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
Their dreary lives and
Such sad descriptions,
What's it all but
An unsound stage a
Something the second unit
With sloppy continuity,
No one even agrees what
we're making here;
Is it Malice in
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
Earth, you're only deep
on the surface;
You're shallow to the
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
our comfort where we find
in the rising yell of a
and a bright contrail
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
the Gaelic and the
Lallans and the nane tae help,
the wicked frae the start
the Shorter Catechism and
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