Simon Armitage and the volcanic island of Surtsey were both born in 1963. His new book of poems finds him anxiously wondering what became of them both. It begins with the "Gifted, precocious sprog... the boy-god", but ends on "that coast/ where all the world's wunderkind are washed up".
Is this poetic wunderkind washed up? I don't think so, but the book has a strong sense of mid-life angst. It is also preoccupied with "the condition of England". Armitage has always yoked local preoccupations to cosmic and sometimes apocalyptic scenes. In "Roadshow", the poet and his pregnant wife trudge towards some epiphany - "a silver extraterrestrial light". But the moment they arrive, the whole shebang grinds to a standstill and the crowds stream away: "It's precisely at this point/ that the universe - having expanded since birth -/ reaches its limit and starts to contract." The crowd as it leaves "dopples past": the Doppler effect is the dying fall made by all receding objects, most noticeably by wailing sirens. It's a brilliant touch in a marvellous poem for our times, and only Armitage could have written it.
At times, Armitage sounds like a Ted Hughes in whom Yorkshire grit is used to bulk up a more modern mineral found in the street. He has a distinctly Northern take on the modern world, and this world is not very happy. In "A Vision", architects' fantasies of planned communities are picked over for the nostalgia of unfulfilled dreams, "all unlived in and now fully extinct".
The North/South faultline, mixed with that of class, runs very strongly through Armitage. One of his earlier poems, "After Laycock", contrasts a woman of privilege and a tramp: Laycock was a 19th-century poet from Armitage's home village, Marsden. This poem resurfaces here as "You're Beautiful", in discursive prose couplets. The dichotomies here seem, to Armitage, to be unbridgeable. Venus and Mars appear in a refrain, and the proverbial Martian could deduce a great deal of the human condition from this poem.
Armitage could rewrite Auden's condition-of-England book Look, Stranger!, and "The Stint" has the authentically Audenesque dystopian vision: "In the suburbs, squad cars / ran down unpaid library fines and overdue books." There's a strong whiff of Auden's "The Fall of Rome" about this, and it also ends with a bleak animal image: "a murder of rooks, streaming / from under the hem of the sky".Reuse content