Against a Posthumous Background


Poems, Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod (162pp, 12.99, Little, Brown)


I used to describe Iain Banks as my favourite living novelist. It hurts like hell that I now have to leave one crucial word out of that description. Iain Banks was one of a very few authors whose new book I had to buy on the day of publication; if this dictated a trip out in inclement weather, an early skive from work or a utilities bill ignored for a couple of weeks, then so be it. My fervour extended to signed copies. When Banks's publicity tour for The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn't bring him anywhere near Nottingham, I had no annual leave remaining to cover a 600-mile round-trip to Plymouth and my car was off the road following an accident. Such obstacles may have daunted the fair-weather fan. Not me. I hired a car, booked a Travelodge and threw a two-day sickie.

True to form, I bought Poems
on the day of release. That was when it hit me: this was the last time I'd get to buy a new book by Iain Banks. I did a stupidly sentimental thing the moment I got home: I posted a photograph of the cover on Facebook with the legend 'the swansong'. But it isn't. Banks's novel The Quarry, published just after his death, was his true swansong. Poems falls halfway between juvenilia and a glimpse down a path not taken.

Poems
is divided into two sections: a little over 100 pages of poetry by Banks, followed by a smaller selection of verse by Ken MacLeod, who also edited the volume and provides a brief introduction. The first Banks poem is called 'Damage' and runs to eight pages; the volume closes with MacLeod's 'A Fertile Sea', which clocks in at nearly twice that. The shadow of Eliot's 'The Waste Land' hangs heavily over both works; understandably so in Banks's case - two of his sci-fi novels (Consider Phlebas and Look to Windward) are titled after it.

Fortunately, though, it soon becomes apparent that Banks is keen to shake off his influences and find his own voices. The best of his poems - 'Extract Solenoid', 'Mediterranean', 'Exponential', 'Caucasian Spiritual' - embody the spiralling imagination and wordplay that characterise Banks as a prose writer; the latter in particular could almost be a dry run for 'Scratch', the mind-bendingly experimental short story that closes his collection The State of the Art
.

Perhaps it's in the wider context of his novels that Banks's poems are best approached; indeed, 'Zakalwe's Song' and 'Slight Mechanical Destruction' bookend his thorny sci-fi opus Use of Weapons
. Banks the novelist engaged like very few contemporary writers with form and structure, and yet cut loose with a freewheeling, loquacious prose style; it's arguably this dynamic that gives his work its unique style. The verbosity finds its first expression in these poems - most of them unspool across several pages and the reviewer looking to extract pithy quotes faces frustration. A few lines, picked at random:

   - You and me, these teeming tribes,
   Their dreary lives and loves.
   Such sad descriptions,
   Desecrations,
   What's it all but Shootout Territory,
   Anyway?
   An unsound stage a one-take wonder,
   Something the second unit did
   With sloppy continuity,
   No one even agrees what we're making here;
   Is it Malice in Wonderland
   Or Pogrom's Progress?
            [from 'Caucasian Spiritual']

True, the wordplay helps push the poem forwards, but it takes the twelve lines quoted above for any sense of the poem's meaning to be abstracted. Moreover, there's something about a poem taking five pages to reach the conclusion

   Earth, you're only deep on the surface;
   Inside,
   You're shallow to the core

that suggests prose would have been a better means of exploration. It's telling that his work in this form was produced between 1973 and 1981; a proving ground of sorts, an experimentation with language, and once he'd set off on the path that would lead to the publication of The Wasp Factory
in 1984, it was prose all the way.

In comparison, MacLeod's poetry, despite accounting for less than a third of the book, spans thirty years. It also comprises the most effective work on offer here. MacLeod takes a more traditional approach and is often at his best when he keys into other voices. 'After Burns: 11 September 2002' homages both Burns and W.H. Auden in the service of a contemporary aesthetic:

   There is no God and we must get
   our comfort where we find it:
   in the rising yell of a laden jet
   and a bright contrail behind it.

There's perhaps even a touch - deliberately - of McGonigall in the inappropriately bouncy rhythms MacLeod uses. But doesn't that 'laden' in the penultimate line swing a punch when you look at it a second time? Elsewhere, 'Scots Poet, Not' hints at W.N. Herbert's Dundonian cadences and mordant wit:

   It stops wi me like sae muckle else:
   the Gaelic and the Lallans and the nane tae help,
   the wicked frae the start tae oorsels,
   the Shorter Catechism and the skelp.

I love Banks's novels; I find it difficult to engage with MacLeod's. And now here I am with the last Iain Banks title I'll ever buy, feeling like a complete heel coming out in favour of MacLeod's poetry over Banks's and clinging onto the rationale that, while poetry would never have proven Banks's forte, it did at least allow for the first firework display of a talent beginning to take shape.

   Neil Fulwood 2015