THE ECOLOGY OF THE HERE & NOW


Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid, Simon Armitage
[Faber and Faber, 12.99]



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 unifying devices.

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-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

     electric cars. Or after the late show -
     strolling the boulevard. They were the plans,
     all underwritten in the neat left-hand
     of architects - 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' men escaped:

     And the men cheered and laughed until light...
     when it dawned on us that nothing had changed.

    Still lost, still famished-hearted, still years from home,
     but now with Poseidon foaming and writhing below,
     plotting revenge for blinding his one-eyed son.

     The act was to haunt is. From then on
     we were marked men, locked on a collision course
     with the God of the Sea. He lurked in the depths,
     a constant presence. We sensed him under the waves.
     The boat shivered when he stirred. And if we'd known
     the chain of event we'd set in place, the cruelty
     and agony that stretched ahead, year after year,
     the horror and terror and sadness and loss still to come - who knows,
     perhaps we'd 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 Beautiful'

     because you're classically trained.
     I'm ugly 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:
   
     On Mondays, red cars only enter town.
     [...]
     On Tuesdays, white cars alone hit the road.
     [...]
     Blue 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.
     Raybans flash from behind tinted windows.
     Bodywork 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:
   
     Even the baseball hat
     in the fibreglass parking booth could talk the talk...

an implied automatism lurking here, or:
   
     In the suburbs, squad cars
     ran down 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 world
     was numb: static leapt from hand to hand, sparking
     the odd response.

It is our means of communication that the poet ironises. 'Where was the sense?' he asks. This particularly interesting poem brings its focus onto birds, ending:

     And then the birds.
     They circled the park - that picnic blanket
     of freeze-dried grass between Washington, College,
     Johnson and Dodge - a murder of rooks, streaming
     from under the hem of the sky,

     inverted air offering
     effortless flight. Endless, unapplauding hands
     in black gloves looking for somewhere to land,
     and an English scarecrow directly below,
     singled out, 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
     and, head still in hand, galloped out of the hall,
     so the flame in the flint shot fire from the hooves.
     Which kingdom 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:

     Corn, like the tide coming in. Year on year
     [...]
     We harvested clockwise, spiralling home
     [...]
     till nothing remained but a hub of stalks
     where the 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,
     that singular bird of the new world, one
     of a kind, A rare sight. And a sign, being
     tail feathers tapering out of view, being

     blueness lost 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 reading.

            Andy Brown 2006