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The Dark Sun Rises
Brian Aldiss
Avernus Media chapbook £5.99

review by Steve Sneyd

As with his myriad novels, Brian Aldiss' poetry spans genre and non-genre modes, versatility well reflected in this latest of his poetry collections. So, before a closer look at some of the genre work here, some mention of others is needed. In particular, despite their wide variety of topics, there is a strong unifying element, that's also present in many of the genre pieces. This is a detachedly precise, always economical, often affectionate, sometimes dryly humorous, even for the oddity and inconsistency of human beings and the emotions they bring to relationships - love here, for example, whether genuine or deceptive of the other or the self, compromising or compromised, always remains a kind of quantum force, unpredictably disruptive of any certainty. In fact, insofar as a genre feel often involves a distanced view, it could be said that the observing eye remains a genre one even in the non-genre pieces.
   Subtle re-imaginings of the past - in On Passing a Roadside Auction of Featherbeds, Lake District, 1945, an aging Wordsworth, gloomily reminded that soon he too will no longer need for possessions, is cheered by thinking "At least a new edition of his poems/ Is in preparation", in They Who Waited a medieval warrior's vigil takes on the grace of Chinese calligraphy - sit alongside our brutal present's environmental damage and casual violence: in Colour Contrasts, an interrogated prisoner's blood "Drips richly on the bone-white floor/ Dark as molasses". Aldiss meditates, too, on how places act as memory machines, from central Asia's dying Aral Sea to ruin-haunted Mediterranean shores. Of these, Retrospection At the Temple of Aphaia, on the island of Aeaina, Greece, bridges non-genre and genre, depicting how inescapably micro is bound to macro: "The cosmos blazes on its way (...) As fossil radiation still/ Roars of the universe's angry birth,/ So fossil sorrow turns my heart to stone... Time is a poisoned layer cake (...) Is it DNA/ That acts as kite string to our kite's ascent/ And ties us down, at Now, to yesterday?"
   Journeys, those balancings of anticipation and danger, summon up cross-time linkages, as in Flight 063 first published in Asimov's SF Magazine, the contemporary re-mints the mythical, recalling Icarus' blind daring - "The blue air scaled - / That first and foremost time (...) Up, up, unheeding/ ... The melting point of wax".
   Of the more directly genre poems, The Deceptive Truth is most overtly science fictional. An enormous brain, dug up in Mars' desert, undermines all human certainties with the telepathic onset of its "cold equations... insights sharp as tsetse flies"; succeeding somehow in reburying it, the Earthmen conclude "Too much Truth will kill us all".
   The title poem goes to the heart of the Gothic mode's abiding appeal, that paradoxical 'aesthetic thrill' of the dreadful's half-longed for, half-dreaded onset. That the Gothic still has contemporary relevance is clearly felt in a commemoration of Hiroshima Day, Rapide des Morts: "The dead... all travel fast./ ..speed in underground trains./ ..faces, pressed against the windows,/ Show hollow-eyed anger (...) sullen fury/ That we live on." How impactfully, too, the imagery of dark fantasy can depict the ambiguous heart of emotion is well shown by the sensual violence of Poem from 'Life In The West' - "Burning beneath hair, flesh and teeth,/ An image of the Bright One lies,/ A lantern hid in bone (...) wolf grins to wolfish grin". In Insomnia, the banal experience of sleeplessness opens the door to truly cosmic dread for the "Traveller where time lies curled": "This night hour is a ghostly army/ I'm sentinel in its castle keep/ The giant wheel forever turning/ Seems to pause amid its stars/ As if the eye of night is fixed/ On the unwinking planet Mars".
   That such archetypal sensations, and the fears they feed on and revel in, constantly move beneath and within the everyday is conveyed powerfully in Fairy Tales: "..in this desolate last resort/ (...) I know why Cinderella fled and lost her slipper/ Too timid to show any love (...) A babe still searching for a decent wood (...) run up against an ogre's face/ A mad axeman, an oven, or a bloody head upon a dish". Equally dark yet dryly humorous use of timeless myths which gnaw at dysfunctional family roots is made in Jocasta, where "The bedbugs could have warned them/ Nemesis was on its way" as "Dark deeds ...burst/ Like buboes bringing sorrow" on those "Caught up in machinery/ Even geneticists can't explain" - and in Now Showing: 'Killing Father' ... "a false beard over his real one, (...)/ Father blubbers that he did his best (...) Snick! Blades/ Slide"
   Elegant disruption of expectation is featured here, alike in the literature-liberating paradox of Jane Ayre at Elsinore - love for this visitor got loose from her own book stymies Hamlet's revenge agenda - and the species-transformation of The Carnivores - with its deer who "Where deodar leaves hang like tresses/ ..dream of eating lionesses". Going still deeper into surrealism's realm, yet with meaningful intent, is Many Mansions: "This room contains a sea, and this a gale (...) monsoons you'll meet,/ Next rooms - great suns, with moons en suite (...) Desire, disease (...) An attic room contains the intellect (...) Next room, some bitter memories collect" - this house of many mansions is also the haplessly divided self, prey as much to Within as Without.
   The Prehistory of the Mind beautifully depicts a dawn-time man's rejoicing discovery of metaphor: "stubbed his toe upon a stone/ ..pale and round/ ..moon low in the sky was round and pale"; contrastingly, in The World of Lost Content, wonder has died, the dystopian future offering only "songs of plastic, hearts of steel". Dendrochronology, giving a human face to science, confines to a Nobel winner's lifetime that cruel arc from wonder to mundanity - Gaspard, "Fat, rich and garrulous.../ In bars and gaming joints.../ Rather a bully, drinks too much, is sad/ ..who, in his brilliant youth/ Established... the very.../ day... volcano blew... thirty centuries ago... wiping... cultures out". Excise all flaws, however, and how can selfhood remain? The Cat Improvement Company removes hunting instinct along with teeth and claws, leaving something merely "buttery soft and cushiony nice". And yet, and yet: "what shall be done to stop that glare/ At spaces nothing occupies". Finally, from Volcano come lines, stoic in their clear-sightedness, which contain a central essence of this intriguing collection: "Those draw Meaning best/ Who draw dark matter from their hearts."

Related item:
tZ  A Report On Probability A.I.: Brian Aldiss - author profile by Andrew Darlington
Dark Sun Rises

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