Banks and his close friend, fellow SF author, Ken MacLeod were working on publishing a joint collection of poems as Banks learnt of his terminal diagnosis, and he continued revising in his remaining time, their collaboration being published posthumously in 2015.
Banks’s first published work in 1977 was a poem: ‘041’ – more on that below, and he included a few more in some of his novels either entire as the pair that bookend one of his Culture novels, Use of Weapons, or in snatches as in The Crow Road and A Stone of Stone. As MacLeod writes in his introduction, Banks stopped writing poetry in 1981, he doesn’t know why. Did Banks consider poetry a young man’s game perhaps? Or did his novels with the actual initial writing part taking around three months of most years after he started not give him time? We don’t know…
With apologies to MacLeod, I’ve only had time this week to dip into Banks’s poems. The poems here are presented chronologically with the first being from 1973 when Banks was 19 and a student. ‘Damage’ is a rambling eight page, three section poem with a women called Esther Mercure, who reminded me of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby, it has a bonfire on a beach which transmutes into war and gun fire, a lost child who never was (or maybe was – I couldn’t be sure) and a blind match-seller at the train station. The penultimate verse returns to the theme of the effects of war which is one of his preoccupations, and I shouldn’t have, but couldn’t suppress a giggle at Banks’s turn of phrase in the line below:
Ah, that old napalmic ‘whoosh’, Greek fire, / Protestors burning in / The square, trees of smoke rooted in flame / High above the desert…
Some of the poems are overtly SF, others are playful such as ‘Metamorphosis’ (see right), which isn’t anything to do with Ovid at all (although he does periodically invoke Greek/Roman myth in other poems, as all poets seem to do?!?), but does show his love of playing with language.
There are also a handful of love poems, which include that published one ‘041’ which begins:
My lady’s voice on the phone / Like an electric thread of silk / Drawing me back through night’s dark maze / To a stormy city / A handful-hundred miles away.
You can tell Banks’s love poems by the use of the word ‘lady’. ‘041’ stands out above the others with its more lyrical writing as the protagonist phones his lady during a storm, (041 being the old dialling code for Glasgow).
Another that I particularly enjoyed was the narrative poem, ‘Jack’, in which the author gets talking to another passenger on the night bus to Glasgow.
Eventually, as I tried to sleep, / Legs wedged against the seat in front, / He started talking, asking where I was going, / What doing, where I’d been. / I sighed and talked.
In general I preferred his shorter poems; in some of the long rambling ones, it was difficult to keep the thread of understanding going. I wish he had gone on to write more, his command of language has improved in the later ones, and his texts gain in subtlety (generally) and description of their surroundings. The fifty poems he selected for inclusion in this volume show a young man brimming with interesting ideas trying to get them all down on paper. A fascinating insight into the man who’d become a much-loved writer, and showcasing the variety of storytelling that he’d also apply to his novels.
Source: Own copy. Poems, Iain Banks & Ken MacLeod (Little, Brown, 2015) hardback, 126pp.. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)