Monday, 28 January 2013


Aidan Andrew Dun. Unholyland. Hesperus Press

The title page says Unholyland: the Rambam. Hidden in the unlikely garb of a paperback with a black and red cover reminiscent of a 1970's socialist group report, this is a whole book in a sequence of modernist sonnets, a love story and a political story of history and music and young people in the Gaza Strip. It is a page-turner of a poem, a sustained narrative that stands up to the best of its kind, which is not a British poem but Eugene Onegin. The difference is that the plot of Unholyland has no unkindness except from the political situation, the ongoing flack of daily warfare.
    Aidan Andrew Dun is known as an extra-establishment (not disestablishment) poet of considerable power. His previous long poem Vale Royal, published some fifteen years ago, has been gaining credence and followers ever since. That poem, in trenchant but enigmatic tercets covering London and its poets, Keats, Blake, Chatterton etc, published with an attached CD in the early days of CDs in books, gave him enough reputation as poet and performer for us to hope for great things of him. There have been some intermediate books, and now this one, Unholyland.
    The poetry deals with a gripping story. Despite its small print and its 156 pages (twelve equal chapters of twenty-two sonnets each) I read it in a day, though with a poem like this, you have never finished when you have read it once. The background matter is highly difficult, with its exposition of Jewish history and its criticism of the manner in which Palestinian land was taken, the legacy of the revenge against nazism. There's a delicate balance for young people in these countries, where Tel Aviv has a youth culture of Palestinian Hiphop music and rap. After a quiet introduction explaining that his own grandmother ran a ballet company which she would not take to Israel, and treating us to the moral tale of a monk who resolved a dispute between a wedding party and a funeral procession on a bridge, Dun wades into this difficult setting with a poetic narrative of calm persuasiveness.
    His young hero Moss or Moshe who disguises himself to attend a legendary hiphop session in Palestine, and his friendships on the other side, with the inevitable attraction to the young woman performer, form the crux of the story, as the young friends drive about in cars to rendezvous, and attend an extraordinary youth music rave in an an unidentified but rather paradisical, Arabian-style underground location. The scene's very realistic, very druggy. The dangers are real.
    This unlikely scenario is carried off by utter confidence. Vale Royal for all its flamboyant achievement was a teeny bit showy. In Unholyland, everything that needs saying – and a lot needs saying – is said simply and with confidence.
    The sonnets connect a strict rhyme pattern which I believe is Pushkinian, with variable speech rhythms in often narrow lines, bringing many rhymes very close together and displaying an exceptional rhyming facility. Rhyming is something our poets rarely practice, something held to be suitable for comic or children's poems. Not since Byron have we had a really pro display. We have one here. With well over two hundred sonnets to choose from I can give you only fleeting examples. In one sonnet at random we have ebony and ribbony, outstretched and sandwiched, car and rapstar, and poison and passion. In another, porcelain and mane, crash-landing and outstanding, welcome and foursome, immense and quintessence. It's constant – and as simple as needed whenever. It is the flexible, simple language, in which the speaker is forever looking forward, that does it.
    Additionally it is very, very rare to have good rhyme with variable speech rhythms, rhythms that are almost free verse. Jon Silkin was doing some work on free verse and metrical verse: he'd have been interested in Unholyland.
    As opposed to the difficulties of the subject, the narrative is handled directly, with a wealth of detail enmeshed with the background, cultural references, and at times skyhigh fun, until the young, Beatrice-like girl figure meets the hero by pulling him from a burning car. She is a singer at the huge event. Each of them presents a rap, embedded in the poem, and at the end their romantic communion is interrupted by violent, bloody warfare from the skies.
    Unholyland is a highly satisfactory read, perhaps more so to people who read a lot of poetry and can pick up the parallels and intentions in the art of the longer poem. But it is also coherent in itself and does not assume additional knowledge either of history or poetry. The Introduction is well worth reading but will be skipped by many: the Notes at the end are dispensable but provide additional information on the music, Goa, the Rastafarians, and the various political and religious histories.
    The poem abounds in lines memorable in themselves. Balancing the felicitous narrative ease comes a sense that the poem was difficult to write but has been written successfully against the odds.
Politically the poem is interesting because it also seems to give hope to a hopeless political situation, by its very expression of that hopelessness, its questioning of it, and by its insistence on facing up to history. And if this is poetry that might make anything happen, this is not because it isn't pure poetry, in the sense that it is poetry that makes its own reality so that the world it is made from is actually less real than the world of the poem.
    Dun's seems to be the only new poetry from Hesperus Press, which publishes translations and reissues of standard poets such as Chaucer, Pushkin and Emily Bronte.

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