A Prehistory Of Mind
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review by Steve Sneyd
A Prehistory Of Mind includes 55 poems, some reprinted from earlier publications of Brian Aldiss' poetry, now out-of-print, including At
The Caligula Hotel (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995), and Oedipus On Mars (Avernus Media, 2004). The poems have here been grouped into three
(at times somewhat arbitrary-seeming) categories, 'far away', 'affection' and 'observation', with one piece of mood fiction, or arguably prose poem,
Mortistan, as a separate tail-piece.
Before turning to discussing the contents, mention must be made of what the reader first encounters, the stunning illustration on the full-colour
cover. A vast mottled eye-come-globe, hybridly organic and craftsman-constructed in appearance, in the vitreous humour of which is trapped or
embedded a compressed female figure, dominates a darkling landscape under wuthering skies; it reproduces a Lanfranco oil on canvas original,
entitled Nello Spazio Degli Dei.
In turn, the author himself appears in eerily colour-adapted photographic negative form, like some essence of alchemist, on the back cover. These
two visual portals then bookend a volume which contains amid its contents work well living up to their implied promise of escape beyond the bounds
of everyday modes of realistic perception into the much vaster realms open to a writer who has made all space and time, as well as some very sideways
glances at our mundaner reality, so very much his own.
Expecting, thus, the unexpected, it makes sense to begin at an unexpected point, the end, with Mortistan. This piece - shall we call it
a text, to slyly evade the vexed, perhaps impossible question whether it be short story or that camelopard the prose-poetical - takes the reader
to the wide Central Asian space where bizarre stepchildren of the former Soviet Union, the 'stans', ferment and fester. The film Borat passed
the largest of the real 'stans, Kazakhstan, through the looking glass of Sacha Baron Cohen's japery; Aldiss, with bleaker intent, conjures a further
'stan, one not readily found at least under that name, on current maps.
There, a tyrant rules unchallenged, deadlier even than his real-life rivals in that region where support for the west in the 'war on terror' and
willingness to sell their natural resources to us, as well as offer safe passage for military supplies on their way to the 'forever war' in Afghanistan,
has dealt a sheaf of dubious rulers winning hands easily able to trump any serious attention to human rights violations.
In Aldiss' conjuration, one particular autocrat has gone the whole hog; literally so, turning his realm into a kingdom of the dead more than living
- excuse paradoxical pun - up or rather down, to its name. Naturally, in our voyeur age, here is an irresistible attraction, a resource to exploit
in a place that, unlike luckier neighbours, has no oil, gas or minerals to sell, to keep its ruler in much-desired luxury.
How this scenario works out, and the startling, yet believable results, not so much horror or science fiction as what could easily be the subject
of a World In Action TV expose any time now, combines savage imagination with the sharp guilt of darkly compelling parable, and, curiously,
also with, at one level at least, an affirmation, albeit the blackest and bleakest of such, of how our species' ingenuity can discover the means
of profitable survival even in the most unpromising of locations.
The poems themselves, albeit often tinged with melancholy and sense of loss, also, to generalise the overarching mood of the collection as a whole,
affirm the species as survival-prone, whatever may be the fates of individuals along their various routes from existence to memory to oblivion,
through settings and situations as diverse as world, as universe, itself, the eventual outcomes in time all inescapably convergent as stars do at
last on munching singularities.
Whether Aldiss is writing of love or lust, of curiosity or pure endurance, his observation is incisive, precise, as it is of places and how they
become memory memorials - rather than 'never go back', his implied conclusion is 'always go back', not just for insight into changes in yourself,
but as a means of imbibing some distilled essence not just of earlier selves but of earlier companions, former interchanges and closenesses.
Now to pick out just a few of the poems here which I find particularly memorable... The Kremlin, Moscow, ca. 1950 has a notable 'being there'
quality, an intensity of sense of time and place, complete with a demon-in-the-margin glimpse of Stalin himself; Gauguin's Tahiti captures
perfectly that sense of paradisal lushness trembling on the very cusp of spoilage and decay which that painter's works embody; Spinal Metaphors
aches with stark conviction; the title poem's elegance skewers and holds up for our attention and conviction the very instant of metaphor's primeval
human birth; An Interval conjures with timeless universality vast repeating cycles of event - "the great green wheel stops turning/ A
thousand ages burn like palaces"; the beauty of Antigone's Song is painfully ironic - we in retrospect (and doubtless at least at some
level of consciousness she in foreshadowing anticipation) share awareness that inescapable conflicts of decree and loyalty, law and love, will soon
doom her, but in the meantime's as yet un-shattered instant can share the way "roses of my soul/ ..generate their sun and rain"; and, to
illustrate the poet's gift for lightning-illumination image, this from Uzbecks In London: "sound streams from that regal mouth/ As hair
grows painlessly through skin" - such unifying physicality of what is perhaps, alongside affirmation, another defining characteristic of this
As a whole, indeed, the book is a valuable opportunity for those who know the writer only as a masterly fictioneer to discover also his importance
as a poet, and for those who have previously encountered instances of his poetry to revel in a substantial journey through its many rooms and corridors.
I must, though, express regret that his poetry on science fiction and other genre themes is, to my mind, considerably under-represented, although
there are some few instances here.
They include the book's very first poem, The Deceptive Truth, telling of an enormous brain encountered buried in the Martian desert, of its
disruptive effects on the discoverers, a 'survivor' reporting "The cold equations were the worst/ With insights sharp as tsetse flies" -
a wonderfully memorable image - until in self-defence the explorers rebury it, paradigmatic warning of the impact of "Too much truth," the
poem's persona voice instead ultimately preferring "miraculous old Everyday." This particular poem was nominated for the Science Fiction
Poetry Association's Rhysling award, a fact mentioned because, when reprinted in the 2009 Rhysling anthology, the lines "Did the Brain say that
on our Earth at least/ Fish swim, birds fly, men sing/ women are fair?" the text as it appeared substituted Brian for Brain. Here, no doubt,
occurred a Freudian slip association by the typesetter with the author's name. But the error also creates a question to which this collection gives
a resounding answer of 'yes', with its overall confirmation of that everyday miracle of life against all the odds, here and now, and implicatively,
also, everywhere and when.