Simon Armitage (2017) The Unaccompanied London, Faber & Faber
What’s in a name? Armitage could have called this volume ‘Solitude’ and in a stroke joined the army of poets and poetasters who have milked this hackneyed stereotype of the poet and poetry. Instead he asks the question: who or what and how do we become ‘the unaccompanied’. Armitage becomes therefore yet again a ‘measure’ (in all its senses) of the social forms and functions of loneliness and its professions in poetry – even down to the wonderful, funny and intensely moving evocation and pastiche of Wordsworth written about an ‘accompanied’ (though the company is ‘borrowed dog’) walk from Dove Cottage (‘The Candlelighter’ p. 56):
I stood in some blind spot of its dark eye
and deer and dog were still and unaware
and stayed that way, divided by that wall:
wild stag and hunting hound in separate worlds,
The sense that ‘division’ whilst real and solidified in objects might be some temporary loss of a fuller and more connected vision persists, lifting poetry back into its social function. The stance we take both connects and distinguishes (at their respective line ends) ‘I’ and ‘its dark eye’, and whilst not promising greater light admits of its possibility.
Hence, a poem that starts with a sorry ghost of Wordsworth in the ‘corpse road’ from Dove Cottage, ends with a kind of secular communion of company that is both also a sorry ghost of community but an admission of its underlying potential. It is as potent as the ambiguities in its half-rhyme (tarn / cairn):
Then I hacked up the ghyll to higher ground
Counting the hikers striding along the ridge,
Thinking of taking a drink from the tarn,
Thinking of adding a new stone to the cairn.
My favourite poem has to be ‘The Claim’ (p. 47). It, like other poems here, shows what I feel to be a new (or perhaps deeper) interest in the unconscious (whatever we take that to be) that is, as in ‘The Candlelighter’, ‘still and unaware’. This poem joins others that humorously or otherwise explore the realms of the undead or, in his most literary of jokes that conjoins Homer with Ezra, ‘Poundland’ (pp. 10f), by pastiching Ulysses’ visitation and libations in Homer’s Hades. The deep mine in ‘The Claim’ is that of the US West but it applies to any claim to own a deeper selfhood (private and dark), let alone that of being a ‘poet’: ‘operation mind-fuck’.
This is a poem about dredging creation out of a thing that feels like death and yet still (the hope is – gloriously realised in this poem) resurrected in a passage that uses snow like one of my other favourite poets, John Burnside, and likewise his deeply ambivalent religious analogy and metaphor.
‘The Unaccompanied’, finally (p. 74), is a glorious poem – one that, were it not too universal for that purpose alone, seems a poem about unaccompanied, sad but ungenerous Brexit Britain, as do others –satirical of the notion that we can ever ‘walk alone’, other than over a precipice. The Company we keep is in the past, present and future – it builds our ‘suspension bridge’ structures that fly in hope of joint survival in each other. I love this great piece because, ambivalent Yorkshireman myself, it bridges for me some of the poets that belong to what Armitage himself wanted to see as a Yorkshire tradition: Tony Harrison, himself (forgive me the others) but also that son of new Yorkshire, the just-risen star of Andrew Macmillan (there’s father, there’s son):
Songs about mills and mines and a great war,
About mermaid brides and solid gold hills,
Songs from broken hymnbooks and cheesy films.
Then his father’s voice rising out of that choir,
And his father’s father’s voice, and voices
Of fathers before, concerning him only.
Arcing through charged air and spanning the gorge.
He steps over the cliff edge and walks across.
I wonder how much that ‘cliff edge’ owes to the imagery of fear and hope in the Brexit lexicon.
But to be honest, I am not at all confident that I know why these poems are something new – just that they are. Becoming recognised, midst the ‘alpha males’ of his sixth form as ‘the poet in my heart’ (from Fleetwood Mac of course) raises an image that will forever remind me (now in my 60s) of being ‘outed’ in my Yorkshire school in quite another way although the fear seems less fixable to an event that has or might happen now – just significant of the excitement of transition (in ‘Gravity’ (p. 22f.):
And the airspace that followed
was instantly baubled
with orbs and globes
from the mouths of angels
and an outed choirboy’s
Till the heavens ballooned
with unworldly apples.
Of course, this is clever. In a stanza or two earlier, he sets himself the task of bringing together Isaac Newton and Robert Browning (rhymed with ‘brown-nosing’) but it isn’t the cleverness (the metaphysical wit) I love it is the ability to dig down deep into feeling that emerge from his readers as their own in ways he cannot have known would have happened.
Read them. Enjoy them! They will ‘interpellate’ (I knew that word from Althusser would come in handy one day) you too!
All the best
 Although I think this was just wishful thinking on my part. Those mermaid brides surely come from George Mackay Brown (a first edition of whose poems holds its favoured place in Armitage’s coming-of-age poem (p. 20).