There's a wonderful image
in the long, sequential poem 'Poem on His Birthday', as follows:
He bought an
eternity ring forged from a coffin hinge.
What caught my attention about this, as I read and re-read it, was the
pleasing irony of the image; its life-in-death allusions; its circularity;
its encapsulation of life's great themes - love, death and life force in the
one ring. As with all circles, that is where this excellent collection,
and this review, must begin end, and go on, but for now I want to stick with
the pleasures of this phrase.
There is the music of the line with its four short, squeaking vowels i-i-i-i,
mimetic of the squeak of the coffin hinge itself. There's also a pleasing
natural caesura between 'ring' and 'forged', inhabited by the life-giving
intake of breath, itself the impetus for the next part of the poetic
utterance, and separating the line into halves although, paradoxically, there
is no actual separation here, no comma to mark the pause. In fact, the whole
book abounds in such conjoined oppositions, as the title of the book itself
might suggest with its simple 'versus'.
I also like the punning qualities of some of the language in this image: the
fact that the implied love is the single fact upon which everything 'hinges';
that the blacksmith's hammer, again implied and never shown, also 'rings'
with those short vowels i-i-i-i; that the word 'forge' implies an untruth
(and all that that might mean for the celebration of a wedding vow), just as
it also implies volcanic forces, universal forces, eternal forces. What makes
this a great line - and many other lines alongside it in this book - is the
fact that all of the above is
simply implied through the ease of Armitage's conversational line. It's all
there, if you want it, for the reading and interpretation. This
open-endedness within the closed structure is Armitage's crowning glory in
this excellent book - the restrained delivery of conjoined profundity and
simplicity that is delivered at all times with the reader in mind.
The whole sequence, 'Poem on His Birthday', comprises 40 aphoristic,
prose-poem like fragments, inventive and adventurous, and adding to the
variety of forms with which the book abounds. Here also are poems in 'mirror
writing' form, couplets, quatrains, sonnets, free-verse, translations, odes,
elegies, monologues and other inventions. The variety not only confirms the
poet's facility with the multiple traditions of poetry, but makes for a
dynamic and fast-moving collection. That pace, however, conceals great
depths, not least a philosophic enquiry into the nature of the ecology of the
here and now, which I hope to explore in this review.
Faber recently published the poet's version of Homer's Odyssey, of which we have a dramatic passage here, and in
2007 will publish his translation of the classic Middle English poem Sir
Gawain and the Green Knight. Given
that we also have here an interesting poem 'from The Bayeux Tapestry' - which arranges its text from
right to left in separate columns, and plays with possibilities of
translation by bracketing off phrases and vocabulary - this book clearly
demonstrates the poet's fascination with both Ancient & Modern, just as
it demonstrates the integrity of his project to recontextualise some historic
dramatic narratives. This is of course familiar postmodern territory, but
Armitage achieves it with integrity, elan and enviable invention, both formally
within each poem; structurally between poems, and by using a number of other
Along with the 'conjoined oppositions' I cited to start in the 'ring', there
are other unifying features. One is the rhythm and tension of the poet's
recurring metrical line, da-da-da
da-da-da da -
'strolling the boulevard. They were the plans' - this driving, syncopated
rhythm that recurs time again in the poems, creates pace and movement,
keeping the voice and narrative of each piece on the move. There is a
restlessness here in the rhythms. A questing movement, for what I hope to
show later. But this particular insistent rhythm also exists in contrast to,
and in tension with, the spoken cadences of the poet's conversational style:
or model drivers,
motoring home in
cars. Or after the late show -
boulevard. They were the plans,
underwritten in the neat left-hand
- a true, legible script.
The run-ons of these lines, the natural pauses and phrase groupings, subtly
mask the insistence of the rhythm, but it is clearly there, and it is in that
tension that the life force of the poem is to be found. The collection also
has some structural groups of poems - five dramatic monologues, each entitles
'Sympathy', that take their inspiration from legal cases; a group of poems
concerned with birds; and the subject matter of England and Englishness -
whether in the delightfully troubling 'The Slaughtered Lamb', the
historically playful 'To the Women of the Merrie England Coffee Houses,
Huddersfield', or in other pieces, not least that significant 'Bayeux
Tapestry' poem that deals with King William's founding of the new republic on
English soil at Harold's cost.
