The Holy of Unholies

Aidan Andrew Dun Unholyland (2012)


By Philip Wells

My history teacher was fond of dismissing all talk of a Golden Age, quoting Hegel with a patrician sneer: "The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history." How I would love to sit him down with Aidan Dun's astonishing epic poem, Unholyland, and watch his face buckle and contort in confused amazement as Milton and Dante gyrate acrobatically in a literary jumpoff in a laser-lit club of dreams, somewhere west of Eden.

All this time we've been studying shadows on the wall of the cave; Dun leads us out into an infinite sky of sunshine with the platonic calm of a guru, the energy of a breakdancer and the charm of a water-nymph. Such is the ambition and woven genius of this poem that myth and history, reality and imagination lie down together like Isaiah's lion and lamb. That great intractable of intractable problems, Israel and Palestine, suddenly and miraculously seems soluble. We watch Bob Marley and William Blake dancing to a dub soundtrack with bibles in their hands as Unholyland is projected onto Jerusalem's Wailing Wall like a graphic novel with virtual lighting out of a space opera. This isn't just a poem; it's a happening, an event of consciousness. Get yourself a copy, share it with your friends. I intend to walk around London with a nonviolent backpack-full, turning the 7-7 bombings on their head.

As you can tell, I'm getting carried away. Stone cold sober and flying. Because Dun has written an incredibly exciting, utterly accessible poem that gently turns the arts around in our age of pap celeb and empty froth. Something has been moved from underneath me; a mountain has been moved. My view of history has changed. Thanks to Dun, I'm standing in front of my cynical old teacher with a charged riposte: "The only thing we learn from history is that we must learn from history." A thousand dystopias scream off for the exits like demons burned by daylight.

Why so special? Who's this Dun geyser anyhow? He's written great stuff before: Vale Royal, his debut, premiered to huge excitement at The Royal Albert Hall in the mid nineties. Many thought it might spark off a new sixties, Ginsberg-style. But even though it is a work of clairvoyant genius, where Dun proves he can alert his antennae to many formerly impenetrable layers of history, it is a majestic but rather aloof work that looks back with consummate literary skill, but ultimately lacks the lightning of an integrated vision that is able to fuse sky and earth and find electrifying and engaging new ways forward. Other works have developed his unique ability to fuse an inspired romantic tradition with a gritty uber-modern reality, like The Uninhabitable City, where Dun's Orphic voice can melt the tower blocks of a decaying city and refill the syringes of prostitutes with simple hope. And he has become brilliantly adept at marrying the visceral power of mythology with the details and complexities of modernity, such as Irish bardic lore with desert warfare and modern art in the epic McCool.

But in Unholyland he's found the gold seam. Dun's always had a titanic Byronic engine, but somehow the dazzling humility of a spark has been missing; the spark that makes the whole thing really purr and sing. This work guns across the deserts of history like the spinning BMW rearwheels driven by the characters in the story. It's got an upbeat street spirit and a gloriously refreshing liquid energy that allows 264 sonnets to dance in spate through the Blakean canyons of the Holy Land of Imagination.

Think Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, with a young Bob Dylan as Mercutio; or The Song of Songs sung by Freddie Mercury and Tinie Tempah. Beyonce would have made a great Jalilah, the young Palestinian rapper in the story who falls in love with Moshe, a Jewish DJ in the Slingshot Hiphop scene, where Israeli youth are mesmerised by the stony, visceral flow of their supposed enemies crying out the anguish of exile, spitting lava and fury before the slow and unbearably poignant memorial chanting of the dead hamlets, the homes they had to leave in the catastrophe, the 1948 Nakba that killed thousands and dispossessed a million people:

Kfar Tantura, Kfar Saba,
Kfar Manda, Khirbat Irribin,
Kfar Ayn Ghazal, Kfar Araba,
Kfar Farradiya, Kirbat Jiddin.

Moshe the Israeli listens to Arab Jalilah recite the haunting names of the lost hamlets and empathises at the deepest level with the pain of her people, suddenly recognising a truly terrifying irony in the enmity of the two groups:

He saw the West Bank settlements'
sinister concrete tenements,
fenced by the chainlink of division
(with watchtowers, barbed-wire and arc-lamps)
as replica concentration-camps.

Dun's piece is an artfully subtle and iridescent musical meditation for peace, glitteringly playful and irreverent, while remaining effortlessly wise. It's written with an inspired finger in the sand, like Christ before the stoners, and is as luminous as a parable, while being rooted and vividly lived and imagined in the real contours of the land. The poet of King's Cross, as Dun is known, comes of age in the centre of the world, in Jerusalem, where also once a King on a Cross rapped a new world into being.

The planet's most gifted poet of transformation is dancing us all like a Pied Piper into Paradise Projected, but this time thank heaven it's grounded in realpolitik. In the holy war of art where "words are the ammunition" Dun has fearlessly and unequivocally set out his stall as he scoffs in an aside at the prevailing anodyne and fake contemporary norm that insults the name of poetry: "Spare us the sound of those songs/which don't address the people's wrongs." Dun takes us on so many fantastical journeys, from asides on the nature of belief to connoisseurs of hashish, from riots in Nazareth to the most sensuous and erotic barefoot love scenes - Jalilah's really special, she makes Lara Croft and Jennifer Lopez seem frumpy and wooden - while never forgetting the inescapable reality at the heart of the tale:

We know Nazareth's Satanic Mills
are burning still down there in hell.
Arcadia is all very well;

Let's not forget reality
in the midst of this romance.

The lyricism is unforgettably balletic and beautiful (Dun's poetry is always dancing: his grandmother was Marie Rambert), helping to keep the inspired mind attuned to the highest grace even as the bare facts try to drag us back to our cynical default mode:

A rock-dove calls across the canyon
to her exquisite companion
hidden from the glare of the day,
in the secret cleft out of sun-dazzle,
imploring him to solve her puzzle:
"Here am I! And where are you?"

So charged was my imagination in reading this that I don't think of it really as a poem or a book, more as an uber-modern Wagnerian opera that is now playing in a thousand unnameable colours in my sitting room:

gilt and scarlet clouds make staircases
for exits of gods and goddesses...

I won't spoil the ending for you, but this is a tale that will run and run; the reader is not passive here, but magically implicated in the emerging dream that's trying to realise itself. Milton is dancing on the beach, for this is a poem that is truly 'valid at sunrise'. That great poetic innovator Gerard Manley Hopkins said that "every poet is a unique species to itself" - the words could have been specially invented for Dun.

Although he has long been shamefully marginalised, I sense that all that is about to change with this book. He's been dizzyingly daring with Unholyland, and he has triumphed emphatically, because at the front line he's asked - and answered - "what can art actually do?" He's produced at last a spark of the golden age of visionary art, where music and word dance in supreme balance, where with slingshot poetry the David of peace defeats the Goliath of war, slinging the truth of One Love into the face of the egowarrior, injustice. The Ancient Greeks answered the question "What is poetry for?" with penetrating directness: "To save the City, of course". Jerusalem and London, New York and Cairo, Toronto and Tokyo - only the deep imagination can show us the balance that cities need to thrive. And we, the readers, must act on it, as we are initiated into a thrilling new reality charged with possibility. We dare to believe that Aidan Dun may actually have begun something. He may have set off, in his own words, "sacred art's chain reaction". So when you find yourself passing this book around like bread, it might be enlightening to stand back and reflect on what imagination can actually do.