Poem of the week: The rain in the night by Heidi Williamson

Carol Rumens
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

The rain in the night

The past is falling on the house
lightly, insistently
with its own unnameable scent.

I can’t tell when the first mist
of it began to drift down,
lifting itself gently – down.

It wasn’t there, then it was
all around the house,
moving across the roof
with a patterning I couldn’t recognise.

In a way there wasn’t much of it,
but such slivers
bear down over time.

The roof gradually succumbs
to a fresh deepening colour.
The night insects bed down
out of the spattering.
The wisteria darkens,
drops petals.

Even a light scattering
leaves its mark in the morning,
even if the surface dries.

The soft past of rain
has shaken itself on the house.
The house – defenceless
against its lightness.

Heidi Williamson’s third poetry collection, Return By Minor Road (Bloodaxe, 2020) is inscribed In Remembrance: Dunblane 13 March 1996. Originally from Norfolk, Williamson lived in the Scottish town for a time during her mid-20s. The shootings at Dunblane primary school occurred 25 years ago this week.

In an interview with Monk journal, the poet describes her reluctance to write about Dunblane. Many years passed before she felt able to approach the subject.

Spared direct personal bereavement, unlike some of her friends, she explores various ways of making poems which acknowledge the difficult balance of what might be called distanced witness. Her chosen style is usually oblique; she is often “watching the past” in the revisited landscape with its rivers and culverts, its hares and cormorants. She introduces us to her own child, unborn at the time of the massacre, as a bright image of the future, while noting: “On World Book Day, even his costume / for Young Sherlock comes with a pistol. (Every day).” A poem entitled Elegy consists simply of the names of the children and staff member murdered in the shootings.

The poem I’ve chosen reminded me a little of Elizabeth Bishop’s Sestina, where real-but-symbolic rainfall is heard by a child safely indoors, and the “lightness” of tone gives powerful emotions a low and bearable pitch. Williamson’s poem centres on a particularly closely fused treatment of metaphor, making tenor and vehicle, the past and the rain, seem often to be interchangeable. The title fosters the metaphor in readiness for the opening line, which would be heavy-handed without the reference to the rain in the night. “The past is falling on the house / lightly, insistently / with its own unnameable scent.” Those two perfectly chosen adverbs importantly heighten the association.

Williamson sustains her evocation of a particular kind of rain and its effects throughout the poem. It whispers in the second stanza, when “the first mist / of it began to drift down” and is heard in the “spattering” and “scattering” in stanzas five and six. It’s a fine rain, elusive but becoming persistent: “It wasn’t there, then it was / all around the house, / moving across the roof / with a patterning I couldn’t recognise.” The relentless trajectory of both the past and the rain is reflected in the poem’s four repetitions of “down”.

The rain affects the environment, intensifying the colour of the roof, altering the behaviour of the insects there, and causing the wisteria to shed petals. As “the past” and not merely as remembered weather, it brings suppressed knowledge into consciousness, and indelibly changes the present: “Even a light scattering / leaves its mark in the morning, / even if the surface dries.”

Psychological defences are susceptible to horribly engendered memories, as a roof is eventually susceptible to rain damage, though the rain may not be torrential. The poem offers itself as a statement of the problem and a kind of solution, an approach to mourning from a distanced perspective which avoids appropriation of others’ grief, but refuses to deny its own. The reader who knows a little about the context will unavoidably add metaphorical detail, perhaps thinking of the terrible phrase “a rain of bullets”, and finding those echoes in the rain’s “slivers”, its “spattering” and “scattering” – but we are not directly asked to make such connections. The poems in Return By Minor Road are restrained, but, over the whole volume, their rain-like effect is cumulatively powerful.