Hilltop Press Catalogue 2011 and Science Fiction Poetry - Introductory Factsheet by Steve Sneyd Steve Sneyd Delves Into the World of Ghosts of the Fens Steve's Epic Crowland Poem The Poetry of Brian Aldiss by Steve Sneyd
Steve Sneyd Snarls in 1989!
INSIGHTS SHARP AS TSETSE FLIES
The Poetry of Brian Aldiss by Steve Sneyd
Best known as a novelist, Brian Aldiss is also a widely-published poet. His poetry has appeared, over decades, in many many places, outlets as diverse as 'The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction', 'The Daily Telegraph Magazine', 'The Magazine Of Speculative Poetry', 'Queen', 'Star*Line', 'The Times Literary Supplement', 'P.E.N. New Poetry', 'China Now', 'Penthouse', 'The Keats-Shelley Review', 'The Anthology Of Speculative Poetry', even 'Cat World'. It has been in such genre anthologies as the iconic 'Holding Your Eight Hands (Rapp & Whiting/Doubleday, USA, '69)', 'The Purple Hours (Zimri P, '74)', 'Lifeline International Poets (SFPA, USA, '81)', 'The Umbral Anthology of SF Poetry (Umbral P, USA, '82)', and 'Burning With A Vision: Poetry Of Science And The Fantastic (Owlswick Press, USA, '84)'. In 1980, he won the International Poets category of the Clark Ashton Smith Poetry Award, named for the best-known American fantasy and SF poet of the first half of the 20th C.
Aldiss' poetry collections include, as well as the narrative poem 'Pile: Petals From St. Klaed's Computer (Holt, Rinehart & Winston/Cape, '79)', 'Farewell To A Child (Priapus Press, '82)', 'Science Fiction Blues (Avernus Media '88)'; 'At The Caligula Hotel (Sinclair Stevenson, '95)'; 'A Plutonian Monologue (The Frogmore Press, '01)'; 'I Went To Another House (Avernus '02)'; and 'The Dark Sun Rises (Avernus '03)'. (Not discussed here, as without any genre content, are 'Home Life With Cats (Grafton, '92)', a collection of feline-related poems, and his translations of 18th C Turkmen poetry, 'Songs From The Steppes Of Central Asia' published by the Society of Friends of Makhtumkuli in 1995).
POEMS INSIDE HIS PROSE
Among Aldiss' many novels, several incorporate poetry, most notably the psychedelic tour de force 'Barefoot In The Head ('69)', of a crazed youth crusade across a drugwar-addled Europe, around a third of it being poems, rock lyrics, and prose poems, which Aldiss himself saw as serving the purpose of multiplied viewpoints in a Cubist painting, to reveal extra angles on people and events. The timeslip romp 'The Eighty Minute Hour: A Space Opera ('74)' is threaded throughout by characters choosing to express themselves and their dilemmas in verse suitable for musical or musichall. In 'The Malacia Tapestry ('76)', a beautifully melancholy account of an altiverse city trapped in an eternal Renaissance intrigue, songs and short verses reflect the characters' elegant stoicism. Finally, in 'Brothers Of The Head ('77/'85)', a story of Siamese twins who become the riven, driven, rock group The Bang Bang, lyrics for 'their' songs, often drawing on SF imagery, give the book an added backbone of authenticity.
INTO THE MIRRORWORLD - PILE
Looking more closely at Aldiss' poetry books, the first, 'Pile', was written in response to a series of dramatic graphics (think Escher-meets-Piranesi) by Mike Wilks. On the surface this 450-line poem tells a straightforward science fiction/fantasy story, in jaunty, predominantly rhymed verse, of how an "ultimate city", 'Pile', is destroyed when Prince Scart fatefully decides to rid himself of his rivals with the aid of the megacity-controlling megacomputer, St. Klaed's. Scart survives the disaster, and, after acknowledging his guilt, is helped by a second computer, Dealk (Klaed backwards) to escape, through flood and tunnel, into an unharmed "mirror double" city beneath the ruins, Elip (you got it - Pile backwards!).
