“McCool” by Aidan Andrew Dun

With Aidan’s poetry I’m always amazed at what I was trying to get at when writing about Unholyland but didn’t nail. Trying again now, after reading Aidan’s two Middle-Eastern verse epics in the wrong order. What it is is a spiky combination of obscurity and simplicity, both in content and writing style; that’s I think a little nearer to the truth.
I’m going to have to give you a few examples. Here’s the 21st sonnet of Chapter 6, very near the mid-way point. Tyg, the painter, has met Galatea/Gala, the wife of Colonel Parker James, an English army officer fighting in a just-future Iraq-style war in Lebanon, and while painting in his studio he has a vision of Galatea through his window, on the bank of the canal:

Canalside, she stands alone,
sad Renaissance madonna
in the rain, in twilight, on her phone
(Dusk has descended on her.)
In the cosmology of her face
stars of interstellar space
flash and blaze from eyes storm-lashed;
as a single tear, with fiery splash,
falls from cheekbone’s promontory:
in this one fragile sphere all the pain
deluged on earth in driving rain,
in experience fragmentary.
A face incarnates agony
and beauty: wild symphony.

That’s that combination I was talking about – Dun’s mixing Blakean vision with “on her phone”. The obscurity comes out in the required slow reading: you can’t just whizz through it. This is partly through Dun’s deliberate and careful focus on individual words, and partly because his ambitious rhyme-scheme reduces his options. But it isn’t all like this: with more straightforward narrative something faster can be achieved: have a look at this (to my mind more impressive) example (the start of Chapter 3, describing the beginning of Gala’s husband’s black-ops attack on a nuclear plant):

Whispering low a Myrmidon
drone supercopter disappeared
over the dark Anti-Lebanon.
At midnight, a second machine reared
from the moonless night of Riyaq,
unpiloted too, almost pitch black,
on board a Deathshead kidnap team.
Leaning out into the airstream
Col. James watched airbase shrink,
calm, breathing away nervousness
(cool pro of clandestine services),
one eye to the drone’s screenlink.
Though they’d had less than a month to train
his men were on for Al Qaryatayn.

Clad in sombre dragonskin,
armed with rarefaction wavegun,
wearing trilaminate vests within
outer scale armour (no fun
if the software failed and roasted you)
these, hand-picked, were Parker’s boasted few.
Seven ghost-troopers: his strongarm squad.
Heads hidden in the ‘helmet of God’
advanced combat Headgear Four Thousand
they seemed humanoid scorpions,
not men; futuristic champions
loyal to some Lord of Belowland;
resembled solider-insects, vast bean-
pod skulls nodding before their Queen.

[By the way, that last image of beanpod skulls reminds me of Christopher Logue’s own cover design for Kings, his version of the beginning of the Iliad]. This is much smoother, quite different from Tyg’s seeing Gala by the canal, yet still visionary through its imagery and language, which fire off in all directions, showing the combining I’ve been talking about: sci-fi (“Anti-Lebanon”, “rarefaction wavegun”) and myth (“some Lord of Belowland”, the Myrmidons were Achilleus’ men, made, it was said, from an ant colony), juxtaposed with prosaic military thoughts: “though they’d had less than a month to train, his men were on for Al Qaryatayn”, and 2010s lingo: “cool pro”, “software”.

I think that’s enough on Aidan’s style. As for his story, it, together with Unholyland, are billed as “love stories”, but don’t expect much, or even any, sentimental romance. There’s some intensely suggestive erotica, yes, and very strong characterisation, particulary of Moshe and Jalilah in his later story, but not much actual love. What we do get, apart from breathtaking poetry, is a rich and consistent tapestry, or cornucopia, presenting us with politics, (in)justice, and other comments from a (nicely knowing) poet-narrator. I love the three moments in McCool where Aidan gives what seem to be Hitchcockian cameos: Chapter 4, sonnets iii-iv (on King’s Cross, Rimbaud and Verlaine); the puzzling 11:xxi (?an entire sonnet which seems to be saying that the poet is immune to the hot passion which is burning up his two lovers?); and the wonderful 4:xix:

Beyond, a poet, pale and slender,
somewhere plunges through mind-pools,
big rivers of imagination,
bent to his poem, his creation.

