BOOKS POETRY; Slouching towards Huddersfield

THE DEAD SEA POEMS by Simon Armitage, Faber pounds 6.99
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"THE perfect poem - freshness of cadence, sense and proportion, salted by a deliberate break or breaks in its perfection. Yes, but who has written it?" That's Geoffrey Grigson talking away to himself in The Private Art. It would be unreviewerlike to suggest that perfection is attained in Simon Armitage's new book, but certainly one of the hallmarks of his talent, and perhaps the most important one, is that freshness of cadence Grigson rightly admires. Consider these four verses about that hoariest of all subjects the heavenly bodies, seen on Bonfire Night:

And blackness follows every burst of flames

that leaves us cold again, hands pocketed,

outdone, outshone, left in the shade by stars

that boil with light when the dark inflames them,

put to shame by shapes and constellations

that were dead and countersunk and buried,

hammered home in deep space. Like the new view

of the full moon, on full beam, in full bloom,

the open silver flower of the moon,

the boulder of the moon or the moon's shield,

hallmarked with valleys and rivers and fields,

the streams and snakes and fossils of the moon,

the long plumbago nights and graphite days,

the mercury seas and mercury lakes

of the moon, the moon on a plate, the date

and the name and the make of the full moon.

What's so attractive about that is the energy of its rhythms and images, as well as the way it manages to combine ancient pieties and modern knowingness in the relish of its puns, rhymes and half-rhymes, metaphors and incantatory repetitions, without falling into smart-alecry or a bogus pastoralism.

It is this ability to be cool and supercharged at the same time, to absorb the past tactfully into an omnivorous present, to marry up the immemorial with an elegant but not dismissive shrug of postmodern shoulders, that has won Armitage the affection of juries and readers. Slang is moderated by eloquence, rhetoric earmarked for community service even as it jumps through its flaming hoops.

The title of the long poem, which takes up almost half of this short book, is "Five Eleven Ninety Nine", a virtuoso millennial fable about the father and mother of all Bonfire Nights in which a frenzy of fire is fed by "people who check/the yards and feet and inches of their lives/for something safe to sacrifice", though safety seems to give way to universal mania. "A lending of heat and light to the air/but splinters of ice in our hands and hair." Later a Christ-figure is near-crucified, in the poem's least believable scene, attempting to prolong the fire with "something from the past", a heavy "cross" or Icarus-like pair of wings. The machinery of the poem creaks a bit here, and the mirror fogs up - rightly so, in one sense, but in another lacking the lustre of those striking lines on the moon.

The religious note in this fable is sounded in several other poems, though their apparently flip manner of address wouldn't commend them to the orthodox godly. Alongside this, and implicated in it, there's a strong clutch of poems on the have-nots, down and outs, would-be suicides, and on the much- abused faithfulness of dogs. Armitage would probably run a mile from words like "compassion" and "caring society" but it's plain that his days as a probation officer have not consumed his heart in glib professionalisation. Ditto his days as a professional poet. It's good to see him veering towards a Goldingesque, almost visionary approach to his material at times, as though something old and atavistic were slouching towards Huddersfield, waiting to be born.

Poetry is a somewhat problematical vocation, and Armitage deals openly (and slyly) with that subject, too, in the title poem and the four or five that follow. It takes a great deal of cheek, and skill, to check out one's own apotheosis (and marginalisation in the grand scheme of things), but this spry maker is up to the job.