However, the poem has many other levels (excuse pun) and deeper themes underlie the surface adventure. For example, why do the computers, like mythological beings, speak with the voices of birds, the lapwing, archetypal folktale deceiver, for St. Klaed's, a gull's for Dealk. Scart's birth-canal-like transit, after enduring a kind of breaking of the waters, recalls that rebirth into a pre-Fall innocence significant for shaman and psychologist alike, while Freudian ideas of fraught child/parent interaction and their lasting effects on the mindscape are inescapable : Dealk is adjectivised as paternal, Elip as maternal, hence Scart can be seen as having broken through into a maturer relationship with those who bore him, escaped from guilt (and dominance by a religion of science - the first computer is described as "Lord God's Hearing Aid", wishful of receiving priestly awe, not offering humble service.).
Underlying the cartoonish adventure tale mask, and the second misleading mask of the ingeniuously mirrored poem structure, which has images from the upper world recur ingeniously recontexted and remeaninged in the lower, is an intriguing poem of ideas. It challenges us to confront those bigger questions about how the living of our lives can come to terms with, or escape, the doubleness at the heart arisen from the variant prisons of nature, nurture, and the ever-more-dominant technorealm : ultimately, 'Pile' implies, we cannot escape facing the same stark choices as Scart, the final lines leaving readers to resolve paradox on their own terms: "For everyone of us it is the same/Worlds end or open as we go."
TO INWARD HEALING - FAREWELL TO A CHILD
Aldiss' second poetry publication, the sequence 'Farewell To A Child', begins with a five-line 'minipoem' introduction, followed by ten poems, in a variety of rhymed forms, which, step-by-step, follow a process of inward healing. First, a portion of the self blighted by childhood trauma is summoned into the "daylight" of clear thought. Once summoned, this inner doppelganger, darkener of days, this "urchin on my back..Who, though he clutched my throat, clung on from fear", must then be exorcised. Throughout, the powerful emotional charge inherent in this healing process is conveyed via careful crafting and delicate musicality, an instance being the way Larkin's most famous lines about what "your Mum and Dad" do to you are reminted more elegantly, and indeed poetically: "If parents strike /like snakes," you reasoned, "what are people like?"
Precise descriptions, of the interiorised battles for psychic survival, give conviction to the eventual triumph when that first self, for so long entrapped in sterile trance, forever four years old, timelessly twisted by past emotional pressures as rocks are deformed by planetary forces, is at last released into full, natural adulthood. Although the imagery at times hints at that of magic, little here is directly reminiscent of science fiction other than the powerful lines "Binary stars illuminate themselves/Less than do she and I".
SF POEMS STRUT THE BOARDS - SCIENCE FICTION BLUES
The third Aldiss book of poetry (and, in this case, much else), 'Science Fiction Blues', has a subtitle, 'The Show He Took On The Road'. It brings together material from the theatrical performance Aldiss toured round Britain in the '80s with actor Ken Campbell. So the poems here appear alongside short stories and playlets (the latter including an intriguing version of 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long', seed of the film 'Al'), sketches, and photographs.
All eleven poems here have genre links. They range from levity to thoughtfulness, since a stage show demands such changes of mood and pace. For example 'Don't Go To Jupiter' is a lighthearted, songlike, satire on opponents of space travel, while 'Star-Time', which first appeared in Aldiss' novel 'Brothers Of The Head', is a moving future elegy, ending "my memory/stays with those elegant grey seas/Curling over what was Europe". "Femalien" jokes about sex with non-humans, whereas 'The Cat Improvement Company', often subsequently reprinted, is a darkly sardonic look at future genetic engineering. 'The Progression Of The Species' mixes comedy and seriousness a little uneasily, but includes lovely lines - as eg "The gaudy inferno of the undermind(..) each generation/The Neanderthal dies from us" - a feature even more strongly present in 'The Destruction Of The Fifth Planet', again much reprinted, a musically beautiful poem. Other poems gnaw at the puzzle of 'The Lying Truth', report on the bacterial empires that will accompany us to the stars, dissect our blinkered ideas of space and time, and tell us how to address a triceratops skull. Finally, three imagined-history poems, 'Happiness And Suffering', 'Taking Leave Of A Northern Institution', and 'Parting Late In Life', both localise and universalise, as did Chinese poets, by precision of setting.MAKING THE MONSTER'S CASE - AT THE CALIGULA HOTEL
In 1995 came a substantial collection - 100 pages - of Aldiss' poems. In 'At The Caligula Hotel' again the variety of tones reflects the writer's range, from the playfully comic to the resonantly serious. Topics are widely varied too, alike among the work which is "mainstream" and that with genre connections, or which is speculative in a wider, sometimes whimsically bizarre way. As an extreme instance, one of a sequence of poems depicting surreal relationships is 'A Refrigerator Proposes To A Musk Ox'! However, that series also reflects what can be seen as the collection's unifying, overarching link, love (and the search for it) as a force surpassing individual time and circumstance, unlimited by bounds of space and species, era and entity. This power is overmastering in this sequence's 'A Woman Marries The Southern Ocean' - "Dream on, two-legged fish..and you may get your wish,/For thousands lie in my embrace."
