Aidan Andrew Dun - Intro Notes - Back to Index

Hilary Davies review of "Universal"


When Aidan Andrew Dun's first long poem, Vale Royal, appeared in 1995, also with Goldmark, it became immediately evident that here was a poet who had been working all his life beyond the assumptions of creative writing courses and who was magisterially indifferent to contemporary cliches about what a fit subject or form for poetry is. Here is a writer at one and the same time profoundly imbued with the British poetic tradition and yet also able to make a long poem remarkable for the newness of its imagination and power of its poetic line. Those readers already familiar with his achievement might be forgiven for approaching this second long poem with trepidation: a debut like that is hard to follow.

Universal blows all such fears out of the water: Dun's range of subject matter and use of language astonish right from the outset. This is a poem which draws upon a very deep well of personal experience indeed, but which is as far removed from adventures in the little world of me as it is possible to imagine. For Dun's trajectory through life, it soon emerges from the poem, has been to try and discover what it means to live, through exploring those aspects of life most distant from the common preoccupations of a modern, white, Western male.

The first Canto, of which there are twelve, presents the philosophical context for what is a lifelong spiritual quest: the realisation of the enormity of death, and the necessity of making sense of being. Dun is no friend to dualistic notions of the universe, and this is bodied forth in the very structure of the poem: the poetic voice moves, variously, from protagonist to his teacher, to grandfather, to father, to the landscapes through which he passes, to the circling planets, to the universe itself, thereby reinforcing the universal preoccupations indicated by the title.

Straight away we are shot out like birds or warplanes, over the Himalayas, "stepping barefoot across warm flooded marble / hearing the tap of drum- shaped India, far from London." The dreadlocked godman, / ash-smeared lord of the cosmos living hand to mouth", whom he meets, invites him into another way of perceiving time, "the round way of time", utterly opposed to the linear model which so harrows the West.

This in turn provokes the cycle of memory which brings him to his first childhood encounter with death: his grandfather "gently speaking of the great separation", but also a distinctly more concrete one, as the five- year-old on his bicycle careers headlong towards certain annihilation by a London bus, only to be saved by cannoning into a hearse. The delicate way Dun brings out the gallows humour in this is not the least of his achievements: it resurfaces in his accounts of green jellies misbehaving on the Bay of Biscay, in a baby's characteristic stubbornness trying to drink liquid which is still revolving, in the saddhu's mischievous mockery of modern technology.

This spiritual teacher may appear familiar from popular images of the 1960s, but the poem offers us no easy dichotomy of East v. West, god- intoxicated v. materialistic. This guru (a word Dun carefully eschews) is as much misunderstood and reviled by his own family as he might be by an alien tradition; he has himself been the cause of suffering; and, having suffered much, he knows what longings for the sacred can be belied by the coarsest of exteriors: "With the hard-drinkers spellbound I've seen you unexpectedly / move like a thunder-god in the transformed panorama, / hair flying, great face calm for the drunkard's wonderment, / all waiting for your revelation in the evergreen cathedral." His pupil questions him insitently about the relationship between masculine and feminine, and, although at first Ombilas' response seems trite (and is suspected of being so by the poet), his vision of the androgynous fusion of the two underlying creation inspires one of the most visionary sections of the poem in Canto X: "And suddenly / I saw something like the cosmogenesis of legend. / A woman! Her bare foot over the deck of creation. / ... / She stamps! The theatre of the universe explodes! / ... / The drum! The drumming! Great world-cycles driving. / And the androgyne dancer dancing. Bom! Bom!

India may have the lion's share, but other landscapes, both spiritual and physical, are no less important. His international background perhaps renders this more easy (grandson of Marie Rambert, founder of the Ballet Rambert, a father with Cuban upbringing, himself growing up in Trinidad), but he has added to this rich inheritance in Morocco, Persia, Istanbul. The listener (for that is what he calls us) lives the degradation of sex in a palace in Fez, civil war at the edge of Western Sahara, a dove silhouetted against the dome of Hagia Sophia, a human corpse abandoned like a dog's in a gutter in the Port of Spain, and much more. But the charge of being a spiritual tourist could never be laid at Dun's door: each experience is rendered in language which makes it abundantly clear that they are all stages in a process of self-discovery, through the exploration of the world in its extraordinary complexity and diversity: "And only when I saw that blue-gold guiding-star / from the deck of a tarantula-infested banana- freighter, / ocean spangled with the terrible perfection of her spaces, / dazzling expanse of freshening breezes, mobile / wilderness of fishes, endless playground of seabirds, / mystery of mariners, aqueous symbol of the cosmos, / then and only then was I born into existence like a man."

The journey, like the poem, is cyclical. Having left his holy man, as he must if he is to grow, he experiences all the horrors that await a person coming out of a contemplative retreat into the noise and chaos of the quotidian world. Trying to find peace in the hilltown of Simla, he comes across a dusty volume on the history and legends of old London and the Matter of Britain: the relief at finding an objective correlative worthy of his imagination is palpable: "And three or four weeks by good chance / I lived in Troynovant, exotic mother of London, / turning the dusty treasures in the sunlight slowly, / ... It was written! / And it seemed to me you had given a parting gift." Vale Royal, 22 years later, was the fruit.

Dun's total isolation from conventional literary outlets is his great linguistic strength, because it has allowed him the freedom to develop his characteristic style without interference from fashion. In particular, he has evolved a mastery of the long, sinuous sentence which, so far from buckling under its weight, is frequently sustained over six or more lines, and which, to be best appreciated, should be heard, not read. This creates both a build-up of narrative tension and a deceptively effortless fluidity; it also permits the elaboration of discursive passages which do not shirk abstraction: indeed, such sections are interwoven with his shimmering descriptive language in such a way as to reinforce the all-encompassing nature of his concerns: "Suns of unique mornings found us one day in transit / hill-walking as it happened in the deep-green pine belt / up along circular arcadian trackways sunlit, / talking as we circled of the great transpersonal sadness / beyond the small diameter of any one experience."This poetic voice really is unique in modern writing in English.

Given the standard of what Dun here achieves, it does seem almost captious to say that in one short section of Canto IV, where the father recalls a tale of two beautiful young Cuban girls, one slave-owning, the other slave owned, the internal references do not seem to me to make clear quite how this story fits into the overall structure of the poem: perhaps the incident is too removed from the experience of the poet himself. Nevertheless, even here, the language is full of evocative power: "Black Cinderella, African princess in bondage, / barefoot beauty in rags with her chastened shoulders / walks like a swaying sidewinder or a diamondback / up from the house-kitchen climbing a flight of white stairs."

This poem is noble, both in conception and execution, a dense weave of lived experience, serious philosophical and theological questioning, humour, knowledge of many different spiritual and cultural traditions, evocations of spectacular inward and outward journeys, a celebration of life. And in the concluding sequence, as he clings to the outside of a steam train on the sizzling plains of India, comes the epiphany he has been searching for: "And the train rolled faster into the dust-storm coming, / telegraph-poles fighting with King Cobra, whiplashing / an inch from my spine, whistling in the noon-race... / ... / And then, with death alongside, knowing I was dying, / thundering into the fiery void without anything, / suddenly I knew I was full and overflowing. / And the tears came to prove it on both sides of my face." Ian Gregory 2010