Around the Time of Aitken
Andy McPake reviews the latest book of poetry, from Jim Aitken. Jim has become a regular contributor to Emancipation & Liberation, and he credits us in his preface.
Around the Time of Michael is Jim’s ninth published volume of poetry and, as the quote above suggests, a continuation of his exposé on the great injustices of our times. Throughout this collection, we sense Jim’s estrangement with a political consensus that he regards as perverse and inhumane. His inability to reconcile this with the beauty of the birth of his grandson and the natural & human worlds is the dichotomy that drives Aitken’s work. This dichotomy encapsulates The Time of Michael. Aitken gives this contradiction many forms: new life and old, the humane against the inhumane and the ignorant against the searching. All of these he perceives in our times.
Fear is the new industry
the base of our prosperity
where we manufacture consent
for all the new profits we make
Crusading against capitalism is nothing new to Aitken’s poetry, but in the past his work has mostly concerned the ravages of that economic system on the peoples of other shores. While Jim’s passion for the Palestinian cause can still be seen in poems such as White Pete, Aitken’s ire is now aimed towards immorality at home. The economic slump is being used as a smokescreen by right-wing politicians who are now implementing an ideological wish list that they have been fomenting for decades; all of which amounts to the dismantling of the welfare state. Caught in the midst of a clamour to return to Dickensian levels of inequality, Aitken castigates those who would create “human waste”.
There is a lot that Jim Aitken does not like about the modern world. However, anyone used to using the term modern in the academic sense knows that there are few more modern than Aitken. The influences of Yeats and MacDiarmid can be seen not only in the content of his poetry, but in the form, especially Krakow, Auschwitz and After. But Aitken is a modernist poet and thinker living in a post-modern world. His convictions are dismissed as ‘grand-narratives’ by a world that has become atomised and un-searching. Throughout much of the collection, we are given the sense that Jim feels that the good and decent values are dying. We see this in Mrs Lindley and Benny, a moving reminder of how dependent we are on one another.
This collection of contradictions deals not only with inhumanity, but with humanity. The only thing that can parallel Jim’s anger is the tenderness with which he describes those dear to him. Newly Arrived & Expectancy should appeal to anyone who has had the good fortune to have been a parent or grandparent. In Another Coredila, Aitken is forced to confront the fact that he is no longer the most important person in his daughter’s life. The poet’s awareness of his advancing age is most moving in Four Months On when a musing Aitken takes a moment to contrast the youth of Michael with his own image:
I have observed him observing
as current talk goes from teething
soon, crawling after, as I stare
into my own mirror shaving
and wishing to hold back the years
Perhaps Jim should remember that with age comes wisdom. The unjust world that Aitken despises is also an ignorant one. Nowhere is he more explicit about this than in The Return of Apasmara Purusha. Hindus believe that Apasmara represents ignorance; for Jim his return is heralded by a world that is cutting education for the sake of bankers’ bonuses.
Aitken searches for wisdom in many places and the collection draws on Buddhist as well as Hindu thinking. That search is undertaken by a dwindling few living in our convenience culture, a culture that disgusts Jim, moving him to parody it in The History of Searching. In this poem, he contrasts the philosophical endeavours of bygone ages with my own generation’s dependency on Google. Btw, if you do find any yourself unaware of a person or concept mention in Jim’s poetry I have one solution for you…
The Time of Michael is a contradictory one. What is consistent is the presence of hope. Aitken believes that the vicious world into which Michael is born is not the End of History, it is not natural. The collection is a balanced one and for every uncompromising exposition of injustice is “a glimmer of hope for the world”. When discussing the horrors of war and poverty he is neither morbid nor voyeuristic. Instead, every line implores us to fight back, to remember that another world is possible. The poet asks us to keep our focus on Michael because he represents the future; potentially a better one. Despite its attempts to pit us against each other, the capitalist system has yet to eviscerate all that is decent within people. Perhaps the better part of our nature might win out. Here’s to Michael.
Around the Time of Michael is published by Scottish CND and is available, price £5, from Wordpower Books (email@example.com)