This treatment of Ancient & Modern also deals with the present, and
projected futures. In 'KX' (Kings Cross), we read of a nation 'primed / for
that point in time when the world goes bust, / when the unattended holdall or
case / unloads its cache of fanaticised heat.' This is obvious in its present
day context, given recent attacks in international cities, London and Baghdad
included. But it takes on deeper, worrying, time-honoured overtones when read
in conjunction with lines from the poet's translation from the Odyssey. Once the Cyclops has been blinded and Odysseus'
And the men
cheered and laughed until light...
dawned on us that nothing had changed.
Still lost, still
famished-hearted, still years from home,
but now with
Poseidon foaming and writhing below,
revenge for blinding his one-eyed son.
The act was
to haunt is. From then on
marked men, locked on a collision course
with the God
of the Sea. He lurked in the depths,
presence. We sensed him under the waves.
shivered when he stirred. And if we'd known
the chain of
event we'd set in place, the cruelty
that stretched ahead, year after year,
and terror and sadness and loss still to come - who knows,
have chosen to die, right there, in the black cave,
out of sight
of heaven and without sound.'
The present-day relevance of these Classical lines is surely not lost on either
author, or reader; the inter-textual link is one that marks Armitage out not
only as a poet of contemporary relevance, but also one with a great depth of
understanding of the powers and traditions of his craft. As he writes himself
in the first line of another poem, 'You're Beautiful' ... 'because you're
classically trained', so Armitage is well-trained in his own craft. He may
often be cast as a poet of contemporary culture alone; a poet of the present
condition; with his use of colloquialism, conversational style and images
from popular culture, but he is also a sophisticated poet with a deep control
of narrative, dramatic and lyric modes, and a command of rhythm and image,
all amply demonstrated by this new collection. This collection also
demonstrates a deep-seated engagement with a number of prescient themes - social,
political, philosophic, and ecological. For me, it creates all the valencies
that poetry should. Lest this should all sound high-falutin, Armitage is also
a witty master of self-deflation and, like other postmoderns, John Ashbery
and Lee Harwood say, Armitage knows how to undercut his own seriousness:
you're classically trained.
because I associate piano wire with strangulation.
This is a long poem you can hear on the new Poetry Archive website at http://www.poetryarchive.org Here,
Armitage reads it laconically, exploring its 'You & I' oppositions with
self-deprecating irony and a lyric weight perfectly judged for the flatness
of his Huddersfield vowels. 'You're Beautiful' is a song-like poem with
repetitive chorus and rhetorical structures. It's an undedicated eulogy to
love itself and, like the 'ring' with which we began, it holds love and loss
in taught union.
The sequence 'Sympathy' also benefits from voicing, with its Yorkshire
dialects; these dramatic monologues achieving their full intended conflicts
of humanity as the voices are heard
- the boyfriend of a drowned girl after a night of drink and weed; a girl
with a birthmark so bad that her parent ban all mirrors until they 'caught
her staring one night, face to face / with the turned-off TV, touching the
screen'; the ghost of a hit-and-run victim haunting the respectable driver
out on parole. The double-edge of the car is given further parodic treatment
in 'Republic' - a poem that takes the poet's interests in England,
nationhood, and new utopias, to poignant and ridiculous heights:
red cars only enter town.
white cars alone hit the road.
Wednesday. Blue like the president's blood.
Nice, that 'Blue Wednesday'. Not 'Blue Monday', as we have come to expect. Of
course, living memory brings us back to 'Black Wednesday' and the economic
slump heralded when Norman Lamont withdrew the pound from the European
Exchange Rate Mechanism in '92. Who could fail to notice the poet's subtle
placement of the 'black day' of the final stanza here, and the askance
implied commentary on Britain's decimated car industry?
And the money
rolls by in dark limos.
from behind tinted windows.
gleams. The metallic black
Shines to a
depth where all colours shine back.
Should be issued to all cabinet and opposition politicians - David Cameron
cycling to work even as his briefcase follows behind him in the ministerial
limousine (seriously!), and John Prescott with his fleet of Jags and, again,
Pauline following him to the party conference in one of the gas-guzzlers
whilst John totters on ahead on two wheels for the cameras. All hail the new
green politics! Armitage scores his win for the unmentioned colour, green,
with a flash of ironic brilliance.
