In the Critics this week

South African photography, a history of protest songs, and DH Lawrence on screen.

In the Critics section of this week's New Statesman, Ryan Gilbey reviews Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams, admiring "the plain wonder of the paintings in close-up, with hand-held lights providing shaky illumination", as well as Herzog's "wonderfully chewy voice, which suggests a kind of innocent but authoritative insanity, has mysterious catacombs of its own". Voices aside, the "oppressive choral music" comes in for criticism.

Rachel Cooke harks back to her "blue-stocking phase" and her loathing for DH Lawrence; nevertheless, she finds BBC4's adaptation of Women in Love "as enjoyable as something by Lawrence could be". Happily, "mysticism and navel-gazing are kept to a minimum". David Flusfeder listens to The Reunion, on Radio 4, which catches-up with veterans of the 1981 Brixton riots. "What emerged most clearly was that no two guests, not even supposed colleagues, were ever part of the same community", notes Flusfeder.

Fisun Guner admires French rococo artist Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose work is the subject of two exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts and the Wallace Collection. The former is "a superb chronological survey" which demonstrates that Watteau "can be admired for his drawings alone"; whereas the latter "justly celebrates" his achievements on canvas, too. William Wiles visits the Barbican, where an exhibition of artists who "found inspiration in the decaying Big Apple" of the 1970s is running: "none of the artists attempts to impose order on a city that no longer makes sense; they prefer playing in ruins". This week's Critic at large is NS Culture editor Jonathan Derbyshire, who reports from Johannesburg where photographers "are striving to find new ways of recording the transformation of their country".

In Books, John Gray reviews The New North: the World in 2050, by Laurence C Smith, and finds it a "consistently challenging and mind-opening exercise in futurology" cataloguing "realities of which we are aware, but that we prefer not to think about". Chris Mullin reviews The Prime Ministers Who Never Were: A Collection of Counterfactuals, edited by Francis Beckett, concluding that it's "all very interesting, but...ultimately [is a] book for anoraks"; Ben Rogers writes about Edward L Glaeser's Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier: "It is one thing to defend cities," Rogers writes, "quite another to understand what makes them work". Yo Zushi considers 33 Revolutions a Minute: a History of Protest Songs by Dorian Lynskey, and the history of "dissent through popular music" that it traces. However, "it is too soon to write a eulogy to a mode of songwriting that has clearly not died out", for "to those who are listening, it remains a source of strength". Lastly, Antonia Quirke talks to Peter Bogdanovich about his 1971film, The Last Picture Show, based on the coming-of-age novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry: "film and book are (almost) equally magnificent" Quirke observes.

Getty
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496