The sunday poem: 2. Simon Armitage

Every week Ruth Padel discusses a contemporary poet through an example of their work

From Yorkshire like Ted Hughes, with a similarly deep-smouldering care for nature: but Armitage is urban Yorkshire too. His streetwise, witty, often sinister language investigates life's inconclusiveness rather than mythic force. Subjects range from murdered hitch-hikers to millennial bonfires, often ending in deadpan regret: the thirtysomething, ingeniously crafted nihilism is bleakly alive to the distance between people. This is a little masterpiece from his sixth collection: "The Fox" is a constellation.

The Fox

Standing its ground on the hill, as if it could hide

in its own stars, low down in the west of the sky.

I could hit it from here with a stone, put the torch

in the far back of its eyes. It's that close.

The next night, the dustbin sacked, the bin-bag

quartered for dog meat, biscuit and bone.

The night after that, six magpies lifting

from fox fur, smeared up ahead on the road.

A poem about distance and secret violence, moving from the star fox to hurting it, being raided by it, its death. Gesturing to Ted Hughes's poem on writing a poem, "The Thought-Fox", it is also about that wily, near-but-far, piratically vulnerable thing, inspiration.

Aptly for a secretive animal, the poem is held together by inner rhyme: "ground", "own", "low down", "stone" (echoed in "close"), then "bone" and "road", which rings you back to "d" on the first line-end. The fox runs from "hide", to "road", via its "own", "low" attachments (ground, stone, bone), threatened by the hidden rhyme of "if it" and "hit it". This first stanza is long vowels: "hide", "eye", "sky". The second's rat-tat-tat sounds speed things up. Bs, Ks and Ts ("meat", "biscuit", "meat", "bag", "magpie", "sacked") get the fox's snapping appetite and foreshadow its own end - as meat.

Among many monosyllables, the participles' softer endings speak to each other: "standing", the first word, sadly partners "lifting", which "lifts" those magpies over the edge of the nearly-last line, up from the fox who once, like them, inhabited the sky.

c Ruth Padel

''The Fox' appears in Cloud Cuckoo Land, Faber

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