That such elemental forces use us, as they did our predecessors and will our successors, as vehicles, yet that we can nevertheless remain individually significant in our defiance, amusingly toylike as it may be, echoes even through the quietest pieces, as in lines from 'Who Hears My Voice?', part of a sequence again reflecting Aldiss' fascination with Chinese poetry (a fascination shared with Ezra Pound, another poetic influence he has acknowledged) - "the night turns round,/Velvet and inviolate on its stoney axis,/Back come the words of other dynasties:/Thoughts infest the hollow spaces."
Perhaps the high point of this collection, exemplifying how, to cite Aldiss himself, it gives "To dark and shapeless substances a form", comes with those poems which relate to Mary Shelley and her creations Frankenstein and the manthing of his making: poems which penetrate deep into the inwardness of all three in their dilemmas. It is, I am sure, no coincidence that the novel in which Aldiss most closely scrutinises the ambiguous interaction of creator and creation, and specifically of writer and writing, indeed even more precisely of poet and poetry, in his 'Frankenstein Unbound' (Triad/Panther '82), in which the creations of Mary's fiction invade the historical reality of the time and place at which Frankenstein began to be written, when she responded to Byron's challenge to write a horror story while the Shelleys were staying with him by Lake Geneva: while simultaneously our timeslipped present invades both real and unreal fossil pasts. As warm mother, Mary Shelley wrote the ultimate story of the cold uncaring father: here, in the poem 'Victor Frankenstein on the Mer de Glace', Aldiss restages, and reconfigures, the monster-man's final confrontation with its heartless creator. The poem delineates with diamondlike precision the boundaries ice and fire set even to love's power, as the creature cries out in desperate reproach "You icy father, know you not of love?" It is fascinating, incidentally, to compare Aldiss' voicing, the creature's loss and longing conveyed with the pared-down simplicity, and sincerity, of a primal scream, with the elaborate insincerity of the same entity's final speech in Mary's novel, a whole Enlightenment-full of evasive verbal dexterities : fulsome confessions masking complex self-justifications, unshakeable defiance hiding within ostensibly genuine promises to repair guilt by suicide.
TO DEATH'S FAR PLANET : A PLUTONIAN MONOLOGUE
After what is in effect a "Selected Collected" came a slim collection indeed. 'A Plutonian Monologue' is just seven poems. As the subtitle, 'On His Wife's Death', makes clear, it is a clearly heartfelt, yet poetically controlled, response to Margaret Aldiss' 1997 death from cancer. The poems are stoical, and often startlingly honest, as when, in 'V, In Her Bureau', he describes his discovery, after her death, of a notebook containing her secret "list/Of my misdeeds, without insistence/Noted." Predominantly in free verse, occasionally prose poem in form, they picture the grieving process with clarity and precision, as changing weathers, altering seasons, changed perspectives on the interiors and exteriors of a house once shared, each play their mutable parts. Here is moving strength, even if the reader can also feel to eavesdrop on a one-way conversation with a ghost.
Within the sequence, there is one poem, extending the meaning of beyond death's realm to the far end of the soalr system, which is not only directly science fictional, but a remarkable demonstration of Aldiss' ability, and that of the genre poem more generally, to meaningfully relate the micro scale of individual humanity to the macro scale of space's vastness, in ways that illumine both for us more clearly. 'IV, On Pluto', shows Aldiss drawing directly on SF tropes to illumine the contemporary, the personal, by the genre's outreach into the vast Beyond, and in the process reminding us of just why the lesson of Moorcock's '60s New Worlds editorship, that exploration of inner as much as of outer space is SF's duty, remains so important four decades on. In this poem, the disembodied viewpoint accompanies the probe Zond - a "bauble..Its only breath...seventy-five watts" on its immense journey to "what the Russians call/"Nasha dyevoshka" - "our dead little girl", ie the title planet. Here is sharply-focused strangeness. Left behind, Jupiter is still "sizzling on all wavebands" while Zond (and poet-eye) witness "avalanche..fall soundlessly" amid "crystalline valleys" where "Kelvin's Zero burns like fire", under "The cumbrous moon of Charon". Meantime, "the mother ship", purpose ended, "flies on to lose itself/Among the frigid wasp nest" - Occamishly concise metaphor - "of the Kuiper Belt." Emptiness felt "on solar system's ragged skirts" mirrors the "frozen orbit" of personal loss.
