In the introduction to this volume of Banks's and MacLeod's poetry, MacLeod notes "Iain Banks the literary novelist and Iain M. Banks the science-fiction writer are too well known to need introduction, but Iain Banks the poet has hitherto been almost undetected." It is perhaps reading too much into that middle initial to suggest that by leaving it out of the poetic designation of his former friend, MacLeod is linking Banks's poetry to his literary rather than science-fictional output. However, the claustrophobic sense of finitude that periodically recurs across his poems is a world away from the life-expanding possibilities present in the infinite vistas of the Culture series. The unnamed protagonists of poems like "Routenburn" "plod a road for savages" (p. 47) across inhospitable landscapes while trying to avoid human predators like those in "Somewhere Near the Snow Line," who "found her, took her, killed her" (p. 74). Atheistic despair hovers at the boundary of a nihilism held in check only by occasional flashes of gallows humour, such as that found in the earliest poem included here, "Damage," written in November 1973: "Here lies, says the stone, a man who did not believe in death" (p. 7).
By titling his introduction "Songs of Stone," MacLeod acknowledges this uncompromising take on the harshness of existence and simultaneously evokes Banks's most gothic novel, A Song of Stone (1997). While MacLeod makes light of Banks's notion that the inclusion of MacLeod's own poems in the collection "would provide his with some covering fire" (p. x), one consequence of setting the two bodies of work together is to leaven Banks's pessimism of the intellect with MacLeod's optimism of the will. In the latter's short poem, "Revolution," the setting is as bleak as that of any of Banks's verse, but the "point is to have the weapons ready" for the brief moment of opportunity. The first of the poems in MacLeod's section, which takes up the last third of the book, is also one of his earliest, "Erosion" (1974). On the one hand, "Erosion," with its cemetery headstones, is in dialogue with Banks's more-or-less contemporary "Damage" but, on the other hand, it also speaks to "Rannoch I," Banks's last poem, dated July 1981, after which he wrote no more. Because of the way this volume is laid out, with Banks's poems in chronological order followed by MacLeod's, "Rannoch I" immediately precedes "Erosion." While the former stares unblinkingly once more at the "surface's cold glow" (p. 108), the latter penetrates the human processes of the perception of matter to reveal immortal souls as "electrochemical tracks in others' brains" (p. 111). MacLeod's "A Fertile Sea," written in the late 1980s, is placed outside chronological order as the last poem in the collection, however, and so completes the symmetry of the volume—because, like the opening "Damage," it is also a response to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land.
A number of newspaper reviews of the Poems, such as Stuart Kelly's in The Scotsman, have highlighted the obvious influence of Eliot, and also the 1930s poetry of W.. H. Auden, on both Banks and MacLeod. Combining the information we find in the poems with what else we know about these two young men just out of Greenock High School—MacLeod has spoken of the two of them reading and discussing the quarterly editions of New Worlds and the iconoclastic criticism of M. John Harrison within it—presents us with a blurry snapshot of a particular conjunction of politics and aesthetics formed in the social and cultural context of the early 1970s. It is not coincidental that Banks wrote a poem called "Damage" drawing on the style and technique of The Waste Land in November 1973, only a few weeks after oil prices quadrupled. As the economic journalist Paul Mason notes in his recent Postcapitalism (2015), "There is no dividing line in economic history clearer than 17 October 1973" (Postcapitalism, p. 87). That was the day on which the long golden wave of the post-war economic boom juddered to an abrupt halt and went into immediate reverse. The promise of steady social progress, which of course had often been held against the rebellious youth movements and student protests of the late 1960s, turned out to be untrue and the doctrine of economic self-interest was reborn. But, as Banks notes in "Damage," individualism is "not so much a philosophy, more of an excuse" (p. 9).
Like Eliot's poem, which acknowledges the collapse of pre-First-World-War society, "Damage" marks the end of an order and the beginning of a period of uncertainty. In his 1937 book Crisis and Criticism (1937), the Marxist critic Alick West suggested the condition that Eliot was highlighting was, "When I do not know any longer who are the 'we' to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who 'I' am either" (p. 19). This condition arose again with the breakdown of the post-war social order in the 1970s, but Banks's poetry evidences a more acute sense of alienation heightened by an awareness that the utopian possibilities expressed in late 1960s SF had suddenly been snatched away. Poets writing after Eliot in the 1930s, such as Auden, tried to find an answer to this lack of a sense of identity by embracing communist ideas and crossing over to the side of the organised working class. In this respect, it was to be MacLeod who became more actively involved in organised socialist politics than Banks. This fact is not inconsistent with Kelly's argument that on the whole the poetry of Banks is more Eliotic and that of MacLeod more Audenesque, featuring more use of rhyme and concrete nouns. This tendency is most exaggerated in a nursery-rhyme rendition of the early days of the Soviet Union:
The hammer rang in factory,
The sickle sang in field,
The kulak proved refractory,
The hammer made the sickle yield. (p. 136)
The same lines appear with a minor change in MacLeod's 1999 novel The Sky Road, the fourth volume of the Fall Revolution quartet, but here they are revealed to be the opening verse of a short poem written five years earlier, "Fall 1991," which is marking the Soviet Union's dissolution. At this point, one can't help feeling that maybe it was the fall of communism that finally impelled MacLeod to start writing or, at least, start publishing the quartet. However, while "Fall 1991" reads as pithy epitaph, it is 1989's "A Fertile Sea," reacting to Eliot, which provides a much more sustained engagement with the fortunes of the socialist cause, and the notion of progress generally, during the fraught decades of the 1970s and the 1980s: "Free to choose. Labour isn't working / Trust the force" (p. 148). Against such irrationalism, a reference to the hard task of building love with exactitude seems to suggest the ambiguity of Stalin's description of writers as "engineers of the human soul." Yet MacLeod also refers to the continued existence of data for the possibility of engineering "a manipulated nucleus of time / where our fortunes and our futures recombine" (p. 155). Fittingly, the poem is dedicated to Banks "who walked by sight," and we are allowed the possibility of hoping that, with vision, the construction of new societies is still possible.
