A Watchful Astronomy

Paul Deaton
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
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A Watchful Astronomy is such an unclouded, moving and accessible collection it should be prescribed by the NHS for those who say they cannot stomach poetry because it’s too difficult or irrelevant.’ – Poetry School

‘Each poem in this collection is like a little torchlight ... I felt like it totally wrapped me up as a reader, and I really couldn’t put it down.’ – Jen Campbell, Sunday Times bestselling author

‘Despite casting his net occasionally into the sky above, to me Deaton’s poems resonate so powerfully because they are rooted in the earth, drawing our attention to the cumulative marvels of minutiae that could seem mundane in other hands.’ – SkyLightRain

‘These poems are wounded, sincere and carefully accurate​’ – Poetry Wales

‘Exquisite phrasings carry the reader along on a high tide of self revelation in Deaton’s striking debut. Offering a meditation on loss and renewal, these are poems with pace and denouement, making for a forceful collection that is rewarding for its consistent investigative power, for Deaton’s ability to contort language into a ragged beauty.’ – Rachael Boast

A Watchful Astronomy by Paul Deaton is the thoughtful debut poetry collection by this already well-regarded author who has published his work in national magazines like The Spectator, and London Magazine as well as in more literary journals like the PN Review.

A Watchful Astronomy has a distinctive flavour. The author is a realist and a formalist, preferring simple, accurate language and use of formal meter. This makes for unusually clear and accessible work. A powerful underlying current of emotion also drives these poems and is contained and restrained by the more austere formal qualities.

The book is haunted by the ghost of the author’s father, a figure that appears throughout the collection as an overbearing, even threatening presence, embodied in glowering mountain ranges, in icy blasts of weather, in bits of bleak, monosyllabic dialogue. It is to the author’s credit that grudging admiration for the father’s practical skills (‘Shoemaker Father’), and a profound and lingering sense of compassion overcome what could be obdurate (if understandable) resentment.

Nature is also a prime factor and facilitator in this book, both rural and urban scenes are beautifully observed and presented. There is a gift for the visceral here, for tastes and sounds. There is a tendency to describe liminal scenes and moods: dusk, a sleepless hour, a view from a precipice, a changing mood. A rigorous intelligence meets an adept sensitivity in these poems by this already accomplished as well as promising poet.




Review by D A Prince, The North

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

   When the Poetry Book Society included a poem ('Christmas') from Paul Deaton's A Watchful Astronomy (one of their Winter 2017 Recommendations) in last December's newsletter I was drawn to the freshness of this bleakly honest view of a contemporary life. One poem and I wanted to read the whole collection. 

You bought the presents your tight budget allowed,
had a third and fourth date with the RAF girl
spent several hours on Somerset's M5,
watched the weather pendulum from the bright blue
to a filthy hue

   This sense of personal distance, of just getting-by , the impersonality of a relationship, of being stuck - and not only in traffic - and then that clever transformation of 'pendulum' into a verb: it all comes together, unsentimental and stoical. It fits into the perspective of the full collection, where the minutiae of everyday living is pitted against the large astronomical distances, which in turn match the emotional gap between the son and an undemonstrative father. It's no surprise to find that the tonal colours are consistently dark grey, wintry, cold, stony and that the natural landscapes are bleak and windswept. The satisfaction of reading this collection comes from how Deaton energises this narrative of aloneness in poems that dig into his past and parents, clear-eyed but with compassion. Via the parallels in nature he explores the human, as in 'Owl' - 

The owl flew on with a silk-slow hush;
a cape sweep of unclasped wings.
And I knew I had been left by a creature
who knows the nights' hollow better than me:
can let go into the dimness, unperturbed,
can find in the black blindness what it needs to find.

   Deaton works to find the most precise words (especially verbs) to record wildlife - 'The sparrows banter in the bushes,' 'The tall trunked beeches stagger up the hill,' 'The field is furrowed, / orderly manicured like Zen gravel.' He gives the earth a new and fresh-rinsed surface. These (from 'Profusion') are 'The earth's riches, its priceless hoards / unstoppable, inexhaustible.' and the season when 'The lupins and foxgloves go up like skyscrapers.' Above all this is the night sky, signalled in the title, as in this image from 'Midsummer' - 

as you weave your way back from the gig,
a solitary star stalls you; spark the dark,
as though some stranger is drawing hard;
but that's no star, that flickering fag,
strobing, night-cuffed, is red plant Mars. 

