The little book of sunlight and maggots is Michael Aiken’s third book of poetry. His first book, A Vicious Example, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award (2015), contains many poems drawn from his time working as a security guard in the streets of Sydney, poems that document with vivid precision the diverse interactions of human beings and other-than-human nature at all hours of the day. I imagine that Aiken must have drafted many of the poems in A Vicious Example while on the job as a guard.
Aiken’s second book, Satan Repentant, which appeared last year, is an epic, Miltonesque poem that revises Christian mythology. In its content and narrative arc, it differs greatly from the realist and observational qualities of his first book. In The little book of sunlight and maggots Aiken builds on the achievements of his first collection in deftly crafted free verse poems that focus on Sydney. In a review of the selected poems of August Kleinzahler, Aiken described a major vein in Kleinzahler’s poetry as concerned with ‘captive ecosystems in motion’ and ‘nature/industry complexes’. It is the character and dynamics of such complexes in distinctively Australian contexts that form a central theme of Aiken’s work.
It should already be evident that Aiken’s poetry undermines binary oppositions between the urban and the natural, the city and the wild: ibises feed from garbage bins; maggots, flies, and ants help to decompose our waste; numerous birds, flying foxes, and possums interact with humans, the built-environment, and one another. Unique ecologies emerge in urban environments, multispecies entwinements that are beneficial to some creatures and detrimental to others. Aiken captures all of this in illuminating detail. Here is a depiction of the micro-ecology around a drain in the opening stanza of ‘Open drain in a Parramatta Park’:
Fragile blue dragonflies skim green water;
under swamp she-oaks the croak of a frog;
shapes that might be organic emerge beneath the peat,
a recognisable brand on a can sunk deep in the pool….
If one poses the question, is Aiken a nature poet, a pastoral poet, or an urban poet?, then the answer has to begin by undermining the long-held binaries underlying the question. Such an answer demands paradoxical formulations: Aiken is an urban-nature poet or a poet of city ecologies. Conversely, when he depicts the country as well as wildlife reserves, unlike the majority of nature documentaries, Aiken draws attention to the presence of humans and the built-environment, such as the bustle of tourists entering and leaving the carpark at the entrance of a national park. The short poem, ‘Warrumbungles’, ends with these lines:
birds flit through creeks filled with silt the stepping stones concrete the carparks never still.
While human and other-than-human nature are always entangled in Aiken’s poetry, this does not mean that he sees no tension between human society and the environment. He is astutely aware that we are living in a time of climate change and ecocide. He is also alert to corporate greed as a driving force of ecological devastation. In the poem ‘The Eater of Worlds’, which first appeared in the anthology Hope for Whole: Poets Speak up to Adani, edited by Anne Elvey, Aiken writes of the corporate class working in the city’s skyscrapers:
but this one world you can’t remake.
When you eat it,
you eat yourself.
You can’t see it coming
but you’re about to choke on your tail.
We as human beings are ultimately a part of, and dependent, on the natural world and the telos of our exploitation of nature – whether CEOs are aware of it or not – entails our own destruction.
Aiken is finely attuned to the specificities of places as well as their formative influence on human sensibilities. The first part of the book (the collection contains four parts) includes a number of poems that recollect the author’s intimacy with the natural world in his childhood and the way that the present is layered with past experiences. In ‘Three things that remind me of home’ he writes of growing up near the sea:
The little book of sunlight and maggots celebrates nature but it is not nature as a generalised abstraction, as mere backdrop to human activity, or as picturesque landscapes. In diction that is never sentimental or clichéd, Aiken zooms in on the specificities of localised ecologies and affirms above all the quality of ‘wildness’. In his love of wildness, Aiken appears in a lineage that includes Robinson Jeffers, D. H. Lawrence and, earlier, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote: ‘I long for wildness’ and ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the World’. Aiken’s own longing for contact with wildness is captured in the poem ‘Grass (Tiled Palace)’:
The flutter of greaseproof paper on your desiccated skin
makes me yearn for the moths that assault the fly screens
– some as big
as sparrows – …
And when it comes to a choice between the ‘wildness’ of nature and modern industrial civilisation, Aiken is on the side of the wild:
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.
If there is sacredness in nature, for Aiken, it is revealed in wildness. In ‘If I had been there’, he concludes that if he had experienced ‘Beasts of the night air / tweets and roar / in the dunes and the undergrowth…’ such as ‘the evening a brushtail / terrorised you with its voice…’ then ‘I could have done justice / to that space within / where worships everything.’
I have chosen the word ‘wildness’ rather than ‘wilderness’ to convey Aiken’s love of nature. The word ‘wilderness’ carries the connotation of a pristine nature that remains untouched by human impact. Aiken is clearly critical of such a conception of wilderness, which assumes a dubious separation of the human and the natural, the urban and the wild. In our era of the Anthropocene, there is no part of land, air or water that has not been affected by human behaviour, whether it’s the plastics filling the ocean, pesticides and fertilisers polluting the earth’s rivers, or greenhouse gases warming the earth’s atmosphere, which are in turn heating the ocean and a major cause of the coral bleaching currently taking place in the Great Barrier Reef. The notion of wilderness is also problematic in an Australian context in that it overlooks the formative role of Aboriginal land management practices in the evolution of flora and fauna over millennia. Moreover, Aboriginal understandings of Country cannot be grasped in terms of the modern Western binaries between culture and nature, civilisation and environment, that underpin the idea of wilderness. Aiken’s poetry is conscious of the problematics of writing about nature as a member of Australia’s colonial culture.
Aiken writes in terse language that is scientifically precise and imagistically resonant. He has learned from Ezra Pound, H.D., and their North American successors, as well as the strong strains of imagism in Australian poetry represented in the work of Robert Gray, Judith Beveridge, and Martin Harrison, among others. His figurative language simultaneously evokes a closely observed phenomenon and an individuated standpoint on the world. Consider, for example, this personification of a bamboo plant felled by children in ‘The ritual / killing a tree spirit’ :
Take him by his pediment, that felled monolith,
drawn down like a serpent slowly swallowing,
branch-hands grasp desperately at friends’
as you drag him on his back.
Aiken’s images, in poem after poem, deftly capture the precise atmosphere of a particular scene, of natural and built environments at specific times of day. This is the opening of ‘Bridge’:
Green wet hills sponge grey sky,
like leviathans in mist.
Michael Aiken is a unique voice in contemporary Australian poetry, and in our time of ecological crisis he makes significant contributions to the crucial task of reimagining and interrogating the connections between the human and the natural, the urban and the pastoral, human society and the earth’s diverse, dynamic, and fragile ecologies.
This is an edited version of Luke Fischer’s launch speech for The little book of sunlight and maggots, delivered at Better Read than Dead in Sydney on 15 June, 2019.
Michael Aiken, ‘Are we still on the same page?’, Jacket 2 (2009)
Henry David Thoreau, Journal (22 June, 1853)
Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’, The Atlantic (June 1862)