Memories of the Space Age

Kat Clay on the Complete Poems of Michael Butterworth

The Complete Poems (Space Cowboy Books, 2023) of Michael Butterworth provokes a challenge in even the most seasoned reviewer, Jim Burns declaring in the opening paragraph of the introduction that the poetry critic ‘can easily construct an introduction to such an assemblage of poems, selecting a few for a useful quotation or two and generalising about the rest.’ But not so here: Burns writes that the book’s ‘continuity is essential to its existence.’

It’s this continuity which is one of the most interesting aspects of the collection: to see the evolution of Butterworth’s work over a radical age of political and literary upheaval. The poems in this collection are grouped into historical periods that the author identifies in his introduction as significant to his development as a poet. Butterworth was one figure of the British New Wave, with some of his work published in New Worlds during Moorcock’s famous stint at the helm. For anyone interested in New Wave science fiction, this overview (albeit brief), is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. It’s helpful to understand how Butterworth’s writing progressed over time, as he grew as both a person and a writer.

Thematically, the works can be divided in two: the intimate, personal poetry, and the more speculative works dealing with broad political issues such as poverty, protest, and international conflict. While the intimate poems often fall victim to the male gaze in their observations about the women who have come in and out of the author’s life, of more interest to Interzone readers are the speculative poems, which look to the stars for inspiration.

The chronological progression of the speculative poems reflects the progression of dystopias over time. The fears of the post-nuclear era and the optimism of man in space are present in his earliest work. In the psychedelic ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Postatomic Skull’ he writes ‘what use are words but the niceties of a race best left out of this place where this place is in the postatomic era…’ The astronaut becomes a symbol for the expansion of consciousness; in ‘Concentrate 3’, the astronaut experiences the psychedelic highways of space and time, but you’re never sure whether these are the frontiers of inner or outer space, the boundaries between the mental and the galactic blurring.

Butterworth’s optimism for space travel at the time of Gagarin and Armstrong is brought crashing back to earth by the realities of the war in Vietnam. In one of the best poems in the collection, ‘Premature’, Butterworth laments how the utopian space race has become a vehicle for American nationalism, abandoned because of the rising costs of war.

To the rest of the world, the astronauts will become
ghosts, men who walk on the moon, parts in a cunning
simulation trick performed by politicians.

In the eighties, the poems take on a despondency at society’s apathy to act against an unjust society. Butterworth describes this as a period of disillusionment at Thatcher’s ‘attempts to destroy all trace of my era’s legacy’. In ‘The 1980s – Part Three’, he describes an apocalyptic world where family turns against family in extreme violence. In ‘Space Radio’, the poem takes on the voice of a broadcast lamenting how the public has ignored the constant efforts of creative – ‘artists and free men’ – who warn of overpopulation, nuclear war, pollution, and urban decay. The poems of this period are disturbing and uncomfortable; perhaps the title of the final poem of this decade is most telling – ‘I’m clinging to the rock face.’

This notion of the poet as harbinger continues into his poems of the last decades, Butterworth writing of the more contemporary dooms of Brexit and the crumbling NHS in ‘Beware Perfidious Albion’ and ‘Death of a great mammal.’ Yet the latest poems also arrive at a place of domestic hope, with Butterworth finding both Buddhism and his ‘forever partner’, S.

As with all ‘Complete’ collections, the quality of the poetry varies, and my preference would be for a more curated, ‘Selected’ collection of Butterworth’s speculative poetry: he is strongest exploring new worlds, and new ways to see ours. But Jim Burns’ introduction is upfront about the book, stating that ‘it’s the product of a flawed human being’ – the continuity is essential to his existence. As a writer, it’s always interesting to see how another writer changes over the years; and there is something reassuring about seeing Butterworth’s malaise metamorphose into contentment. As for the future, here’s hoping we heed the words.

Kat Clay’s short stories have been published in Cosmic Horror Monthly, Aurealis, Translunar Travelers Lounge, and several anthologies. Her non-fiction and criticism has been published in The Guardian, The Victorian Writer, and Weird Fiction Review, and she was a contributor to the Locus winning and Hugo nominated Dangerous Visions and New Worlds: Radical Science Fiction, 1950 to 1985. You can read ‘The Black Box Killer’, Kat’s experimental futuristic thriller inspired by 60s new wave science fiction, in Interzone #294.

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