If the car, and its new utopia, comes in for some poetic stick here, a less
specific new republic also comes under scrutiny in 'The Stint'. Here,
character types are reduced to definitive objects:
fibreglass parking booth could talk the talk...
an implied automatism lurking here, or:
suburbs, squad cars
unpaid library fines and overdue books.
It's not that the poet is warning of the 'end days', rather his focus comes
to rest on the written word and other forms of communication:
Not that the
static leapt from hand to hand, sparking
It is our means of communication that the poet ironises. 'Where was the
sense?' he asks. This particularly interesting poem brings its focus onto
And then the
the park - that picnic blanket
of freeze-dried grass between
Dodge - a murder of rooks, streaming
the hem of the sky,
flight. Endless, unapplauding hands
gloves looking for somewhere to land,
English scarecrow directly below,
running for home.
This is certainly America, or a version of it, with its 'baseball hats',
'back porches', 'hogs', 'squad cars', and those place names. Or perhaps the
dystopic nightmare that the poem conjures is that of an Americanised England;
Blair's English puppy playing lapdog to the all-American hunting hound? With
its dark foreboding ending - like Van Gogh's crows descending over the wheat
field under threatening skies - the English scarecrow runs for home; just
like Dorothy and his counterpart in Oz. He is desperate to get back. But to
what? A pre-Americanised Englishness? Where, or what, might that be exactly?
Perhaps a clue lies in Armitage's translation from Sir Gawain:
'Men know my
name as the Green Chapel Knight
and even a
fool couldn't fail to find me.
So come, or
be called a coward for ever.'
With a tug of
he reins he twisted around
still in hand, galloped out of the hall,
so the flame in the flint shot fire
from the hooves.
he came from they hadn't a clue,
no more than
they knew where he headed for next.
The rhythms of this passage are, again, fantastic. This section of Sir Gawain
refers to the moments when Gawain beheads the Green Man (hence 'head still in
hand'). The poem is here pre-ceded by a poem entitled 'Poetry', in which a
set of mechanical knights on the clock in Wells Cathedral 'circle and joust'
literally knocking each other's heads off. Each day, however, the 'sap who
was knocked dead / comes cowering home wearing a new head.' The word 'sap'
here is again neatly double-edged, meaning both the colloquial 'weakling' and
also the plant's life juice, to cite Dylan Thomas 'the force that through the
green fuse drives the flower'. The life force.
Where does it come from, this force? In both of these linked poems, it comes
from the endless cycles and re-cycling of time; exactly as it does in the
'ring' with which I began (the 'eternity ring forged from a coffin hinge'.)
This is exactly what the Green Man is symbolic of, headless after execution,
yet re-emerging to take off back to who-knows-where? Just like the scarecrow
of 'The Stint'. The 'sap', the 'scarecrow', Odysseus returning home, the Green
Man - Armitage seems to suggest that they are all of one and the same, taking
us somewhere, but where? To his final poem of course - 'The Final Straw' -
which bring all of these images and characters to fruition:
the tide coming in. Year on year
clockwise, spiralling home
remained but a hub of stalks
spirit of life was said to lurk.
The poem is clearly rich with symbols of fertility, death and renewal. All
very English, pastoral and traditional. But Armitage does not settle with
that comfort - he too, is always restlessly moving on - and so it is with an
image of 'the new world', a macaw, 'that singular bird of the new world' that
the book ends:
But a Spix's
macaw flapped from the blade,
bird of the new world, one
of a kind, A
rare sight. And a sign, being
tapering out of view, being
in the sun, being gone.
This is clearly an image of the temporary nature of the here and now; yet it
also embodies that utopian quest for 'home', for 'the new world', and it ties
it to ancient and pagan imagery of the life force. For all his fascination
with Ancient & Modern, and eternal cycles, it is in the fleeting moment
of the here and now, with the 'singular macaw of being', with its brilliant,
exotic plumage, that Armitage finds most relish. Here and now, 'where the
spirit of life was said to lurk', is the ultimate focus of the poet's
attention. For me, that makes this a wise and human collection; one of great
virtuosity and architectural design; and one that repays reading after
© Andy Brown 2006