In the Critics this week

Julia Copus on illness and creativity, John Gray on Jared Diamond, Kate Mossman on Nick Cave and Johnny Marr and Sheila Heti interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, poet Julia Copus writes about the link between physical illness and the creative life. Copus was diagnosed with endometriosis at the age of 26. “Hilary Mantel, a fellow endometriosis sufferer, believes the disease was at least partly responsible for her choice to become a writer,” she notes. “In some ancient cultures there is a deity for illness, which strikes me as refreshingly clear. If such a god existed for us today, I would be glad of the chance to offer up a prayer of thanks for the rich crop of art he has nurtured into being.”

In Books, the NS’s lead reviewer John Gray writes about The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies by American polymath Jared Diamond. “If we’d retained some of the constructive paranoia of traditional cultures,” Gray writes, “we might still not have able to prevent the neoliberal experiment; but we would have been better prepared for the fiasco that has ensued.”

Also in Books: Simon Heffer reviews Sorry!, Henry Hitchings’s books about the English and their manners (“Hitchings comes to the unhelpful conclusion that although everybody seems to think manners are getting worse, actually they are not. How does he know?”); Alexandra Coghlan on Alan Rusbridger’s memoir Play It Again (“Rusbridger follows the well-trodden path back to the instrument of his youth”); Heather Brooke reviews two books about Britain’s secret state, Cruel Britannia by Ian Cobain and Classified by Christopher Moran (“Cruel Britannia makes for deeply depressing reading. But to ignore its findings would be to grant impunity to actions that reveal the worst of human behaviour”); Sarah Churchwell on Alone in America, a study of the representation of loneliness in American literature by Robert A Ferguson (“Are Americans really more susceptible to estrangement than others?”); novelist Linda Grant reviews Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by the Holocaust survivor and historian Otto Dov Kulka (“Nothing else I have read comes close to this profound examination of what the Holocaust means”).

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Canadian writer Sheila Heti about her novel How Should a Person Be? “I think of it as a novel – but only because I can’t think of a better word … I love fiction … but when I was writing this I was asking myself: ‘Why am I doing this?’”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey is impressed by Zero Dark Thirty’s ambivalence about torture; Rachel Cooke is underwhelmed by a new BBC comedy, Bob Servant Independent; Antonia Quirke sings the praises of a Radio 4 Extra adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Matt Trueman visits the London International Mime Festival; and Kate Mossman reviews new albums by veterans Nick Cave and Johnny Marr.

PLUS: Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

Guitar hero: Johnny Marr performing with Modest Mouse in 2008 (Photo: Getty Images)
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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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