At this point, though, the question arises as to who has the right to force their visions of social engineering on others, even if only fictionally or poetically? Here, it is worth turning to Banks's 1978 poem "Jack," which relates the journey of a protagonist called Iain on the night bus to Glasgow and his conversation about science with an old man, Jack, sitting next to him. Jack is a Bible-reading Christian who questions whether people can really tell how many millions of years old things are, and so Iain patiently explains the whole interconnectivity of science before proceeding to detail: "Carbon 14 I mentioned, its slow and sure decay" (p. 81). But even as he dispenses "all this well-informed layman stuff" (p. 81), he mentally switches focus to examine closely the heavy-framed, thick, dusty glasses of his neighbour and so realises that Jack simply cannot see through his accumulated grime—both personal and impersonal—whether inside or outside the ideological frame. Later, sitting alone, after Jack has got off the bus, Iain reflects on how much he had wanted to reach out and wipe clean those glasses in order to help Jack see clearly. However, he rejects that impulse and this is the point of the poem: that "between the essence / And its metaphor . . . There is no congruence" (p. 83). Clearing someone's vision does not physically help them to see the possibilities of a different social paradigm. There is no closed zero-sum system. A writer or poet cannot make or even help others see their vision beyond simply setting it out in front of them. However, this very lack of "congruence" also means that the vision they set out is never an imposition but rather a possible route open to those capable of "walking by sight."
Banks's social vision was set out in the nigh-on-thirty novels he published from 1984 onwards, after he had stopped writing new poetry, and comes closest to a programmatic coherence in the Culture series. The earliest drafts of the first Culture novels, however, were written during the 1970s alongside the composition of his poems. Links between poems and novels, aside from the two poems that are incorporated at the beginning and end of Use of Weapons (1980), are not directly obvious. If one looks hard enough it is possible to see hints of ship names in some of the lines, such as, "The above supersedes all previous explanations until further notice" (p. 24). A stronger connection is implied by the fact that two of the Culture novels—Consider Phlebas (1987) and Look to Windward (2000)—take their names from The Waste Land. Moreover, the recurrent theme of desperate struggles in a ruined wilderness features not only in the poems but also in the Culture novels, especially the early ones. The only difference, of course, is that in the novels these scenes are interspersed between sequences set within the post-scarcity, utopian society of the Culture itself. Nowhere is this contrast more starkly demonstrated than in Use of Weapons, the first of the novels to be written, although the third to be published.
Similarly, "Zakalwe's Song" is the third poem in the collection, written in November 1973, but actually appears at the end of Use of Weapons and is presented as the work of the non-Culture poet, Shias Engin. Describing the conflict between the desire to stay and the impulse to leave, it is very much a poem about mortal finitude: "The bomb lives only as it is falling" (p. 12). "Slight Mechanical Destruction," on the other hand, which comes before the body of the novel and is presented as written by Bank's most-successfully realised Culture citizen, Diziet Sma, is dated March 1978. Like "Jack," which was written in the same month, it turns on a lack of congruence between essence and metaphor. What the Culture merely know about the reality of the hierarchical societies of economies based on scarcity, Zakalwe viscerally embodies; by "playing their game for real" (p. 85) he gives it meaning. In this respect, the poem is not just the kernel of truth underlying the novel but the keystone of the entire Culture series. The very fact that these two poems occupy a reverse order in the novel to their sequence of composition, as reproduced in the Poems, creates a two-way timeflow that mirrors the celebrated narrative structure of Use of Weapons. Banks's whole body of work comes into focus as an infinite fractal repetition of the designation by Sma of Zakalwe's trajectory as "an allegory of regress" (p. 84), which sits at the heart of a poem he wrote long before he ever published a word, either of prose or verse.
These symmetries and inversions between variously the poems of Banks and MacLeod, and the poems and fiction of Banks, find their end in their beginning. Banks notes in the Acknowledgment of Use of Weapons, "I blame Ken MacLeod for the whole thing." This was an allusion to the fact that it had been at MacLeod's suggestion that Banks returned to the long-abandoned draft of that novel and made it publishable by changing its temporal sequence. Following the pair's 2012 decision to publish their poetry together, Bank's untimely death left MacLeod with the responsibility for ending the creative process which he helped begin. What the well-merited publication of the Poems shows is how an apparently doomed constellation of politics and aesthetics from the 1970s was able to become the seed of two bodies of work that have opened so many possibilities for the future; to which, of course, MacLeod is still adding. It is to be hoped that study of the Poems will also encourage fully contextualised comparative studies of the fiction of these two writers.
Nick Hubble divides their time between Aberystwyth and Uxbridge.
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