   Rhyme and alliteration, those familiar techniques arrive renewed and unforced in this urban setting. At the personal level there are questions and reflections; this, after all, a debut collection, and as Deaton has written (in the Poetry Book Society Bulletin) '...this aloneness is part of life's paradox ... made knowable and bearable through the transitional object of writing poems.' The poems feel hard-won out of experience and self-examination, true to their source and to language. Deaton's commitment to his writing excites and sharpens the senses - and the reader. 

Review by Dawn Wood, DURA

Monday, June 4, 2018

What does it mean to be true to the self? How can we come to terms with the atmosphere of our upbringing and with the life force which propels us? These questions seem to set the remit of Paul Deaton’s carefully observed, plain-spoken poetry: “Pushed or pulled the growth of your life?” (“Profusion”).

Deaton grew up in Wales and is now based in Bristol. A Watchful Astronomy, his debut collection, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and individual poems have been widely praised. His literary landscape favours the rural setting and the night sky, but he is familiar with city life and often depicts omnipresent nature in terms of urban drama or dereliction: “Someone has poured petrol over the gorse.” (“This Easter”); “The lupins and foxgloves go up like kkyscrapers”(“Profusion”); “The sniper sun crests the snowy hill,” (“The Coffin Hut”).

As the title of the collection suggests, Deaton is a quiet observer who wonders in a secular way. He makes the moon “a slavish stalker who hangs around all night” (“The Stalker”) or “a farmer looking over a gate” (“The Gate”). In fact, as one spends time with this collection, there is a growing sense that the moon motif oversees the emotional feel and thrust of the work as a whole. The Watchful Astronomy of the title could be taken to refer to the silent presence of a taciturn moon and as much as to any human endeavour. To be watchful implies a sense of hope, although the activity might be taking place elsewhere:

We have slept a night
and the whole sky has cartwheeled over us.
The stars, like workmen leaving a shift,
broke the gates and just plain wandered off. (“The Coffin Hut”)

These poems have been hard-won from silence and, behind their polish of restraint and accessibility, there have been difficult shaping forces.  One such force is Deaton’s emotionally distant father, a figure who gives weight to the collection as Deaton tries to make sense of him:

He carried my life before him like an erratic boulder.
This man I couldn’t fathom. He said he was
needless of love, but this did not set me free. (“Inselberg Father”)

These poems will resonate with anyone who has experienced similar parenting. These are poems which long for connection; Deaton has cut through layers of complex emotions to deal with his father’s death, achieving something closer to equanimity than many might manage:

DIY the goodbye tasks he had to do.
I knew what was coming and somehow he did too
Round at my sister’s with tools in hand,
to fit an alarm – they clashed – his trademark bitter reprimand. (“DIY”)

The DIY pun suddenly leaps into focus like a momento mori skull resting on a shelf his father might have built.  A natural sense of metre is apparent and well-employed in Deaton’s poetry. In the above example, the default rhythm is trochaic with occasional breaks into dactylic or iambic meter to add pace.  It is that extra spondee – “bitter” – that makes the poem.  To set this relationship down as a poem demonstrates the alchemic act of forgiveness.

In “Owl”, Deaton lets dactylic metre set the action – “I shuffle between rooms because I can’t sleep” – and once again, shifts in metre cause the reader to listen and to negotiate the landscape of “clumpy valley” towards  the next stanza:

And, as I stoop in darkness between doorways,
wishing I was asleep, mind-mysterious,
head pitching like a hand-held lamp;
I wonder: what tree or branch was I vainly looking for?

As he moves towards the threshold of his next poetry collection, propelled by those mysterious life forces inherent in our language itself, Deaton’s poetry is sure to “find in the black blindness what it needs to find” in ways that continue to resonate with his readers.

Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Born in London and raised in Wales, Paul Deaton’s debut collection is as much about family as it is about nature. A difficult father-son relationship is at the heart of much of what he writes about. The figure of his deceased father is present in the Welsh landscape, the unrelenting rough weather and the all-too-brief dialogue. The father is the “Black Knight” in a series of sombre poems that come from a dark place. Deaton writes about this relationship with restraint. There is no bitter invective. Emotion is held in check. This is especially evident in the poem ‘Glass’ where he speaks of his father’s unbending nature and death. The single line “Yes, we wept” is followed by an epiphany:

I think now, if we can’t change
we can’t live, if our stones won’t crack,
we’ll never reveal the mineral elegance
of our best most colourful parts.