But throughout the poet-narrator is present, digressing and caressing, like Chaucer telling us his tale.
And if you want a longer extract to look at, the first seven sonnets of Chapter 8 give an excellent self-contained example of Aidan at work, describing his poetic home – London:

If time goes on slowing down
the day won’t be moving soon.
The hour hand is on strike; town
taps its foot to pollution’s hot tune
lazily. Retarded by sorrow,
minutes drag toward tomorrow
reluctantly through mundane
dust. A corpse hangs, weathervane
on a towerblock stairwell, stinking
bell that tolls with sinister repeats.
Gang wars shuffle through the streets.
What can the Lord God be thinking?
Is He asleep? Doe He have pity?
(Doomed love has done this to the city.)

Possibly yesterday’s punishment
will not revisit the town; maybe
madness will return to some extent
tempered beyond the Red Sea.
Might sirens cease for one day,
allow music to have her say?
Could fountains perhaps reappear?
(They have been thought to be near.)
Might water play in the junction
(coast of skulls and closed circuit tv)
cool jets arise, a rosetree?
(Return: the river’s social function
in the city. Raise the sacred Fleet,
fandango with citizens you meet…)

That all seems doubtful; sedated
backstreets swelter. With no air
moving in this leadweighted
grey midday atmosphere,
no breeze is going to play,
no freshness can find a way
through London’s slums and ghettos.
Sirens scream their falsettos.
Boredom of the underclass
erupts on the problem estates.
A single word – ‘Lebanon’ – stalemates
thought in a dustfilled underpass.
The only noonwind in this hell
carries bitter scent of shrapnel.

It’s touched the sides of a pit
burning in eternity for men.
(Into that darkness all fit,
under destiny and its ‘amen’.
Born into the separation
we make friends with annihilation,
threaten horizons with hellfire:
but go down in war’s maya.)
London cooks in apocalyptic
microclimates of doomsday:
here’s the horrific present-day
town as Last Judgment triptych
painted by some modern master,
entitled: City of Disaster.

Eastward Hackney is a shambles:
this already destabilized zone
now economically gambles
on the help of Al Capone.
Flats drag on the sidewalk,
slap concrete like loose talk.
A woman walks through the ville;
she’s trodden down her leather heel.
Catch her slurred speech when she offers
the best deal on her services
(under the brotherhood’s auspices,
of course; half goes to Mafia coffers,
rest on crack. Skeletons must smoke!
‘A Sexworker’s Guide to Freebase Coke’:

Bestseller). Through garbage in the street
scattered, schoolgirls in facemasks
crocodile through stench bittersweet.
Marijuana dances bergamasques;
dreadlocked rustic mountain-rastas
shepherd the children, funky pastors.
Class attendance is nearly nil,
recruiting offices have their fill.
Icecream vans come out to play,
Red Riding Hood in pink lipstick
slinks along to Teddy Bears’ Picnic.
(If you go down to the ‘hood today
you’ll hear the harsh bells of damnation,
decadence and war-desperation.)

Armageddon’s brought booming trade
in girlflesh for the young material
hanging around the ‘crusade
bars’, where born again millennial
Christ-killing Christians hardsell you
anti-Islamic fact sheets, tell you
the war is good in the sight of God.
(A streetgirl passes, sexily slipshod,
another blonde angel on the slide
as vice squad take their backhanders.)
Only fire-dwelling salamanders
can live out on the East side.
Do turtle doves still coo in this town;
any high romances going down?

Which of course there are (high romances going down), so we’re back to the plot. But what a wonderful mix of chatty and high poetry, using street and hell imagery to show a city besieged by an ironic combination of prostitution and self-righteous crusader zeal! Sirens (what a great way of using myth to fuse feminine seduction and war!), the girl’s shoes, the still heat.

As can see, I’m discovering more the more I invest, and I haven’t even started discussing the poem’s use of Tyg’s paintings, which is perhaps its central motif.

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