STARING DOWN DREAD - THE DARK SUN RISES
Given the considerable overlap of poem content between the next two collections, 'I Went To Another House' and the most recent, 'The Dark Sun Rises', discussion of the latter - a 64-page collection which, as well as poetry, includes six colour designs by Aldiss - can meaningfully serve for both.
Non-genre as well as genre work is included. Among the former, love and relationships in all their unpredictabilities offer topics; so too do places as far apart as Central Asia and the Med, plus the journeyings between: among the latter, the often-reprinted 'Flight 063' (ia published in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine) reflects on the eternal Icarusness of mankind - "Up, up..unheeding/... silly limitations". Again Aldiss includes work written with Chinese delicacy, yet is brutally graphic, as befits the subject matter, in 'Colour Contrasts', which could be an account of Abu Graib although written long before those revelations: an interrogated prisoner's "blood/Drips richly on the bone-white floor/Dark as molasses." 'On Passing A Roadside Auction Of Featherbeds, Lake District, 1845' memorably depicts emotion's mutability - fallen into gloom at the thought that he too will soon lose the need for possessions, an aging Wordsworth regains cheer by recalling how "a new edition of his poems/Is in preparation."
Among the genre poems, the title piece references Shelley's Last Man and the paradoxical "aesthetic thrill" of dread; 'Rapide des Morts' contemporises the Gothic, "The dead ..speed in underground trains../..faces, pressed against the windows", showing their "sullen fury/that we live on."
Aldiss explores the way fearsome powers burrow beneath our ordinary today, just as their undertow brings down the quarrelsome archetypes of ancient myth, in such places as 'Fairy Tales', 'Jocasta', and 'Now Showing: Killing Father', while flavouring grim revelation with darksome humour; 'Poem From Life In The West', effectively portrays how even love has its fearsomeness: "Burning beneath hair, flesh and teeth,/An image of the Bright One lies (..) wolf grins to wolfish grin".
Intriguing genre-crossover - interstitial, to call on the latest jargon - poems include 'Jane Eyre At Elsinore', teasing wit concealing profounder speculation, as the unreal heroine's love causes Hamlet to forget his revenge mission; 'Many Mansions', where Klein bottlesque games - "This room contains a sea, and this is a gale (..) Next rooms - great suns, with moons en suite" - darken - "An attic room contains the intellect (..) Next room, some bitter memories collect" - into a reflection on the divided self, and the creative process' ability to detach from it: He grins, "It isn't really my concern."
'Dendrochronology' explores flawed humanity in the person of a Nobel prizewinner gone badly to seed, nothing later having matched youthful glory, when he had "Established..the very../day..volcano blew, thirty centuries ago.. wiping..cultures out" (The same "Volcano", perhaps, which causes Aldiss to offer a vividly stoic essence of this collection: "Those draw Meaning best/Who draw dark matter from their hearts.")
This reprint context deepens 'The Cat Improvement Company's impact: that something "buttery soft and cushiony nice", DNA-deprived of its hunter nature, warns as it uneases: "What shall be done to stop that glare/At spaces nothing occupies." 'The Deceptive Truth', too, is warning parable - overwhelmed by the telepathic onset of an enormous brain uncovered in the Martian desert, "its cold equations...insights shap as tsetse flies", mankind learns that "Too much Truth will kill us all."
Finally, mention of a poem which returns to a far-off human dawntime to recreate a joyous eureka moment: 'The Prehistory Of The Mind' shows us an eo-man who "stubbed his toe upon a stone// pale and round", then noticed "moon low in the sky was round and pale" and "rejoiced". So, we are persuaded to believe, witnessed by Aldiss alone from a far future, metaphor was born. As with so much of this writer's, this poet's, work, here is an individual creative edge sharpened by an outstanding ability to see outside the box of here and now, of linear thought and timeless present. This alone would be enough to make these collections well worth seeking out, quite apart from the many insights they offer into man and writer.
Copyright © Steve Sneyd.
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