Michael Aiken: Satan Repentant

Crawley, WA: UWA Publishing, 2018, 140pp.

This is a really unusual and fascinating book, a kind of micro Paradise Lost but with a brilliant twist that deepens the poetry and our response to it. More of that later but initially it is worth noting that Michael Aiken’s first book, A Vicious Example, which has a high degree of focus on observing parts of Sydney, seems so different to this cosmic narrative that no easily observable continuities exist, although they must be there since both books, after all, have their origins in the same poet and the same sensibility. Continuities might, in fact, be obvious to the poet though hidden from readers. Satan Repentant is a re-imagining of the events immediately after Satan’s expulsion from heaven after his unsuccessful rebellion. Instead of “rolling in the fiery gulf, / confounded though immortal”, in this version he undergoes a rehabilitation, negotiating with God and contenting himself with being reborn, re-incarnated as a human being. His position as leader in Hell is taken by Beelzebub (Lord of the Flies) who transforms into a creature not entirely unlike some medieval versions of Satan himself: a kind of pig-god (reading this book, I can’t help thinking that this is a little unfair to pigs) multi-legged, inclined to spewing out all kinds of corrupt liquids. Re-enacting the opening of Job, Beelzebub persuades God to allow him free access to the human version of Satan. Satan’s uncomfortable prospects are multiplied when two of the archangels, on their own initiative, contrive to attack him as well on the principle that if God relents and allows Satan back into heaven then their own futures, as his erstwhile enemies, won’t be too promising either.

It’s a delight for once to be in the position of reviewers of prose fiction who have to suggest the direction of a book’s plot without giving away crucial details about how it progresses. It isn’t something that poetry critics are usually faced with but I won’t say more of the development of the plot beyond the fact that it has a suitably apocalyptic ending – reminding us that the Earth on which these contests take place is really only a provisional trialling ground for human-beings. At the end it’s become an eviscerated battlefield with small groups of humans eking out an existence, hiding from the monsters, both heavenly and infernal, who roam the place. God has been replaced by Jesus who is himself a kind of ethical monster (since his perfectionism is essentially unhuman) and who, in the final pages, unmakes all of creation.

Satan Repentant, in thinking about alternative representations of the cosmic goings on suggested in the Old Testament, is a new version of what is really an old tradition. The books of the Jewish bible themselves continuously modify the conception of their god so that he can be a local, ill-tempered Canaanite deity, a guardian of – and refuge for – his special group, a player in regional conflicts, and, eventually, a cosmic figure. And since the Old Testament is produced by continuous editings, re-assemblings and rewritings, these opposed representations don’t develop consistently through the chronological panorama of the history but are likely to be found in bewildering conjunctions. And the process continues beyond the end of the canonical texts into, for example, the pseudepigraphical writings of the inter-testament and early Christian period. The revaluations of the nature of the divine beings continue on through the gnostics for whom the creator of the world (Blake’s Nobodaddy) is an unattractive minor deity. And, speaking of Blake, there is Emmanuel Swedenborg who seems to have been a visionary pioneer establishing that the borders between the divine, infernal and human worlds are much more easily crossed than conventional theology suggested. As a more recent incarnation of this fluid thought about religious material there is Jung’s Answer to Job with its memorable portrait of the God of Job as an “unreflective” phenomenon, “not human but in certain respects, less than human”.

Michael Aiken I’m sure knows more of this “history of God” than I do, but the central text from which Satan Repentant springs is Milton’s poem. It is announced even in the title which shares the same solemn inversion as Paradise Lost (I’ve always been disappointed that Milton rejected the title of his earlier drafting, Adam Unparadised, though that shares the same structure). Conceived as a kind of compressed mini-epic, Satan Repentant has five books, half the number of the first edition of Milton’s poem, and all the books are prefaced by a prose “argument”, as they are in Paradise Lost. Of course, to choose Paradise Lost as a starting point is to choose a text which has, running through both poem and its reception, a fundamental instability in the portrayal of Satan: not only is he the most charismatic character, he is also the most sympathetic and the one who clearly stirs Milton’s poetic juices in defiance of his protestant theology. Many readers take refuge in the vague generalisation that bad is easier to portray than good but that simply displaces the issue without solving it. In the eyes of those who see Milton (as Blake did) as being “of the devil’s party without knowing it”, Satan Repentant will be a development of Milton’s poem rather than a modern, humanist answer to it. At any rate, Satan’s repentance, request for forgiveness and decision to live out a human life, and the celestial shenanigans that result from this, forms a perfectly respectable plot line (in the sense of being logically sustainable) and the complex twists and turns of the plot – as for example, the disappearance of God, replaced by his son masquerading as him in the final book – ring true in their fictional universe.

Plot is one thing, poetry is another. The very idea of Satan Repentant poses more problems of technique and language than it ever would of narrative. Should it be written as a pastiche of Miltonic style? Can it perhaps distort that style to produce something contemporary, as Blake does? Aiken seems to have made two choices here. The first is to avoid the steady, even, narrative style of the conventional epic and replace it by shorter sections of narrative built around crucial moments. Poetic narrative always falls somewhere between epic evenness and dramatic compression – a distinction made in the great opening chapter of Auerbach’s Mimesis where a section of Genesis is contrasted to a section of The Odyssey – and Satan Repentant opts for the dramatic end of the spectrum.

