Poems by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod
Little, Brown, 162 pages
Review by Russell Jones

Two of Scotland’s most prolific and celebrated science fiction writers, Ken MacLeod and (the late) Iain Banks join forces and book glue to produce a collection of verse: Poems

This is a book of two halves, with Banks’ poems appearing in the first section and MacLeod’s in the second, so there are no playoffs between the two writers in terms of the book’s structure. However, thematic similarities do persist, with poems about human damage and human joy. There are science fictional links too, with Banks referencing his novel Use of Weapons and MacLeod calling on the Morlocks of H. G. Wells, among others.

Banks’ poetry maintains a definite narrative influence, switching perspectives and employing less poeticised phrasing. As such it may provide a useful doorway into the world of poetry for his fans who prefer prose. In “Extract Solenoid,” for example, Banks begins part way through a story, presenting either end as “missing”:

And peeping from the wrecks
We watch the guns copulate,
Flickering raps of cordite ecstasy
And embarrassed cases labelled
‘Don’t leave this lying about in…’

Those ‘missing’ elements are persistent through several of Banks’ poems, building an unseen narrative which allows the reader to fill in the gaps. Others are less opaque:

The bird is a metaphor for freedom,
The bird of freedom.
The book is a metaphor for life,
The book of life.
From “Metamorphosis”

Banks’ poems play with expectations, flipping meaning back on us in a linguistic game of cat and mouse (or perhaps Scouter and Destroyer). His poems are less overtly sci-fi than many of his readers might expect, with relatively few direct links to other worlds and futures. However, an alien otherness penetrates his work, making The Real seem strangely Unreal.

MacLeod’s poems will more likely appeal to science fiction fans, particularly (though not exclusively) in his “A Fertile Sea” sequence, which is dedicated to Banks. Here, MacLeod’s aptitude for storytelling shines through whilst also demonstrating his appreciation of linguistic depth and experiment, as well as an appreciation of the impact of the poem’s form:

Stop the nuclear train
It isn’t rain it’s fallout
Nuclear waste fades your genes
clear was               our gen

MacLeod’s attention to the rhythm built through rhyme (train / rain) and white space (“nuclear” becomes “clear”, “your genes” becomes “our gen” to show the passing of time) add an extra level of intrigue.

Whilst both poets employ longer poetic forms, MacLeod more often grasps the nettle of shorter verse to explore issues. This shows a confidence with the poetic form.

What does the bee feel
as it clambers
around the flower?

Your hair got in my mouth
your toes
tickled behind my knees which now
go loose as you grin at the sun
-From “Birds and Bees and That”

Poems is something of a mixed bag in terms of consistency, but it is certainly a worthwhile exploration. It provides an alternative mouthpiece for two exceptional writers, and with that new form comes a new appreciation of their work as a whole. If you’re a fan of Banks’s or MacLeod’s prose, you ought to find something to appreciate in Poems.

This review was first published in Shoreline of Infinity 2.