(“Goalkeeper with Cigarette”, 1995)
To open up this Simon Armitage retrospective is to delve into a treasure trove of the surreal, the unlikely, the ironic, the laugh-out-loud comic, the darkly humorous and the downright horrific. Above all, it is a delightfully unpredictable collection; innovation and exploration are this poet’s watchwords. Spanning 25 years, from 1989 to 2014 (ten published collections and including work still in progress under the title of “The Unaccompanied”), his career as a poet began with a bang or should one say “Zoom”, the title poem of his first collection. Judging by the Magrittian dream-like titular poem of the present volume, the last in the book, his imagination and creativity continue unabated.
Armitage’s language is bold, often street-smart and unforgiving, yet it is also, first and foremost, accessible, colloquial, beating the rhythms of everyday speech. Critics have looked for deeper layers of meanings, but I believe him to be a straight-up-and-down Yorkshireman, a man with no side (as we say in the north) who thumbs his nose at self-conscious notions of high art. Take yourself too seriously critic and you will get a poetic-metaphorical slap in the eye.
“Brassneck” follows the trail of two pickpockets as they work the football crowds. Merciless in their choice of targets, they adhere strictly to their own code – and their own language:
He keeps his cunt-hooks out of my wallet,
I keep my tentacles out of his pocket.
Told with deadpan rhythm and rhyme, “The Stuff” is the grimly realistic story of the arrival of heroin on northern streets and its encroaching stranglehold:
Others …were quizzed, thumped,
finished off and dumped…
This poet is no moralist – merely an astute observer.
The sheer variety in Armitage’s oeuvre is perhaps one of its most attractive features, from the untitled sonnets of “Book of Matches” (1999), and the tragic, powerful rhythms of “The Winner” (Cloudcuckooland 1997), to the prose poems of Seeing Stars (2010). The latter, a collection of surreal poetic monologues, stands out as an experiment in the arc of Armitage’s work. Ironic tales of domestic strife (“I’ll Be There To Love And Comfort You”) and the sperm whale’s speech in “Christening” embrace the unexpected and the strange whilst, in an earlier collection, the ghost of T.S Eliot hovers over the rhythms and images of “The Lost Letter of The Late Jud Fry” (Kid, 1992):
The dawn will crack
its egg into the morning’s bowl.
Armitage’s fearless and darkly humorous sonnet about attempted suicides, “I Say, I Say, I Say” (Dead Sea Poems, 1995) sweeps along with wave upon wave of horrific images:
Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath?
Violence is never far from his retelling of Homer’s epic, Odyssey. The blinding of Cyclops is real and bloody. In a scene which might, in a odd way, conjure up surreal images of his native Yorkshire, Armitage tells how the sailors escaped by binding sheep to their bodies as shields, and of the sense of fear and revenge lurking beneath the ocean’s surface.
No review of this volume would be complete without some mention of the Stanza Stones project that also appeared in print in 2013. Six commissioned nature poems, published under in the heading In Memory of Water, have been carved into rock at various appropriate sites on the North Yorkshire Moors, for the enjoyment of walkers. The poems, “Snow”, “Rain”, “Mist”, “Dew”, “Puddle” and “Beck” are not my favourite pieces, but the project is an imaginative and worthy one.
So which is my favourite poem? Perhaps “Poundland” from his latest collection. Written in epic even Homeric style, it describes an odyssey through the eponymous store with a shopping trolley serving as the fast black ship. A social comment? Unlikely – just pure poetic and mythological fun! I look forward to more from this poet who no doubt will have much more to give.