As the title suggests, these poems have an eye on the sky and an eye on the ground. In the title poem that opens the collection, Deaton observes that “Giant Jupiter, up there, [is] the same size as the stone in your shoe.” Mention is made of The Big Bang which is “louder than an April thunderclap”, of planets, meteors, eclipses and other astronomical phenomena but one senses that the father is also present in the “black horizons; mulish rough weather, April squalls; grass that gives way to weeds”. Deaton is a realist. The economy with which he combines his themes is exemplified in these lines from ‘Spring Tide’:

Life learns its quiet phases.
We draw close and then, it seems,
with no power of our own
pull apart. Find new orbits.

In a similar vein, meteorology and family relationships are conjoined in these lines from ‘Spring’: "Winter was bitter cold; / five months that had us by the throat, / five months in our house that were bone lonely."

The words “dark” and “night” appear frequently throughout the collection. There is a danger that this can be overdone and there are moments when the reader longs to escape from the grey end walls of these poems, the dark Welsh slate.

In other poems there are fine descriptions of a red brick farm, Brunel’s bridge at dusk, the play of moonlight over a courtyard and woods in winter. In the opening lines to ‘Fallen Night’ Deaton is not very far removed from Hughes in his forceful depictions of the wind:

All night the winds strike the sides
of the come-on-then-I-can-take-it house.
The sash windows struggle and strive
like live bait, wanting to break free from their frames.

The nature poems are keenly observed. Their strength lies in the fact that Deaton uses them as metaphors for the human condition. Nature is to be wrestled with, it is something that we pitch ourselves against. It is not merely celebrated for its own sake.

Paul Deaton is a prize-winning poet, and his poems have been published in journals with well-established reputations. The present collection comes with a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.

Review by Richie McCaffery, The Poetry School

Monday, April 16, 2018

The title of Paul Deaton’s powerful first full collection, A Watchful Astronomy, might strike the reader initially as something of a tautology – surely all astronomy is about keeping a vigilant eye trained on the night sky? Deaton’s approach is to look down the other end of the telescope at the minutiae of our earthly lives.

Deaton is no anorak or hobbyist – star-gazing is altogether more than this for him, providing him with a language and an objective correlative all of us can at least relate to, if not speak. He is in many ways an anthropological astronomer, with his eyeglass trained firmly on the terrestrial realm. Rarely does a poet give the book title away in the first poem, but here it seems to act as a sextant for the rest of the collection:


Walking home, over Gaol Ferry Bridge,

after some party drinks, Orion splayed

above St Paul’s Church like a fat limbed gingerbread man,

and that star, cold as quartz, your watchful astronomy

tells you isn’t a star but giant Jupiter, up there,

the same size as the stone in your shoe.


Here, Jupiter becomes the size and significance of a stone stuck in a shoe. In such a way, micro, quotidian events take on a macro and cosmic importance, a nice play on the much-used trope of looking at the night sky and feeling dwarfed into insignificance by it.

Most of Deaton’s poems, unless they are celebrations of the wonders of nature, have a tone of elegiac anger, but controlled by the neatness and metre of the structure of the poems themselves. Deaton pays such acute and penetrating attention to the details of the circadian rhythms of lives because there seems to be a sense that his own upbringing was lost in a haze of routine. In ‘Stress’, Deaton that reminds us of what happens when the routines of life distract us from looking at anything other than the flat, domestic, and sometimes existential, rut we are in:


Where we lived there was no great escape;

our lives were sealed by planner’s tarmac,

cracked, pitched pavements, grey-end walls

lacking windows, dark Welsh slate.

In the terraced suburbs we were met with unplaceable sunsets.

We forgot the earth is round.


Like the opening poem, the speaker finds their voice after the event, after the party or after the death of a family member. The childhood presented in these poems is not one of Dickensian horror or squalor, but it nonetheless has the air of a wasted opportunity. Often presented as a glacial erratic, a large boulder dumped in the landscape, the figure of a taciturn father, whose work-related stress dictated the lives of the rest of the family, looms large over the poems:


Not much a father more a wounded bear:

shackled to work, the mortgage, a nudging wife, suburban rooms.

