READING this collection of poems, two thirds by Iain Banks, the rest by his friend Ken MacLeod, feels a little like picking up a fossil and going back in time. Banks’s social and political position was clearly and repeatedly expressed in his fiction, his humanitarian rage at the way empires and regimes – even those supposedly democratic and benign – trampled on people without a thought. From The Wasp Factory, his debut in 1984, to his last novel, The Quarry, published shortly after his death in 2013, his opinions did not mellow. If anything, they burned more intensely with age. Here, however, in the company of his fellow science fiction writer MacLeod, one is introduced to Banks as a very young man, when his ideas are fresh minted, his observations not yet tempered by experience. The fifty works of his gathered in Poems were written between 1973, when he was 19, and 1981. They are youthful, frequently callow pieces, but they are also a reminder that in Banks’s case, the child really is father to the man. As those who knew him well attest, success and fame did not change him, or the way he thought.
The idea for this book, as MacLeod relates in his introduction, predated Banks’s diagnosis with the cancer that so swiftly killed him. Banks the mainstream novelist, and Iain M. Banks the science fiction writer need no introduction, he says. The same is not true, however, of Banks the poet, although he had been writing poetry since his schooldays, and his first published work was the poem ‘041’, in New Writing Scotland in 1983. As MacLeod writes about their poetic twinning, ‘He had the risible notion that my poems would provide his with some kind of covering fire. I think the truth is quite the reverse, but in defence of my works’ inclusion I can say that – because over the years we read and discussed each other’s poems – there is an element of dialogue and evidence of mutual influence.’
There is clearly no hubris in MacLeod’s part in the venture. It does not sound as if his arm was wrenched up his back, precisely, but there’s little doubt that without Banks’s encouragement, his poetry would still be lying in a drawer. Given the often raw quality of Banks’s poetry, one wonders if in some way his desire to see them in print was nostalgic, a chance to look back on his young self with a degree of pride, or find in his unfettered voice the energy and certainty that advancing years erode. Pride would be understandable, given the confidence of the earliest of these poems. Reading them, nobody could have doubted that their author was a writer in the making, though not necessarily born to be a poet.
The first poem, ‘Damage’, is a slice of social realism, a protracted, almost post-apocalyptic scene of domestic violence, written in a grandiose style that attempts to mask the poet’s age. ‘Bless the wind of no direction, that charms the flesh/ From the blackened bone, that teases the leaf/ From the ravaged tree, that demands the/ Child from the mother’s lap…’
Throughout these works, Banks’s imagination is seen reacting to the annihilation and terrors of his and recent times: echoes of Hiroshima, intimations of Cold War and the threat of nuclear bombs and famines are embedded in his imagery, whether he is directly addressing the world’s ails, or talking about a couple’s savage parting. In ‘9’, for instance, he begins: ‘Hellfire, brimstone, torture, doom/An etcetera of presumed/ Catastrophe./ A sloughed-on mantle of/ Indulgent guilt./ Meanwhile, a certain lack/Of activity in prayers offered/ For the souls of slums, a dearth/ Of psychoanalysis for those enjoying/ Malnutrition, drought, bilharzias/ And so on./ (Not to mention real torture.)’
Some of these pieces feel more like lists of outrage than full-fledged poems. Yet, despite the corruption and cruelty that he rails against with faux world-weariness, one glimpses the urbane, wry tone that will later become a hallmark of his fiction: ‘Here we are the rhinestone age, the frivolously/ pragmatic now.’
It is not until Banks is a little older, in the later seventies, and has found love, that the pamphleteering, hectoring note evolves into something more true and poetic. In several of these later pieces, there are lines that come from the heart, stripped of adolescent posturing. In ‘041’ he movingly captures the effect his girlfriend’s voice has when she is on the phone to him. In ‘Song for J’, he pits his love against the perishing of time, and finds strange if cold consolation in knowing how brief and fragile human experience is. ‘No oceans,/Not a river,/Hardly a stream/Will dry/Before our eyes do,/And our hearts…’
MacLeod’s opening poem, ‘Erosion’, is if anything more precocious, another indication of the career he would go on to follow. Written in 1974, when he was about 20, it is a vivid piece of imagery, contrasting the ruthless forces of nature with those of puny mankind. It is a theme he returns to even more powerfully in ‘Faith as a Grain of Poppy Seed’, where he writes: ‘Yes, we are small./ Who/under that noonblaze or/high midnight/wouldn’t be?’
The influence of Banks on his friend’s work becomes apparent over the years, rather to the poetry’s detriment. The clarity and lyricism of the very young MacLeod, who had a natural, easy style and understated profundity, become denser and more clotted as he tackles current affairs and moves from philosophy to commentary. This is at its most noticeable in ‘A Fertile Sea’, his version of ‘The Waste Land’, in which he tabulates the horrors of wars and dictatorships and scientific exploration – Chernobyl, the Iran-Iraq war, the space race and so on. In an aside, MacLeod lists the topics tackled, though he believes them too obvious to have been put into proper endnotes (not all of them are), and takes a swipe at T S Eliot’s extensive notes in the process, saying his own original explanations, which he later deleted, were ‘even more tedious, needless and pretentious’ than those that famously append Eliot’s masterpiece.
Such disrespect, though, is the least of the problems with this particular work which, as when Banks inveighs against governments and leaders, reads less like poetry than a series of joined-up ideas and images. ‘Don’t talk to me, you slaughtering saints – /I know these people, possessed/ of every human attribute but one: the State;/ and for this lack you compensate, provide/ the solicitude of more than one, supplied/ in an impressive range of delivery systems/ from I G Farben to Ilyushin.’
This clamshell of a collection is a literary curiosity. Like the proverbial game of two halves, it shows the authors’ well-matched sensibilities responding to a world blighted by war and destruction, hypocrisy and greed. To return to the fossil, it offers a glimpse into the beginnings of Banks a writer, the origins of his manifesto for life, and allows one to trace an emerging, uncertain voice that, when it turned to fiction, quickly found its proper register.
Separately and together, Banks’s and MacLeod’s poetry bears witness to the creative drive, political angst and compassionate convictions that fuelled their imagination from the outset. As Banks writes in one of his poems, ‘The thing no thing can ever learn,/ The first and final lesson: / Mortality is a quality of life.’ That line will bring readers to a halt, and its sentiment haunts the book. Uneven and ragged as much of this collection is, it has character and attitude in abundance. As in their science fiction, so in their poetry they acknowledge the smallness of the human within the perspective of outer space, and the paradox that, ant-like and unimportant as the species is, our capacity for destruction is almost as infinite as the universe.
Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod
Little, Brown, £12.99, ISBN 978-1-4087-0587-2, PP162