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Poetry - Simon Armitage: The Dead Sea Poems

This review was written for the Independent on Sunday writing competition in 1996.

Simon Armitage: The Dead Sea Poems

(Faber, 1995)

Golf balls, dogs, hip flasks, beggars, cigarettes and parks compose the landscape of Simon Armitage's latest collection. No surprises there; he has always been a poet of the seemingly banal, suffusing details with a quirkily personal rather a transcendental significance. In A Hip Flask he sits in an aeroplane with the flask in his jacket pocket, his disregard for its proper place prompting him to restyle its function - "to hide the heart and hold the heart in place". In Goalkeeper with a Cigarette ("some upright insect, / boxed between the sticks, the horizontal / and the pitch") he comes across as an enthusiastic schoolboy, finding the miniature in everything and locking it in a matchbox to study.

Armitage's preoccupation with the immediate, his colloquial chirpiness and - perhaps most pertinently - his impeccable working-class credentials (home town: Huddersfield; place of study: Portsmouth Poly) have often led him to be grouped together with more overtly stance-adopting writers like Carol Ann Duffy and Ian Duhig. This is misleading. For a start, the interest of his poems lies less in their often humdrum foci - now Christmas at his parents', now an anaesthetist's equipment - than in the incandescent images they leave on his retina. The subject of A Meteorite could well represent the germ of an Armitage poem: an unimpressive speck of rock, it nevertheless, "for having flown / so far, found land", becomes "a gem, / a gift" - an imaginative window into infinity.

Secondly, much of his poetry is as erudite as any currently spilling out of Oxbridge cloisters. In addition to a lovely take on Zeus's rape of Europa in Cover Version, there are a host of poems here centred on religious imagery. A scarecrow mimics Christ's posture on the Cross in From the Middle Distance; the poet's niece is "baby Jesus" in White Christmas; the alternate pampering and torture of an infant represent "the seven acts of mercy and the fourteen stations of the cross" in A Week and a Fortnight - whose awesome subtleties can't be entered into here. These poems, and others, question the possibility of religious insight as part of modern experience, and their ambiguous phrasing leaves one uncertain whether Armitage sees religion as mocking scepticism, or vice versa.

Armitage's preoccupation with man's spiritual destiny finds its most ambitious expression in the 500-line poem which ends the collection, Five Eleven Ninety-Nine. The scene is Guy Fawkes' Night, eight weeks before the millennium: a gigantic bonfire is constructed with the air of a religious ritual outside an unspecified town. The process is described with an eerie dramatic power achieved through astute attention to detail, coupled with the scope for audacious deferments of focal shift offered by the poem's length. Four stanzas are devoted, for example, to the bare centre-pole (whose Christian resonances are obvious):

and for a week it has to stand alone,
stand for itself, a mark, a line of sight,
a stripe against the sky. Steeple, needle,
spindle casting half a mile of shadow
at dusk, at dawn another half-mile more.

A skilfully balanced tone of anticipation and ennui pervades the poem. It's about our need to create events in a world tamed to the point of eventlessness; about our search for the fire, the otherness within. Paralleling the fire's progress, the poem slowly collapses into a tone of almost Eliotonian spiritual bleakness, disconcerting coming from a writer who - though often angry at society's evils - described himself in a previous poem as "a happy, contented person":

But we have given all of what we own
and what we are, and it has come to this:
this place, this date, this time, these tens of us,
all free but shadowless and primitive,
no more than silhouettes or negatives
or hieroglyphics, stark and shivering.

The sometimes laboured symbolism of Five Eleven Ninety-Nine (a wooden cross is found to feed the dying fire) arguably undermines its allegorical force; but its evocative qualities carry it superbly. Particularly impressive - and this applies to most of The Dead Sea Poems - is the subtle rhythmic counterpoint between sound and image, lending its lines a depth and a musical immediacy that represent a real development from the versified colloquialisms of Zoom!, Armitage's 1989 debut. He may still sometimes seem to be straining a little too hard for meaning and effect; yet his words really have a life of their own, and promise to bear further intriguing fruits in the years to come.

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