BOOK REVIEW / Northern lad grows up: Book of matches by Simon Armitage, Faber pounds 5.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS Simon Armitage's third collection of poems, following in the triumphal wake of Zoom and Kid, and quietly surpassing them. Much of Armitage's earlier work concerns body and brake fluids, Swarfega, snooker tables, mountain bikes, oddballs and criminals, the edge of violence. 'It was his anorak that first attracted me' begins one poem, memorably; another poem, 'Brassneck', describes a pair of football ground pickpockets. Energetic, vivid and slangy, Armitage's rhythms are those of direct speech, the tone is blokeish, the landscape urban.

In Book of Matches the colloquialisms remain, especially in the first part, a series of self-portraits addressed to the reader, but the language has become spare and concentrated. The persona has changed too; Armitage has quit his Northern Ladding and grown up. His voice is confident but not complacent: 'I am very bothered when I think / of the bad things I have done in my life.' He admits to nightmares and anxieties, a need for disengagement; once or twice the old and detrimental hankering for the deliberately disgusting image surfaces: 'blood - a gallon exactly of bilberry soup'. But there is a tenderness now which I can recall in only one earlier poem, and with the tenderness a powerful, springing lyricism.

His virtuosity with form and metre has always been remarkable; here it is breakthtaking. In Kid he rendered the flight of a cricket ball; now he skims a stone, sends it skipping across the water and into its downward drop with effortless elegance. In Kid he started a jokey posthumous blurb for himself: 'Peg out the stars, / replace the bulbs of Jupiter and Mars / A man like that takes something with him when he dies, / but he has wept the coins that rested on his eyes, / eased out the stopper from the mouthpiece of the cave, / exhumed his own white body from the grave.' Now, most specifically in the middle section, 'Becoming of Age', that elegiac note returns and deepens. Here are wry and gently mournful musings on love and betrayal, sharpened occasionally by bitterness, as in 'The Lost Letter of the Late Jud Fry', where exquisite form counterpoints a dreadful grief. Here, too, is the finest and angriest poem in the book, 'To Poverty', a raging indictment with a grim conclusion: 'I'd rather keep you in the corner of my eye / than wait for you to join me side by side / at every turn, on every street, in every town. / Sit down. I said sit down.'

Elsewhere a dead donkey is described with chilling precision - 'The eel of his tongue, the keel of his spine, / the rope of his tail' - and five little angels are nabbed by the police for pissing from a train window: 'Eyewitnesses insist on looking for a likeness. / Identity parade is what the bottom line is.' This section is a firework display of technique, versatility and passion, with Armitage at his protean best.

The book ends with 'Reading the Banns', a cycle of short prenuptial poems, charmingly tinctured by nursery rhymes:

all hanging from the picture rail,

all covered, zipped, and tagged.

Nine body bags.

Well, a morning suit is a big improvement on an anorak. Appropriately, the final poem pays oblique homage to Auden, whose ghostly presence haunts this fine collection.