Operation Nobel, part II

The prize committee issues Obama with a call to action

So, the weather didn't clear, but the mood in Oslo lifted distinctly yesterday evening: Barack Obama seems to have pulled off the remarkable trick of talking peace while standing firm to his commitments to war. And despite annoying the Norwegians at first by making his visit so peremptory -- "Everybody wants to visit the Peace Centre except Obama," snarked the newspaper Aftenposten -- he even seems to have warmed their hearts. He has done all this in less than a day. Living up to the prize will be nothing like as easy.

After his morning visit to the Nobel Peace Institute, Obama met with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who hardly needed the popularity boost, having just been re-elected, but who was doubtless grateful for it all the same. He set out a to-do list for the US president, beginning with a strong political agreement in Copenhagen.

That established one theme for the day: telling Obama how to do his job. At the press conference afterwards, a Norwegian journalist set the other: the search for justifications for his prize. What were the president's own views on it? Obama was asked. He replied by defusing the question with a one-liner: "The goal is not to win a popularity contest." That was the easy base covered, but the one American journalist then also granted a question went straight for the jugular: "Will the July 2011 date be when US troops actually withdraw [from Afghanistan]?" It would, Obama acknowledged, be just the beginning. He was doubtless relieved that the day's tight schedule would leave no time for follow-up questions.

The proddings and calls for justifications followed Obama over in the early afternoon to City Hall, where he was to give his Nobel Lecture, the prizewinner's address. Introducing Obama, the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, gave his own, highly self-conscious defence of the committee's decision to award the prize to the US president, as well as a running commentary on the sort of world they would like to see him help create.

When Albert Luthuli received his prize in 1961, Obama was told, the struggle against apartheid was in its infancy; when Martin Luther King received his in 1964, the struggle for civil rights in America was also far from over. And as the committee has constantly been pointing out since making the award, Obama's prize, much more so than theirs, is intended to be "a call to action".

Some might, of course, say that all this is merely wishful thinking, and that their hopes of handing Obama a set of golden handcuffs at the same time as the Nobel gold medal are misplaced, misguided even. But as the words of Obama's own speech echoed literally right around the city this afternoon -- broadcast as they were from a large screen outside the City Hall -- he seemed to win a good few people to their cause.

In any case, "A Call to Action" is a phrase the Norwegians will keep hearing over the next year, it also being the title of the Obama exhibition that will run until December at the Nobel Peace Centre. Whether it is a phrase that still rings in the man's own ears in six months, let alone a year's time, remains to be seen.

With luck, he might still remember it next week at least, when he flies back this way to Copenhagen. But my guess is that he will not. After an afternoon spent tying himself in knots over the mirage of "just wars", and paying lip service -- however eloquent that lip service may have been -- to the much harder task of rebuilding the livelihoods of those in whose country he currently commands an army, it seems that Obama will not himself be making the shift from the probable to the possible any time soon.

 

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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