Heavenly echoes of Sappho

CLOUDCUCKOOLAND by Simon Armitage Faber pounds 14.99/pounds 7.99

Taking on in a constellation-pack of new poems the most plural things we live among, the stars, the fine and busy poet Simon Armitage adumbrates that plurality with the very dedication of his new book. This bravura composition lasts a dense, semi-colon-powdered page and a half. It is archaic yet chatty; Leuwenhoekian, certainly double-lensed. Its cod Latin is sophisticatedly silvered by Anglo-Saxon names: "Joties Shaw de Orchard; Michael Shaw; Chris Richardson; Joties Marsden de Well Syke; Joties Holroyd; Willus Hust in jure Eliz. ux ejus; Willus firth de New Inn", and so on for a spray of names that seem like stars in their combinations and groupings that sometimes stand out clearly and are sometimes more obscure, like all patterns we use to interpret the creation, which is after all what poems are. This dedication is of course itself a poem; it reads too like a private scholarly joke.

The widely various body of CloudCuckooLand reflects its dedication. It is very rich, including nature poems of easeful vividness, like "Stork":

One on its own across the street

on the tall house of the Sisters of Spain.

This bird, shot at and stoned when it flies

for the death that it brings

in its beak. Butterfly cakes, home-made,

the glass bowl and the wooden spoon.

Look away when it lifts the black hem

of the white skirt of its wings.

Divided into shapes and weathers of preoccupation rather than hard-edged sections, the book achieves a connecting bridge between them, so that the first cluster of poems, which include several in Armitage's rightly celebrated mode of captured past time, is finished with a poem called "An Asterism" that leads to "The Whole of the Sky",'a panoptic cluster of star and constellation poems that crowns the book's achievement.

In a gesture that is at once postmodern and expository of Armitage's creative reach, the collection closes with a play, Eclipse. This work is of course a poem too, though nothing so dated and stiff as a "verse- play". Simon Armitage has collaborated with his contemporary the poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell (who is mentioned in a poem in this book) in Moon Country, a work explicitly reminiscent of the collaborations of Auden and Isherwood. The play Eclipse moves between six young friends, exploring childhood, savagery and dreams in language that moves between colloquialism, menace and the naivety that can only be conveyed by a writer in whom a fresh eye and a practised ear combine.

Sappho is the great poet of stars, although we have from her only fragments whose margin and gaps themselves seem to glimmer with suggestions of words lost, verbal black holes. Assisted by her chaste and supple language with its suggestive ductility of vowel and rhythm, Sappho achieved the combination that the stars call up in each of us through space and time, the simultaneous scales of intimacy and infinitude. Simon Armitage has chosen the intimate. Pendant from their often chillingly, or thrillingly, grand titles, the names of constellations or of equipment used by men to construe the heavens, these poems tell stories under the stars. "The Ram" reads:

Half-dead, hit by a car, the whole of its form

a jiggle of nerves, like a fish on a lawn.

To help finish it off, he asked me to stand

on its throat, as a friend might ask a friend

to hold, with a finger, the twist of a knot.

Then he lifted its head, wheeled it about

by the ammonite, spirograph shells of its horns

till its eyes, on stalks, looked back at its bones.

There is a beautiful illustrative curve of finality to the poem's declension, rewarding the reader's close attention. Such physical mimesis recurs in the work, with a good joke tucked in at the end of a cracking poem about the poet's own wisdom teeth. The most terrible, in its honourable sense, poem that CloudCuckooLand has to offer concerns a son disabled beyond bearing, but brave, by name "The Winner". The conquest of impossibility by fortitude is its subject. Armitage echoes and dazzles with his understanding of the language of the old-divine, the scientific and the incomparable simple. My favourite poems name lost things or things of a passing time. Of these, "Lest We Forget" is the most direct:

Standard Fireworks , Aston Martin,

Standedge Tunnel, Dora Marsden,

Handel, Choral, Hanson, Mason,

ICI

Summer Wine,

Wilson, Wainwright, Riddick, Grayson,

Prichett's classic railway station,

Enoch make'em, Enoch break'em,

Summer Wine,

biggest pie,

Lawrence Batley, Albert Victor,

spinning jenny, Helen Ritka,

cash for questions, suet pudding,

First Division three years running,

rugby league and Rhodes and Hirst,

Tolson's beasts and Tolson's birds,

biggest pie,

ICI,

Engels, Duke, the Domesday Book,

Aspin, Beaumont, Cooper, Wood,

mungo, shoddy, scribble, fud ...

Roaming in the human, Armitage is sublunary, never dull.

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