Smith/Doorstop, 2010 £5.00
Reviewed by Rory Waterman, Nick Asbury and Sue Butler
By now most people know what to expect from Simon Armitage, or think they do, and this pamphlet, with its long and quirky title and charmingly daft opening poem, does not announce a sudden change of direction. In that first poem, ‘The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party’, the speaker is part Armitage himself, part David Brent, and the poem is all throwaway, all good solid fun, warm and eminently readable:
It’s fancy dress, and I’ve come as Björn Borg circa 1978,
the trademark headband keeping my straggly blonde fringe out of my eyes.
I pull down my tight white shorts,
sit on the flatbed scanner and photocopy my bits. Hilarious.
Some of these poems, and many of the allusions within them, have little chance of standing the test of time. You have to be of this generation, reading now (or preferably a few years ago), to get the most out of references to a “2005 official McFly calendar”, or a black bear wearing “Ugg boots”. But we are of this generation, and Armitage is too entertaining as a commentator on it for us to dismiss his work so lightly.
Whether as broadcaster, poet, writer of memoirs or novelist, Armitage wants to entertain you. ‘The Delegates’ begins:
At the annual Conference of Advanced Criminal Psychology,
Dr Amsterdam and myself skipped the afternoon seminar
on Offending Behaviours Within Gated Communities
and went into town to go nicking stuff.
I enjoy reading this now for the same reasons, more or less, that I enjoyed reading Dandy and Beano comics when I was seven. But Armitage, thankfully, has a better turn of phrase, or eye for a resonating image, than Bully Beef or Dennis the Menace. An animal is “snoring like a sawmill”, a word “tasted like diesel in his mouth”, “A mute swan pecked idly at a paisley-patterned chiffon scarf/ before it picked up speed and slithered over the weir”. Armitage really is a poet, not just a man with an overactive imagination and a colossal sense of fun.
Having said that, I’m not sure how the line-breaks work in all of these poems. ‘The English Astronaut’, for example, succeeds as a quirky, pithy narrative written with flourish and an inimitable, cherishable poetic voice, but fails to fully justify its presentation in lines of verse:
He splashed down in rough seas off Spurn Point.
I watched through a coin-op telescope jammed
with a lollipop stick as a trawler fished him out
of the waves and ferried him back to Mission
Control on a trading estate near the Humber
Also, it is hard not to wish Armitage had seen fit to include a few more poems of real depth and sincerity. After all, he does elsewhere—up to a point. But this is a fairly short pamphlet and there isn’t enough room for his indomitable spirit to grow tiresome, or to be the cause of anything but the smallest of complaints.
I read the title of this as a comment on the form of the pamphlet itself, usually seen as a stopping point on the way to a ‘proper’ book, and rarely celebrated as an end in itself (outside this site, at least). One of the most interesting things about this collection is the fact that it exists at all. What’s a superstar like Armitage doing revisiting the lowly pamphlet? Primarily, you assume it’s a favour to his old mentors at Smith/Doorstop and a sign of the artist honouring his roots—like a stadium band performing a secret fundraiser at the pub where they started out. It’ll no doubt bring in more sales than your average pamphlet, by a factor of several hundred.
So it should, because this is a great read. Far from the collection of out-takes and samplers that it might have been, it’s a satisfyingly coherent work. It opens with the poet cutting a comical and self-mocking figure, hosting his own office party for one: “The art of pulling my own cracker/ is something I’ve mastered over the years.” (‘The poet hosts his annual office Christmas party’)
From here on, images of loneliness and alienation abound. ‘The English Astronaut’ is a comic lament for the absence of the possibility of the heroic in English culture: “He splashed down in rough seas off Spurn Point./ I watched through a coin-op telescope jammed/ with a lollipop stick as a trawler fished him out”. ‘The Old Boy’ is a first-person portrait of a man losing his faculties and regressing to the childhood implied in the title: “A monkey with a jigsaw, I contemplate the day.” Elsewhere, a brown bear shoots up in a recycling skip, a bachelor and a wife-beater jostle for position in the one man’s sorry psyche, and a father visits his daughter’s school, like a meteorite landing on a hostile planet.
