verse the narrator envisions ‘you’ the reader walking. You move through the air, which carries a series of smells. In the second verse ‘you’ are stationary, apparently in bed, and suddenly exposed to two ‘whirling draughts.’ So we know the title is justified, even if we don’t know exactly what it means. It’s the paradigm shift, brought about, one suspects, by the opening of ‘the doors between the days’ that holds the key to what is actually going on here.
Sometimes, in autumn, Paterson claims, the doors between the days fall open. Why, one wonders, in autumn. The poem itself provides no clues, but as it’s a poem and not a loose baggy bit of prose everything in it must be relevant, must carry its share of the author’s intention. ‘You,’ the reader, could make a guess at the significance of the season. Something about the word play between autumn and fall, and the fact that “Sometimes, at the vernal equinox, the doors between the days spring open,” just doesn’t strike the right elegiac tone. You could leave it at that and you’d finish reading the work with a satisfactory sense of what the guy was going on about. Or, you could trawl through your brain trying to come up with connections from folklore or mysticism, or religion. You could put a few word combinations into your search engine. In this case you probably wouldn’t come up with much. Or you could read more of the poet’s work, on the assumption that there were thematic links of some sort in his oeuvre, or that minds tend to run in ruts.
If you did you’d find he was much taken with Dante in the collection following the one you were reading, and you might remember, or discover, Dante’s “Autumn Song” where he gives his take on the emotional weight of the season. “Do you not know at the fall of the leaf/how the heart feels a languid grief.../and how sleep seems a taking thing.../and how the swift beat of the brain/ falters because it is in vain.../ and how the chief/ of joys seems – not to suffer pain?..../ and how the soul feels like a dried sheaf/ bound up for harvesting. And how death seems a lovely thing... In a poem called “Waking With Russell” which appeared in this next collection, Paterson writes, “Dear son, I was mezzo del cammin/ And the true path was as lost to me as ever.” The Italian is from Dante’s Inferno. “Midway on our life's journey, I found myself /In dark woods, the right road lost,” and suggests that there is a safe connection to be made between the season of the poem’s setting and a spiritual, if not crisis, at least stalemate, of long duration.
Did Paterson actually have such an association in mind when he wrote the poem. Who knows? Perhaps not even Paterson himself. For the reader the association supplies, not the key to all mythologies but a form of acoustic resonance, the poem absorbing more energy and resonating with more force and subtlety when other, sympathetic frequencies are sounded with it. A poem reverberates according to the play of the reader's mind, the way a bodhran responds to the play of the hand under its skin.
“In any other season this would be a dangerous mediumship.” The term ‘mediumship, inserted as an almost casual warning, is freighted here. It suggests that sometimes the opening of the doors leaves ‘you’ open as well, to voices from another realm, spirits, or demons, or other immaterial things with knowledge beyond the commonplace, that they want to share, using you as their spokesperson. As soon as the idea is introduced however it’s as good as dismissed. We’re assured that now, at this time of year, the opening of the doors is safe. The narrator is not quite reliable though. He says the opening of the doors will result in nothing but a small exchange of air, ‘as from one room to another’ but in the next line you find yourself out in the street. The moving air wafts you into a dreamlike, almost Proustian moment, back through your life on a series of evocative smells. It is the messenger Peter speaks of in “Mairi’s Valentine,” passing “a note right under your nose,” and allowing a glimpse of “the real ahead.”
What are these doors then, and what is their significance? That they are liminal spaces is obvious at first glance, the threshold between wakefulness and sleep, the altered consciousness of a dream state, ambiguous and indeterminate ‘not here’ and yet ‘not there’ places. Paterson suggests what it is that lies across the threshold in a comment in The Book of Shadows. “The realm of the infinite states, those ineffable, discrete, impossibly various moods of my childhood, I neglected to cultivate simply because I could not apprehend them in language. I wander in, occasionally, through the usual open doors – the edge of consciousness, the sense of smell.... The spell of music can sometimes raise them. But if I could make just one reproducible – even the bleakest and most melancholy – its quality of the eternal would make for a richer life than the one I endure.” Tellingly he refers to the means of access to these states as “the usual open doors.”