He mauled us with his gloom

and we never did learn what had truly stung him.


And in ‘He’s’:


Impenetrable as a forest and as silent.

Quick to bring to the boil.

Quick to scold. Hot yet always cold.

Burst like lava to instantly harden.


In fact, the majority of the poems return to a father figure who is in some way stifling happy family life as it should be and this filters into others that are not directly about him. The speaker looks at the surface gloss of a photo of himself as a toddler and is not convinced by the image it portrays. This gives the poems an edginess, an unease often leading to startling denouements, like the ‘self-portrait aged 2½’ in ‘In Front of the Rock Garden’ that ends with the unforgettable image: ‘Behind my back my hands / twisting each wrist in Chinese burns’. The veneer of any given image or story is not to be trusted, such as the speaker’s mother in ‘Polish’ who devotes so much of her time to looking immaculate:


Though I know well and it’s possible to tell

from her stripped cuticles,

her nervous not-sitting still,

that there’s some fretful paddling,

panicked flapping beneath her glide,

that polished out shiny side.


The father figure robs the family of words and articulation. In ‘Shoemaker Father’ he’s presented as a man of small deeds and no words: ‘How could you mend so many things: shoes, carpets, / leather belts, bags, wallets, while the family fell apart’. When asked for his assessment of a novel, he merely shrugs and claims it’s ‘alright’ in ‘Books’. In ‘Call’, the last time father and son communicate before an operation which leads to the father’s death, it is in fact the hurt and alienated son who finds himself without words:


‘Look after mum,’ he intones, dry as a bone.

That’s it, more or less, no other words.

I’m on the phone but I look away.

He never did make Christmas day.


As such, A Watchful Astronomy becomes a painful and poignant attempt to restore eloquence and salvage a narrative that the poet can live with. The collection also serves as a salutary warning not to become blind to things and to remain wakeful but also to become a participant, not a passive bystander. There is already a sense that something has passed that cannot be saved in his warm but powerless relationship with his mother, such as their failure to understand each other in ‘Words’ and the hollow gesture of making a cake together ‘three decades late’ in ‘Cake’. However, the quiet despair that moves to many of these poems is not the only tone struck by the collection and the poet finds many things in life that are redeeming – the creative effort of writing, running, love and fatherhood. There is also the solace that nature offers the poet, in poems like ‘Loch Broom’ which, I’m sure, would have even inspired some envy in Norman MacCaig:


There is a sense in the slowness that not one tree

didn’t sleep well. That even the land hit

the button of deep sleep, and wiped the past clean.


Finally, and on a more superficially technical level, it has to be stressed how startling and strong the use of imagery is in this collection. Deaton’s gift for a stellar trope is perhaps also, bizarrely, grounds for criticism, because the poems where he really delivers an image so perfectly captured are poems remembered mainly for that image and not their content. Take, for instance, the breath-taking conceit of the opening stanza of ‘Estuary Winds’:


The earth and sky suggest

everything has gone into

winter’s blue whale dive.


This stanza is so outstanding, it could be its own poem.

We have to be grateful for Deaton’s luminous originality. A Watchful Astronomy is such an unclouded, moving and accessible collection it should be prescribed by the NHS for those who say they cannot stomach poetry because it’s too difficult or irrelevant.

Review by Edward Doegar, Poetry Wales

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Paul Deaton’s poetry is firmly set in the‘profound’ tradition; every syllable resonates with repressed meaning. Less is more. Everyday scenes are chosen as the best topic – everyday phrases the best tool – to unlock the inexpressible enormity of feelings. Often, he doubles down on this approach, pairing content and style, in poems about the emotional inarticulacy between father and son. These poems are wounded, sincere and carefully accurate. In ‘School Days’ he considers life in the shadow of his father’s depression: ‘How easily life is defined by someone else’s stress’ and concludes: ‘He mauled us with his gloom / and we never did learn what had truly stung him’. Throughout, there’s a sense of what might have been. The father was a reader (‘even though you’d read, /you bragged, every novel in our local library’) but not a sharer: ‘I couldn’t even get you to say / if they were any good. /Nothing got higher marks / than a bother-me-not shrug’. In the facing poem, ‘He’s’, the father is ‘Quick to bring to the boil. /Quick to scold. Hot yet always cold’.
        That rhetorical neatness might feel overly tidy but it’s descriptively sound. Deaton makes some brilliant observations: ‘The owl flew on with a silk-slow hush; / a cape sweep of unclasped wings’ (‘Owl’). And writes movingly about the moon, capturing the strange stateliness of moonlit evenings which make ‘the waiting gate no longer a passing place / but the entrance offered to an august world’ (‘The Gate’). Deaton often has a very conservative poetic approach and he impressively utilises traditional techniques of alliterative verse: ‘Grit grindings are flecked in fences’ (‘Worlebury Woods, January’). Orin ‘Spring Tide’:

Venus in view
​bores the black horizon.

