Recently published in the New Statesman, Simon Armitage’s latest poem, ‘Emergency’, is a welcome reminder of the Yorkshire poet’s ability to both observe and reflect the despondency and the socio- economic decay prevalent in modern society, through the chilling, marginalised characters who populate his early poems, writes Philip Cummins.
IN AN INTERVIEW with the Guardian during the aftermath of the 2011 England Riots, Yorkshire poet Simon Armitage reflected on a comparison between the violence and social discord of Thatcher’s England in the 1980’s and the discontent and despondency felt by those individuals deeply affected by the current global economic recession.
Eventually, after some discussion, Guardian journalist John Harris asked Armitage if elements of the current socio- economic climate would find their way into new poems by the now fifty- year- old poet. After a pregnant pause, Armitage claimed “I would think so.”
Since that interview, Armitage has published a verse translation of the Arthurian epic The Death of King Arthur (2012), which, like his translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (2006), effectively acts as an arena in which Armitage subverts the Middle English verse with the fresh, vital, vibrant language often found in his original poems.
Reading ‘Emergency’, however, a new poem published in the New Statesman, it does feel like Armitage has kept good on his claim that he would reflect the despondency of the current climate. The very tone of ‘Emergency’ aligns the poem to those poems that Armitage wrote in the late 80’s / early 90’s; poems like ‘Snow Joke’, ‘Poem’, ‘November’ and ‘The Stuff’ from 1989’s Zoom; poems such as ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘True North’, ‘Brassneck’ and ‘About His Person’ from 1992’s Kid. The same fire that burned within the young poet, then, is still burning within the poet, it seems, now.
What is so impressive about Armitage’s latest poem is how, like ‘The Stuff’ and ‘Gooseberry Season’, ‘Emergency’ flows so naturally and so effortlessly while detailing the seemingly ordinary and mundane to chilling effect. There is an almost apocalyptic quality to ‘Emergency’ (The horizon ablaze – / is it moore-fire or sundown?), which starts, ultimately, with the defeated owner of The four- pump petrol garage / finally closed, attempting to commit suicide by coupling the lips of his car exhaust / to the roots of his lungs.
The true success ‘Emergency’ is in Armitage’s brilliant use of adjectives. Adjectives, by their very nature, describe, or modify, nouns; in ‘Emergency’, Armitage, then, is describing not just what society is, but what society has allowed itself to become: the owner of the garage is defeated; the quarry is disused; the emergency vehicles are decommissioned; the kitchenette is functional. The way that Armitage uses adjectives in ‘Emergency’ suggests that compromises and concessions have not been made, but, rather, society has had these compromises and concessions imposed upon it.
The final stanza ends the poem with the kind of grim, rhetorical punch that has been missing from poems by Armitage in recent years. Like parts of ‘The Stuff’ and ‘Brassneck’, the final stanza details a deal taking place:
In the local taproom
prescription jellies and tin- foil wraps
change hands under cover
of Loot magazine
and Tetley beer mats.
What is it we do now?
Like all great poets, Armitage never assumes high moral ground, nor does he rush to the easiest moral judgement; rather, he leaves the reader with probing questions: why is the defeated owner defeated? Why, we ask, has he reached the point where he is coupling the lips of his car exhaust / to the roots of his lungs / via the garden hose ? Why is it that
The bank’s gone as well
and also the post office,
though in the store- cum- off licence
you can sign a gyro
with a string-and-sellotape- tethered
half- chewed biro
In June 2014, The Globe stage Armitage’s forthcoming publication, which is a translation of Homer’s The Iliad, the text of which Faber will publish during 2014. It is likely that Armitage will ‘Emergency’ collect ‘Emergency for a new collection entitled The Unaccompanied due in 2015 or, perhaps, Paper Airplane: New Selected Poems 1989 – 2014.
Wherever and whenever it appears in print, ‘Emergency’, for now, is a welcome reminder of Armitage’s gift for crafting raw, stark, original poems that reflect the society of the age to chilling effect.