Of all the writers taken from us in the last few years, it’s Iain Banks whose loss I feel most deeply. That loss was compounded on buying Poems, selected and edited by Ken MacLeod and including a sampling of his own work (as per Banks’s instruction). That was when it hit me: this was the last time I’d get to buy a new book by Iain Banks.
Allow me to contextualise: Banks was one of a very few authors whose new book I had to buy on the day of publication; if this dictated a trip out in inclement weather, an early skive from work or a utilities bill ignored for a couple of weeks, then so be it. My fervour extended to signed copies. When Banks’s publicity tour for The Steep Approach to Garbadale didn’t bring him anywhere near Nottingham, I had no annual leave remaining to cover a 600-mile round-trip to Plymouth and my car was off the road following an accident. Undaunted, I hired a car, booked a Travelodge and threw a two-day sickie.
Banks is remembered primarily as a novelist – a writer of both contemporary fiction and, as Iain M Banks, sci-fi. His poetry, as MacLeod acknowledges upfront in the introduction, has been limited to a single piece in a poetry magazine, two poems incorporated into his novel Use of Weapons, and a few lines of verse infusing The Crow Road and Song of Stone.
Poems, then, charts unexpected territory. Unexpected, but not unrecognisable. The best of the poems gathered here – ‘Extract Solenoid’, ‘Mediterranean’, ‘Exponential’, ‘Caucasian Spiritual’ – embody the expansive imagination and spiralling wordplay that characterise his highest achievements as a prose writer; the latter in particular could almost be a dry run for ‘Scratch’, the mind-bendingly experimental short story that closes his collection The State of the Art.
The 45 pages of MacLeod’s poetry accounts for less than a third of the book yet comprises much of its most effective work. MacLeod takes a more traditional approach and is often at his best when he keys into other voices: ‘After Burns: 11 September 2002’ homages both Burns and W.H. Auden in the service of an absolutely contemporary aesthetic, ‘Scots Poet, Not’ is redolent of W.N. Herbert’s loquacious wit, and ‘A Fertile Sea’ (dedicated to Banks) is a sinewy answer-back to T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.
A comparison is worth making: MacLeod’s poetry spans thirty years, Banks’s less than a decade – from 1973 to 1981. It’s as if, for Banks, the form were a proving ground, an experimentation with language, and once he’d set off on the path that would lead to the publication of The Wasp Factory in 1984, it was prose all the way.
I did a stupidly sentimental thing on buying Poems: I posted a photograph of the cover on Facebook with the legend “the swansong”. But it isn’t. Banks’s novel The Quarry, published just after his death, was his true swansong. Poems falls halfway between juvenilia and a glimpse down a path not taken; what’s beyond doubt, though, is that it represents the first great firework blast of Banks’s brilliant and incessant creativity.