Review: The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 2017
74pp., hbk, £14.99
ISBN: 978 0 571 33384 4

Simon Armitage’s latest collection of poems is a sustained reflection on life in today’s Britain. Combining the beauty and banality of modern existence, these lyrical pieces are equally at home in charting the dart of a snipe out of undergrowth, as they are in itemising the ‘robotic glass doors’ and ‘flesh-toned fluorescent light’ of Poundland.

Armitage’s Britain is likewise one of ancient ancestry (plaintively invoked in ‘Deor’) and modern anxieties around issues of class, ecology, social inequality and urban decay. The style is sophisticated without affectation, with a turn of phrase which is rich in descriptive colour, empathy and candid humour.

The penultimate and eponymous poem, ‘The Unaccompanied’ echoes earlier pieces in its depiction of the poet’s father, this time singing in a choir of ‘chorusing men, all pewter-haired or bald’. There is dislocation and evocation here, a slight nostalgic turn for something which is past, and which the poet longs to cross over to. Echoing the earlier ‘Harmonium’ in which he and his father lift a ‘Farrand Chapelette’ out of ‘Marsden Church’, mortality, vulnerability, the disconnections of lived modernity are all sounded here, in terms which are deeply affecting and powerfully realised.

God is on the margins of Armitage’s world. In ‘The Holy Land’ Christ is born under Tinsley Viaduct, and lives out his days underachieving, drinking Special Brew, being finally crucified with a nail-gun to goalposts. These images, bordering on blasphemy perhaps, nevertheless speak a world which is no more accommodating of an incarnate God than that of the first century.

These explicit references are arguably surpassed by some of the subconscious spiritual issues which Armitage raises in verse. The baring of a quickened conscience to the heavens in ‘I Kicked a Mushroom’, the sullen tones of a maiden aunt’s funeral in ‘The Send Off’ (replete with a snatch of ‘The Lord’s my Shepherd’), the wonderful description of visiting a scrapyard with his father in ‘Prometheus’ to get a spark plug (the two electrodes didn’t quite touch/like the finger of man and the finger of God), all carry spiritual freight and a sense of muted (even frustrated) transcendence.

Armitage’s genius is to face and report his world in an unadorned and unpretentious way, in words which are deeply lyrical, laden with meaning and yet light in touch. This is Larkin without the bitter edge, married to a Wordsworthian sense of man’s smallness in a changing world which dwarfs his own existence and concerns. There is lostness here, and nascent hope, but this is ‘under the sun’ poetry, devoid of divine intervention or accompaniment.

This review originally appeared in Solas magazine.

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