Mortal Morning, Brian Aldiss, Flambard Press, 92pp, £12.99 (hardback) Anterooms, Richard Wilbur, Waywiser Press, 69 pp, £8.99 (paperback)
Born in the 1920s, Brian Aldiss and Richard Wilbur both show that ripened verse need not follow the wordy and wizened Wordsworthian path into decline. Aldiss and Wilbur’s apples are still as tart and juicy as ever, if not more so. In ‘Iceberg Music’, Aldiss sends us invigorating gusts of polar wind: ‘compose me some iceberg music please/With groaning saxophones, shrill piccolos/And the dull throb of a leather gong’. While Wilbur’s nature poems seem a little less gusty and more traditionally pastoral, they are also far from merely soothing: ‘This upstart thistle/Is young and touchy; it is/All barb and bristle,//Threatening to wield/Its green, jagged armament/ Against the whole field’ (‘A Pasture Poem’).
Although the titles of both collections prepare the reader for a series of elegies or pre-elegies, the books do not linger in the valley of death for very long. Wilbur is about as far from fearing premature Keatsian death as it is possible to be, looking at the length of his remaining life with unimpassioned phlegm. In ‘A Measuring Worm’ he watches himself with the detachment of a lepidopterist observing a caterpillar: ‘And I too don’t know/Toward what undreamt condition/Inch by inch I go’.
Aldiss’s poems are no more self-pityingly self-elegiac, although quite a number of them foreground the transience of loved ones and universal finitude. His title poem, ‘Mortal Morning’, is an indication of this ubiquitous sense of impermanence. The exclusively festive genre of the aubade is alluded to only to be nipped in the bud by the first word of the title. Yet this intimation of the end perceived in each beginning is a fertile source of inspiration. There is ultimately nothing mournful in these pieces: they seem to expand and thrive on the dryness of this cosmic funerary grounding.
This paradox is one which has been at the heart of Aldiss’s enterprise from the beginning. One of his early masterpieces, the novel Hothouse, is an exciting and startlingly imaginative exploration of the kind of life that could spring up when the sun turns nova.
Aldiss’s ‘Nocturne’ also offers an original rendering of the genre which it thematises in the title, contemplating existence and mortality in anything but nihilistic terms. The poem comes as a perfect verbal accompaniment to the new, theme-based display of nocturnal paintings in the Symbolist section of the Musée D’Orsay in Paris.
I hear the dreamy music Of this closing day. How much I love my life How mysterious my stay.
These closing lines form an invaluable quatrain that can be beckoned from the lake of memory at any time as a sword to slice futility in two. I strongly recommend committing them to memory.
As an abstract painter himself, Aldiss’s poems also display a strong interest in pictorial matters. The richly ekphrastic poems in this collection range from Renaissance artists such as Breughel and Tiepolo to Romantic, Symbolist and Modernist painters like Caspar David Friedrich, Fernand Khnopff, Gauguin, Kandinsky, De Chirico and Francis Bacon. Some of these painterly poems also engage poetry with cinema, a sister art that is much more rarely frequented by poets. ‘Christine Kubrick’ opens with the pastoral cheeriness and domestic tranquillity evoked in this English painter’s work only to contrast it with the nuclear-hugging Dr. Strangelove, the sinister comedy being prepared by her husband ‘in other quarters of the house’.
The principal mode in which Aldiss’s novels are steeped is disaster fiction. This eschatological music can also be heard in the few undercutting notes of apocalyptic sombreness sounded at intervals throughout his poetry too.
Aldiss’s mythological imagination, at full throttle in books like Hothouse with its end-world hybrid creatures, creeps through into the metaphors of his poetry. Evoking Tarkovsky’s film of the life of the fourteenth-century Russian iconographer, Andrei Rublev, Aldiss pictures the transmedial cross between painting and film in terms of mutational interbreeding:
So that in the Sixties of a later date, Andrei Tarkovsky shoots a film whereon He mates his moody genius with genius; And ‘Rublyev‘ is thus revived through dolour, Through mist and murk – and sometimes brilliant colour – His art and sanctity triumphing over death and squalor.
As with J. G. Ballard, Aldiss’s contemporary, the demise of a world is always balanced with a fertile exploration of resurgence. Although their work is readily placed in the genre of dystopian fiction, it should more accurately be described as the literature of fertile disaster.
In my correspondence with Brian Aldiss, he has stressed that his poem ‘April in East Coker’ is a homage to Eliot’s apocalyptic wasteland vision but is a corrective to it also. This is how he puts it:
My East Coker poem was meant as an elegy to T. S. Eliot, whom I used to see – and indeed to talk to – when my writings began to be published by Faber & Faber, the kindest publishers a man could have. Eliot was one of the directors there, polite and meek. But in a way I could not help but argue with something stifling his poem, and other poems.
Why do I continue to write? Because I am still aware of something wonderful around us. But was Eliot?
The presence of the locus terribilis evoked by writers of the past is also hinted at in Richard Wilbur’s collection, Anterooms, sometimes suggesting that the waiting room Wilbur has in mind does not always lead to the chamber of cheer. His miniature poem, ‘Terza Rima’, draws on Dante’s stanzaic invention, claiming it has a slightly glib versificatory propensity to skip along from horror to horror on its way to paradise: ‘There is no dreadful thing that can’t be said/In passing ( … )’. Wilbur’s poem ends as a fragment after the first line of a tercet as if mimetically to suggest death’s abrupt arrest. This extreme miniaturisation of Dante’s Divine Comedy underlines Wilbur’s point. It is also the mark of a poet increasingly drawn towards brevity as many older writers are. In a recent televised interview, Wilbur commented that he is perfectly happy to spend a whole afternoon mulling over a few short lines.
Another feature often present in the work of mature writers is a tendency to reach back through history to its beginnings, as if to grasp the mists of mystery and seize upon the meaning of existence. Wilbur closes his collection on a translation of Symphosius’s tercet riddles. These are a delight to try to decipher, even for readers whose minds usually baulk at crossword puzzles. Here is one that can be readily solved, especially with a smattering of Latin to decrypt the solution left in the untranslated title:
Long daughter of the forest, swift of pace, In whom old neighbours join as beam and brace, I speed on many paths, yet leave no trace.
Wilbur’s ‘Trismegistus’ conjures up the time-honoured figure of Hermes, linking him with Egyptian mythology’s totalising view:
His grieving eye foresaw The world’s bright fabric overthrown Which married star to stone And charged all things with awe.
Brian Aldiss’s poems also hark back to Ancient Egypt in the erotic triangular tercets of ‘A Piece of Cleopatra’. Ancient Greek literary myths are evoked in the dramatic monologue he offers in ‘Antigone’s Song’. His moving ‘Jocasta’ offers a challengingly new perspective on Sophocles’ tragic play. It opens with an evocation of the scene that is only implied in the Greek tragedy:
Son sleeping with mother And mother with son Hot under the covers Long into the Thracian night.
With great lyrical and conceptual power it then proceeds to ponder the mysteries of human desire in anthropological terms.
There are many more poems to discover in these fine collections. What Aldiss calls the ‘multiverse’ in his poem ‘The New Philosophy’ (a concept opposed to the more restrictive ‘universe’) is everywhere apparent in the poems of these two vigorous writers.