Michael Aiken, The little book of sunlight and maggots. Crawley, WA: UWAP, 2019. ISBN:9781760800369
Sunlight and maggots … We find these on the final page of Michael Aiken’s extraordinary verse novel Satan Repentant (2018), also from UWAP. There at the close of Satan’s long odyssey, creation is undone, and the text’s Jesus unsays the world:
Jesus inhaling cannot stop saying the world backwards, in frantic reflex
coughed to resay everything, restore the trees, bring back the sun.
Air and mud infilled his face, corpses and weapons, maggot ridden
feet, the stone of the Earth and vapour of the air, all drawn in
to his enormous unhinged jaw, a thing he cannot stop unsaying …
Sunlight and maggots: that which might be returned in a re-saying of a devastated Earth and those creatures that betoken the living, composters of decaying flesh as Earth is undone.
If Satan Repentant, an epic book with its sweeping narrative told in long lines, ends on this abysmal note, The little book of sunlight and maggots unfolds as a variegated rejoinder, with its short spare poems and clarity of imagery, saying a kind of ordinary hope in the face of the eco-socially entangled tragic we live in.
The opening poem ‘Electrified’ could have been spoken by Aiken’s ‘Lucifer’ in his days of human being, though it recalls John the Baptist beheaded by Herod:
When wishes lock you in a box
and desire makes a propaganda poster
– your head on Salome’s plate –
my limbs are gelatin:
cold boiled bones hung with weak flesh
The sense of an edgy extreme inhabits the everyday (‘the propaganda poster’), as we witness betrayals of other humans and otherkind, by power and those enslaved to power. This edginess recurs in poems like ‘The ritual (killing a spriggan)’ and ‘The entertainer’. Alongside insinuations of human violence are also poems that look open-eyed at other-than-human predation: ‘admiringly’ as in ‘The kookaburra in Hyde Park’ and ‘respectfully’ as in ‘I exited bamboo,’. The latter closes with ‘a fox on the beach carefully eating eggs’. How often are we as writers told to be sparing with adjectives and adverbs. But, here ‘carefully’ is perfect, and perfectly observed.
The poet’s relation to predation is multiple, unsettled and unsettling. For some reason, ‘I doubt the panther’ had me remembering William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’. If predators are a sign of a healthy ecosystem, ‘I doubt the panther’ has the panther lost in the domesticity of bureaucracy and the ‘bird of prey’ absent, failing ‘to make the forest stay’. Elsewhere though, Aiken imagines, even wishes, a different end to predation. In ‘Where did the kestrel go?’, the poet imagines a kind of euthanasia, perhaps by electric power line, rather than the slow death of a creature in a stressed habitat.
This is not the biblically imagined end of a peaceable kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb, though the poem immediately prior asks: ‘Who knows what goes on / in the mind of a lion / tamer?’
This seven line poem begins by invoking James Wright’s ghost and closes:
but the dead poet is nothing
to a vital predator
The predator in question is a spider.
Finding James Wright named in this poem toward the end of the collection returns me to ‘As we stepped over tulips’, the opening poem of section two, a lucid poem that called up for me Wright’s iconic ‘A Blessing’ which ends:
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Not a sentiment a reader might anticipate in The little book of sunlight and maggots, given Aiken’s ‘cold boiled bones hung with weak flesh’, and his edgy engagements with more-than-human capacities for violence. But, in ‘As we stepped over tulips’, the reader finds the sunlight of the book’s title:
You caught the sun
like a child
whom the light loves.
The poem closes:
and you were happy.
In less sure hands and voice, this might be sentimental; Aiken makes it a moment of lucidity, where celebration of a instant of, I might say, ‘graced’ relation exists in the company of Earthy dangers: tiger snakes, a steep goat track, ‘so many shark infested, storm torn beaches’.
The deeper dangers, though, in the collection, the underlying relations of ecotrauma and colonial theft, are never far. There is Aiken’s overt singing of resistance to destruction in ‘The Eater of Worlds’ which appeared in hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani. And there are everywhere moments where the Anthropocene breaks in:
You have built all this
now be proud.
(‘The moon over Zetland’)
as I pulled into Parramatta
with my heart hanging out
the old gaol
the old asylum
so many ways to torture the earth …
A very short poem, just four lines, might seem innocuous were it not for the title and the intimations of climate change:
‘What is so sacred about ancient fictions?’
Construction workers roof the sky
stepping over trees
in their haste
to be done with the weather.
The only longer poem in the book, ‘All are limbs of living things once living’, meanders through whale beaching, human impact on the oceans, and a nearby hospital, to suggest the interlaced difficulties of restoration of humans and otherkind:
Ribcage can be
the sun still with us,
left behind in the ward …
In this book, human- and other- kind are entangled not simply in the positive sense of their interconnectedness and interdependence, but in the ways power and agency are exercised across webs of influence and effect. What might be called ‘nature’ is rarely uncomplicatedly ‘nice’ in Aiken’s world.
Importantly, otherkind have agency and speak back to the human poet/reader:
Feathered vermin animate the landscape, crying out:
this is ours!
your work is done.
Finally, let me revisit Satan Repentant, where God challenges / questions Satan:
Become human, know the travails
of not knowing,
live a life, any life, uncertain what it is,
was or will be,
nor what it is when it is no longer.
Have the witness of powerlessness and feel
the tide of power, always as its victim, to see ill
and know not what may be done, nor not what to do
that is not ill; …
In The little book of sunlight and maggots, Aiken takes us enigmatically, ironically, and with humour, often commuting to and from work and home, across eco-urban spaces where what to do in order to make a difference is not obvious. Deceptively simple, the poems are sharp and shifting, finely observed, building ways into attentive relations with otherkind, as well as with our own species as difficult kin, always with a confidence of voice that holds hands with a self-critical impulse, in the hope perhaps that we do not finish with an Earth unmade. For Aiken, there might be in other agencies a longed for hope:
Watching paperbarks grow in the gutter of a warehouse
beside the 20km line of rail
between my home and place of work,
I adore the destruction they wreak
– will them to succeed –
bring the whole place down.
The little book of sunlight and maggots rewards reading and rereading, as on each reading its sharp imagery and clean lines disclose a little more of the human and other-than-human relations in which we are entangled. Attentiveness to what unfolds alongside and within our everyday transits, the book seems to say, may call forth a kind of response to the damages, ecological and otherwise, that haunt our human-constructed spaces.
Note: This is a slightly revised text of the launch speech given in Melbourne on Sunday 14 July 2019.
Anne Elvey is author of White on White (Cordite 2018), and Kin (FIP 2014), co-author with Massimo D’Arcangelo and Helen Moore of Intatto (La Vita Felice, 2017), and editor of hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani. She is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics.