Faber & Faber, £14.99
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Review by Tristram Saunders
SIMON Armitage is back – although he’s hardly been away. The Unaccompanied is his first full collection of lyric poems in a decade, but he’s been busy in the meantime: turning out plays, prose poems and travel-memoirs; translating Latin and Middle English; writing verse for TV, for radio, even for boulders – his ‘Stanza Stones’ are half a dozen rocks dotted across Yorkshire.
Like those rocks, Armitage is an unshakeable presence on the bardic landscape. The Huddersfield writer is Britain’s most lauded popular poet since Larkin. Since becoming Oxford Professor of Poetry in 2015, the 53-year-old looks increasingly likely to succeed Carol Ann Duffy as poet laureate.
As Armitage grows older, his readers have got younger. For almost 20 years he has been a fixture on the AQA school syllabus in England, where to many students he is now better known than Burns. His place on the curriculum is partly due to his lucid, effortlessly readable style. One study-guide to his poems asks pupils: “What examples of simple language can you find?” The question does him a disservice. Armitage has an inimitable voice – punchy, conversational and bold in its use of slang and cliche.
But in The Unaccompanied that characteristic swagger has been toned down, and the depths beneath his “simple language” are more apparent than ever. It’s not simple but distilled, as clear and sharp as rainwater: “I bed down in a stone pen/ and curl up unborn.”
Of course, he can still pull out the stylistic stops to earn a laugh. A Homeric pastiche called Poundland is uproariously funny, stranding Odysseus in an underworld of bric-a-brac. Later, he mocks the writer’s lonely life in The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party: “the art of pulling my own cracker/ is something I’ve mastered over the years”.
But the prevailing mood is darker. In I Kicked a Mushroom, that small act of pointless destruction leaves the poet racked with guilt: the broken mushroom, with "one root as thick as a wrist”, could almost be a severed artery. Still, at least no real blood has been shed. The wry, deadpan violence that cropped up in his early work is largely absent here. Armitage, a former probation officer, has written several memorable poems in the voices of bolshie con-artists and criminals. But the only felon we meet in this volume is a sad, silent figure: real-life murderer (and cannibal) Robert Maudsley, the “bland mousy man with the blank face”. In Solitary, he’s not only trapped in the “glass case” of his cell, but held motionless in the cold, echoing confines of a villanelle.
Elsewhere, Armitage turns his gaze to a melting snowman, a nurse shivering at a bus-stop, and – in the bleakly funny Gymnasium – “the loneliness of dumb weights… the silent companionless scream of the castaway’s mind/ in the bodybuilder’s head.” But these thumbnail sketches can feel over-familiar. Unable to walk, a lonely pensioner in Poor Old Soul is found starving in his home (“I ran out of biscuits”). His predicament is straight out of Alan Bennett’s 1988 play A Cream Cracker Under the Settee.
Despite the focus on isolated figures, the most powerful poems here are about the bonds between daughter and father, or father and son. In his Keats-Shelley Prize winner The Present, he tries to bring an icicle home to his daughter, only to find “there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold."
Armitage likes to joke that he’s annoyed his father isn’t dead yet – after all, he’s written so many brilliant elegies for him. The best is Harmonium, in which they carry the old instrument out of a church together. It “had stood facing the choristers’ stalls / where father then son had opened their throats/ and gilded finches – like high notes – had streamed out.” That poise of that flipped simile is Armitage firing on all cylinders. It sings. In the end, though, that song movingly gives way to pained silence:
“And him being him he has to say
that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave
will bear the load of his own dead weight.
And me being me I mouth in reply
some shallow or sorry phrase or word
too starved of breath to make itself heard.”