Much of the collection is written in a downbeat, prose-like poetry, mixing the surreal and the mundane to playful and often disturbing effect. There’s a real sense of a poet pushing things forward, exploring new voices and territory—a very British, northern kind of surrealism. There’s also a lot of troubling stuff bubbling away underneath. The figure of the poet recurs throughout, photocopying his arse at the solo office party, giving a reading in the “city of _______”, (‘At the reading the poet introduces his poem’) and finally regressing into a performing monkey “walking behind us/ and pulling faces. Mimicking. Aping.” (‘The lives of the poets’) If this is how one of our nation’s leading poets feels, you fear for the mental state of those starting out.
All of this seems more at home in the relatively humdrum, unassuming context of the pamphlet than it would in a perfect-bound Faber volume. As pamphlets go, it’s not the finest in terms of production values: a cheap, easily scuffed cover wrapped loosely around a simple white booklet. But it works. This is a chapbook, a cheap book, a £4 bundle of words to fold up and put in your pocket. The poet acknowledges as much in a downbeat prologue: “What’s that in the pocket of your coat?/ Some pamphlet I wrote, not even a book.”
This is a pamphlet about pamphlets and about poetry, and ultimately a warm-hearted celebration of both. Rather than eyeing this big-name backslider with suspicion, I hope everyone with any interest in pamphlet publishing sees this as a welcome intervention and one to be celebrated as widely as possible.
After reading these pieces . . . story-poems . . . experiences . . . (there’s subversive question of definition right from the opening pages), the loneliness and isolation they explore didn’t leave, and for a couple of days I felt lonely too. Quite a feat considering I work in a noisy, open-plan office with the desks so close together even battery hens would feel confined—and how they’d deal with the office politics is another question (or story or poem) entirely.
Everyone knows writing is a solitary occupation, and I think many envy what they see as freedom from the tyranny of commuting and office politics. But in ‘The poet hosts his annual office Christmas party’, the loneliness and suppressed anger as the poet plays solitaire on the computer is palpable. It’s fancy dress and the poet has come dressed as Bjorn Borg: “I pull down my tight white shorts,/ sit on the flatbed scanner and photocopy my bits. Hilarious.” The poet continues:
The art of pulling my own cracker
is something I’ve mastered over the years;
I win a plastic magnifying glass and a funny joke about skeletons.
In ‘Gymnasium’, Armitage focuses on the loneliness of the treadmill and
Loneliness as in the taken-as-read,
of the rowing machine. The loneliness
of dumb weights consisting only of weight
And perhaps loneliest of all is the bear at the recycling site:
[ . . . ] pizza toppings and chicken bones hanging from his matted coat, a red
bandana knotted tightly round his skinny thigh, leaning to his work, busy at his groin,
the gleaming needle digging for the sunken vein.
The short vignettes, narratives—call them ‘poems’ for sake of ease—have a long-lined, edging-towards-prose feel. And when, rarely, one character does connect with another, the encounter is often surrounded by violence. In ‘The Accident’, for example, Leo burns his hand when toasting pitta bread, and ends up being asked by the nurse if he sustained the injury while assaulting his wife. Leo isn’t even married. “’Yeah, right, and I’m the Angel of the North,” says the nurse. But that night in a pub he meets a blind woman and when their knees touch under the table
For him it was like a parachute opening.
For her it was like something involving an artichoke.
In ‘Show and Tell’ Marlon goes into his daughter’s school to give a talk; all the other dads have done it. Daughter Jennifer is embarrassed by his shoes and most of class 9 couldn’t care less about his rust coloured stone, a piece of outer space—they’re more interested in what car he drives and if he has any money. But as he turns away from being beaten by a child with a riot baton
[ . . . ] Jennifer’s face
appeared in the panel of safety glass in the classroom door.
Suddenly the meteorite started to glow.
As you would expect from Simon Armitage, there are startling images in abundance and a tight (almost strangling-tight in places) control of colloquial rhythms. Driven by narrative, they’re stories masquerading as poems—or is it the other way round?
Perhaps it’s best to forget trying to label. Just enjoy.