This preoccupation with the lyric methods of early poetries from the British Isles reinforces a strong sense of being from ‘here’, the placed-ness of the work. From the Welsh place names to that ‘local library’ these are poems which belong somewhere. By employing the alliterative tradition it feels like Deaton is making good on a debt. It’s also a testament to his skill that despite all these plosive high-jinks the poems remain works of emotional delicacy.


Review by Judy Darley, SkyLightRain

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

In his first full-length collection from Seren, Paul Deaton eases us into the depths of his life, awakening us to the complex constellations of families. Carried through months and years, we take in moments of sorrow, wonderment and self-depreciating humour that seems to sum up both the experience of one individual in a moment, and of the scope of human existence on Earth.

The key relationship here is Deaton’s uncertain navigation around his late father, but his sister, mother, friends and rivals populate his journey, along with the moon, weather systems and unexpected flurries of flora and fauna. These latter, from Starlings’ “tall-tree trumpeters” to Sea Bream Dinner’s “wholesome, silver sea thing” reveal a quiet observance of the natural world that borders on reverence.

Despite casting his net occasionally into the sky above, to me Deaton’s poems resonate so powerfully because they are rooted in the earth, drawing our attention to the cumulative marvels of minutiae that could seem mundane in other hands. It’s here that Deaton’s fluid metaphors gleam. A reference to the central heating’s “dull milk shed moan” in Late Hour sketches parallels to other lives we could have lived, while Voices draws back the curtain on what comes after as well. The loss of his father ripples throughout, most poignantly for me in DIY: “He turned up at my house too, when I hadn’t asked.” The recognition and faint irritation of unuttered love is spine-tinglingly palpable.

Throughout the collection, momentum builds as Deaton urges us to contemplate the unstoppable force of time and mortality. Our planet rotates, seasons change and we age, seemingly without mercy. Yet in the midst of this, plants and wildlife flourish, offering echoes of beauty and wonder that lift Deaton’s poetry and illuminate the gloaming.

At his launch in Bristol, Deaton described his poems as “an attempt to make the darkness visible.” He certainly achieves that, but at the same time this poem reveals the light shining amongst shadows, and what could be more human than that?


Poetry Book Society Selector’s Comment, Vona Groarke

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I hold the space between stars,
The hour’s no-hour. And, as in alleyways, I hold too, the concentrated

- That Bang

There’s a strong play with perspective in these poems, contrasting the close-up with the panoramic and pitting intimacy against the sometimes unfathomable distances between people. In Part 1, the dominant presence is a father who looms large and inscrutable, physically dominant if emotionally taciturn. The poems ply the gaps between what is asked of him and what is received: if they are tenderly disappointed in the way the relationship buckles or falters, they look to the natural world for context and recourse, finding there a vocabulary and imagery to gather in the sense of bewilderment and by contrast, the strange consolations of landscape and place. There’s an appealing richness to these descriptions, as in ‘Year’s End’:

The year backs into darkness.
The hills hold a vow of silence.
Stood above the Tinkertoy farms
has it always been like this?

The parental relationship, in comparison, is treated in starker language that is pared back to fact and narrative, as if to enact a determined terseness and lack of colour. It seems this relationship is perennially winter-struck, all growth suspended and promise stunted. There’s little doubt as to where the poems’ strongest attentions are directed. If occasionally, those poems that feature particular characters trim the tone and register so close to the bone that little in the way of movement or energy is possible, this is countered with poems nicely alert to descriptive detail, that open out generously and confidently, as in the final two stanzas of ‘Late Hour’:

...Our world
shrinks to the white width of the bedroom’s lens.

Night thickens and the wall
listens. A desert sphinx, a blank Buddha,

it says nothing, a nothing, that is all.


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