The language is a bigger problem. Aiken’s solution is a clever one because Satan Repentant is written in a kind of distorted English with slight Miltonic overtones. I think it is designed to sound like the dialect of a forgotten tribe of speakers of English, an unknown regional variant. Or perhaps of someone who has never spoken English but knows Paradise Lost by heart (unlikely as that would be). Take the opening of the Argument of Book III as an example:

Perpetually distressed by half-seen visions of empyreans and devils, Satan-youth seeks to clear his mind by investigation to religious knowledge. Beelzebub frustrated by failure to torment Satan releases unseemly, uncollegiate things from the abyss to roam and hunt him. . .

It may not be a solution which pleases everyone but I like it, as far as it goes. It is possible to analyse features of it: prepositions, for example, are sometimes simply omitted, especially in infinitive constructions – “You seek / destroy an immortal . . .”, “thirteen year old Satan / convinced himself / not be afraid . . .”, “Satan gave attention a gnat . . .”, – and words are often used with new, though related meanings, which would normatively be inappropriate. The word, “empyrean”, for example, which in standard English means the heavens or the habitation of the deity, is used regularly throughout Satan Repentant to refer to one of the residents of heaven, a synonym, in other words, for angel. “Cognate” is used in one passage when “cognisant” would normally be used. It’s an odd, distancing effect which I like. At its most extreme, though, it can be more grotesque than distancing as here in a section in which Beelzebub speaks to God:

. . . . .
Beelzebub sent spearing
little rodent skulls, motile
with gristle, beheaded on the face
of great serpent snakes
of bone and mud,
stinking pestilent things,
one word each to speak to God
knowing any creature of Hell likely expire
the moment they reach the creator.
God too declined encounter
such children of ablated Beelzebub
and his corporation, despatching words
alone encoiled in energising light
to bolt and meet and melt those same
verbal vermin
as each word out mouthed came.

This takes the idiom to an extreme but I suppose it can always be supported by the argument that here grotesque content is matched by a maximum distortion of language.

Of course, like almost all invented languages, the idiom of Satan Repentant is going to be a nonce-solution. It will work for this poem because it solves the language problems that the poem’s conception generates. But it isn’t going to work for any other poem by Aiken or anybody else – unless, like Milton, he decides to produce a sequel. Even the really successful created idioms, like those (choosing at random) of Burgess’s Clockwork Orange, Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (where events of the mid-eleventh century in England are narrated in an idiom with substantial amounts of Old English vocabulary) have use-by dates and though, in the case of Hoban’s novel, for example, one might desperately want its wonderful idiom to continue, it isn’t going to happen. The weird language of Satan Repentant works in its way but there is always the reservation that it won’t leave any sort of imprint on future Australian or English-language poetry.

As I’ve described it so far, Satan Repentant will seem no more than a successful exercise in an odd but interesting mode. In fact it is much more than that and exerts a much stronger hold on the reader than any such exercise would do. This is because of its second book which describes Satan’s experiences as a human child growing up to be aware of the heavenly and demonic presences around him, and learning how to cope with them. It contains a wonderful twist which enables us to read the whole work “inside-out” as it were. Instead of being a work about cosmic battles and powerplays in which, for a brief period, we follow the life of a human being, we can momentarily read Satan Repentant as a portrait of a delusional or schizoid child, a potential poet, whose monsters under the bed are real monsters. We meet this child in the first poem of this second book which begins, “He tore the caul to an alien world, seeing / unseen things”. One of these unseen things is a demon-possessed tree:

. . . . . 
“I know you” the roaming nine year old stares
at the face of a tree, eyes and human mouth impressed in
bark and knots, watching if he should pass.
“Don’t make pretence of innocence on my account,
monster. You are an informer of some awful world
come to watch and whisper in my ear.” The timber
creature scowled out pitted hollow eyes, mouth atrophied
in dessicate sea air, moving still; slowly, crawling skin
a year in turning, but always those eyes watching, overlooking
the play-place of the child Satan-no-longer-Satan.
In later years he scoured the tree with the blade
of a boot knife
and made the demon bleed.

A brilliant portrait of a terrifying psychosis. And it isn’t only trees, beds, mirrors and windows which harbour monsters. Later, a close friend is revealed to be a demon in disguise and, when met several years later, is killed at the instigation of Beelzebub who is present to slip a knife into Satan’s hand at the crucial moment. It reads very like the explanations of people who have committed crimes under the influence of “voices”. What should have been merely a pub altercation becomes a murder caused by others:

 . . . . . 
In that fit of rage
Lucifer left ajar the door
Beelzebub stept through, handed
the knife his grasp; the combatant,
abusive braggart postured by invisible infernals
opposite along the bar,
pushed back and both are stuck
but only one now rises . . .

A simple spat weakens the ability to hold the evil voices at bay and the result is murder.

The demons of the cosmically-scaled Miltonic world, like those of contemporary science-fiction comic-films, are never really frightening but those that come from within (like the demons of Bergman’s The Hour of the Wolf) are genuinely terrifying. The most magical thing about Satan Repentant is that it provides both perspectives and if, as readers, we can hold both in our minds at the same time we finish up with a really powerful, disturbing and brilliant work.