“Unholyland” by Aidan Andrew Dun

Another step on Aidan Andrew Dun’s journey towards the poetic recognition he so deserves, and perhaps a major milestone: he now has his name and words fixed in stone at King’s Cross, and has attracted, for the cover of this book, plaudits from Kate Kellaway and Andrew Motion. There’s also a major event in January at Housman’s bookshop in King’s Cross, which I sadly had to miss.

Aidan is a very special poet, who immediately made a huge impact on me when I came across him by chance at a reading in the Voice Box, where he jumped up like a rock star and performed the amazing beginning of Vale Royal. A few years later, Ode to a Postbox‘s appearance in the Guardian helped me find him again, and two visits to my school and obligatory reading of everything he produces have put me firmly in the fan club. He’s completely unique, always doing new things with verse, both at the technical level (witness the sonnets in this new piece) and with content: an epic poem about a valley in Central London, a rap love-story set in Israel/Palestine.

So what is it about him? For me his salient feature, apart from the originality, is his ability or willingness to combine things expressed in sublime, perfect, poetry, with things said in ways which seem at first bathetic. (As a teenager I was always impressed with Genesis songs which did this – the refusal to sacrifice meaning for form.) This juxtaposition of ‘high’ and ‘low’, if you like, is more perhaps a treatment of everything as ‘high’ (as the Quakers, who have abolished not the priesthood, but the laity). All forms of expression are eligible for poetry; and this carries across into content too: Unholyland is full of sharp jumps from rich, gorgeous descriptions of sunsets and love-making to the slang, lives and cars of street people. It’s in a way a Chaucerian feature: Aidan often reminds me of good old Geoffrey, particularly in this poem, when he’s talking direct to the reader, moralising or commenting on life, or when the words he chooses are self-consciously selected for the rhyme.

Indeed it’s the technical nature of the verse which interested me most as I read. Aidan uses Pushkin’s Onegin stanza: a sonnet form which rhymes ababccddeffegg. [As you’ll learn from Wikipedia, several other writers after Pushkin have used this form, including what seems like an incredible technical tour de force from John Fuller. (It’s always impressive when a poet uses a meter which originated in a different language, as Virgil with Homer’s hexameter.) Aidan doesn’t adhere as tightly: his a, c and e rhymes aren’t feminine, and his iambic tetrameter is usually a looser, simpler four-beat line.] This rhyme-scheme fascinated me: sometimes I tried to read each sonnet fully conscious of the rhymes, and found the first part, the ababccdd, smooth, even jangly – the two couplets ending this part of the scheme are easy rhymes to follow. But when, after e, we get the ff couplet, I got lost, finding it really hard to know where I was, metrically. Here’s an example, the first sonnet of Chapter Two, describing the hero, Moss (pronounced Mosh) preparing to go on a journey:

A silent engine ticking-over,
idling, transmission disengaged,
might be compared to time forever
hovering outside what is gauged
past, future, poised in the present;
suspended, high-powered, heaven-sent,
waiting in neutral for the word ‘go’
which never comes, or only comes slow,
when a long age has passed at low revs.
Moss sat waiting at the wheel
a good time, getting the track’s feel,
checking invisible semibreves
in the bass, lots of space:
Greedy Dog in a state of grace.

Particularly when, as often, there’s a major sense break (the volta?) after the first e line, reading through into the ff couplet is hard because I’m aware of an unresolved rhyme hanging around – it takes me a big effort to note the second e as the resolution to the first. The effect, for me, is either to read with less conscious tracking of the rhyme, or to expect, and enjoy, this threat of derailment I approach the sonnet’s end.

There’s a more thorough assessment by Poetry Scotland Reviews, from which I’d like to make two quotations:

This unlikely scenario is carried off by utter confidence. Vale Royal for all its flamboyant achievement was a teeny bit showy. In Unholyland, everything that needs saying – and a lot needs saying – is said simply and with confidence.

I’m not sure about Vale Royal‘s being “showy” though agree that Unholyland is less so…

The poem abounds in lines memorable in themselves. Balancing the felicitous narrative ease comes a sense that the poem was difficult to write but has been written successfully against the odds.

This is a better way of describing what I was talking about above: the juxtaposition of high and low. There’s a genuine sense of struggle in Aidan’s verse, coupled strangely with his huge confidence – his uniqueness.

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1 Response to “Unholyland” by Aidan Andrew Dun

  1. I think it’s Nabokov who first compares the O stanza to a spinning top (but the comparison may be much older). It flies, then falters, then miraculously picks up in the last couplet. It’s a rainbow-blur, then it slows down and becomes mere colour for a minute, then it flashes one last time. Enjoy the Rimbaldian derailment!

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