In the second, shorter verse, the previously dismissed danger involved in this channelling is made apparent. It may be safe enough in autumn, but presumably time has passed without you noticing and one day, instead of a harmless exchange of air you find yourself inundated by voices “from everywhere.” From the first door and the last,” a phrase reminiscent of the biblical “I am the first and I am the last” usher “two whirling draughts.” In a description of the four lives or stages of life of the poet Paterson compares the poem to a building, first a house and then a tiny fane, or temple, with doors capable of shutting the poet out, or of opening again, at a later stage, to let him in again. “Now he must pass through that dead zone most poets enter in midlife. By now thoroughly suspicious of the entire enterprise, he leaves the tiny house of the poem to inspect the facade, and learn something of the architectural mysteries he once had no desire to penetrate, such was his dumb faith in their ability to shelter him. .. It looks like a tiny fane to a banished god, he thinks to himself, fatally, as the door shuts in his face.” This opening and shutting of doors has to do, I believe, with a conflation of the spiritual and the poetic, the house of poetry with the house of God, and signals, as in the nineteenth psalm, an ushering in of the spirit – “be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in” – and the draughts seem to be something akin to the sound like a mighty wind that descended on the disciples at Pentecost, allowing them to speak to everyone in the world in his or her own language, despite the “unholy dispatch” with which they zero in. Dante’s angel also arrives in a sound like a howling wind that "strikes against the forest without let." (Inferno, IX, 69-72). The final line qualifies the unholy dispatch. Whatever the message is it is so urgent that you do not “scorch the sheets.” That is, you don’t indulge in any of your perhaps usual early morning sexual recreations. But why not?
The sexual act, for Paterson, is a way out. He says, in The Book of shadows, “There were times, moving slowly inside her in the dark, when I would pause, and realise I was not there. Only the movement again restored some flicker of allegiance to the here-and-now from which we had all but been all but exempted.” The mediumship allowed by the opening of the doors then, has put him in touch with something of such import that the poet narrator can’t risk an activity he knows will take him out of either himself or the time and place of the revelation. Paterson has spoken of poetry as “a private transaction between the author and God,” and Wind Tunnel seems to be explaining, insofar as such a thing could be explained, the mechanics of the interaction.
I was perfectly content to leave the interpretation of this final line there until Joseph Duemer, a fellow writer on this blog, said - “I'm sort of sorry to learn that "scorch the sheets" is a slangy phrase for sex. I had in mind something closer to that cold pentecostal fire you mention earlier having simply consumed the poet without even waking his wife.” – and I realised that he was absolutely right. The phrase “scorch the sheets” certainly refers to the sexual act and I think Paterson means the reader’s mind to turn that way, however, the grammar of the second half of the line – “you do not scorch the sheets, or wake your wife” – belies the obvious interpretation. “Scorch the sheets” has no onanistic secondary meaning that I know of. It seems to refer exclusively to super heated activity between consenting adults and, one would assume, would require waking one’s partner. So that “or” applies the brakes and necessitates a rethink in mid line. Acts 2; 1-4 makes it clear that after the sound of a mighty wind filled the house the disciples saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and “it sat upon each of them. And they were filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” It all seems like a fair description of a poetic epiphany, reinforcing Paterson's comment about a private transaction between the poet and God.
Are all, or any, of these scraps of information necessary to enjoy the poem? They are not. They can’t be. The poem is never constituted by its meaning alone. It wouldn’t be a poem if it was. Paterson’s use of language and poetic device is as important here as the meaning.
The opening phrase, for instance – Sometimes, in autumn – introduces a strange ambiguity to the piece. Sometimes – now and then, occasionally – in autumn, that is, in a short season of any given year, something happens. This framing of time in terms that are both open and closed sets a very different tone than the more direct “once or twice a year.’ The Counting Crows song ‘Hard Candy has a similar opening – “on certain Sundays in November when the weather bothers me” refuses to actually place the action in the same odd way. Compare these phrases to the opening of Hardy’s “The Return of the Native” – “A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight,” which feels very particular. It doesn’t use the deictic ‘the’ to specify the time but it feels as if it did. It isn’t any Saturday, in any November, but the particular Saturday that the action of the novel began on, at a particular time of day. The end result, in Paterson’s poem, is to begin by disorienting the reader.
There’s an interesting use of pararhymes in the piece– the second syllables of sometimes and autumn, doors/days/dangerous/draughts, faint/first, such/scorch, street/sweet, that add to a slight sense of disjunction. The ear hears the almost rhyme but the eye doesn’t see it. It’s almost subliminal. There is some noticeable use of alliteration – pea pipesmoke perfume, wake wife whirling walk, a half rhyme in biography/draught, and then the surprise, after the mystical ambiguities and the religious allusions, of the sharp slang of “scorch the sheets.”
Paterson said, in The Book of Shadows, “Poetry is a mode of reading, not of writing. A poet is someone skilled in manipulating that innate human capacity to make things sign. They advertise the significance of the form in its shape or speech, build in enough strangeness and intrigue to have the reader read in, enough familiarity to repel them, and calculate enough reward for their effort. But so much poetry now is all advertisement, or all familiarity, or all strangeness, or all calculation.” Wind Tunnel seems to have struck a nice balance.