Kidderminster Church
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My future was described to me in detail by a brisk man, in a town famous for making carpets

“You’re Ian McMillan!” he says, his finger jabbing the air between me and him. I nod. “You’re a poet!” he says. His voice is rising a little.

I clamber off a train at Kidderminster Station and my glasses glint in the late-afternoon sun. This is happening a few years ago, so my hair isn’t completely white and I’m a little more rotund than I am these days. Some things don’t change, though: then, as I do now, I’m carrying a bag packed with pamphlets and books of my deathless verse, because I’m hoping to sell them at my poetry reading at the library later. The train chugs away and I walk out of the station.

A man hurries towards me. If one word defined him, it would be the word “brisk”. He is briskness personified, in the shining, multi-buttoned leisurewear of the recently retired. He fixes me with a gaze that is only slightly softened by the privet hedge of his eyebrows. He points at me. I stop walking and stand as still as a chess piece.

“You’re Ian McMillan!” he says, his finger jabbing the air between me and him. I nod. “You’re a poet!” he says. His voice is rising a little. It’s not that he’s shouting, but it feels like he has the capability to shout. Again, I nod. I feel that I should speak, so I say, “Yes, I am.”

“You’re reading your poems at the library tonight!” he says, his finger pointing up the road. This is so strange. My short-term future is being fleshed out for me by a complete stranger in a town in the Midlands famous for making carpets. I feel like a bare room that is being carpeted by a random stranger. I nod again.

A couple are watching us, nervously, as if the man were dangerous. I have to admit that I feel a little nervous, but I feel more intrigued. The man points again.

“The event,” he says, as though reading from a brochure, “begins at 19.30 and will finish at 21.00. You will read and discuss your work and then you will take questions from the audience. Light refreshments will be served before and after the reading.”

I am laughing now. I agree: “Yes, that’s what’s due to happen.” The man somehow seems to be generating his own heat. I’m sweating, and I see that he is, too.

“The tickets are £5 full price and £3 for concessions,” he trumpets, “and the meeting room at the library holds about 60 people.” He is now parading local knowledge that I don’t possess, but I carry on nodding. The couple also nod, so he must be right.

The man steps closer to me in the waning Kidderminster afternoon. His breath smells of mints. He is friendly, but assertive. He repeats his roll-call of facts: “You’re Ian McMillan. You’re a poet. You’re reading your poems at the library tonight. The event will begin at 19.30 and finish at 21.00. You will read and discuss your work and then you will take questions from the audience. Light refreshments will be served before and after the reading. The tickets are £5 full price and £3 for concessions.” He stares at me. I nod. “That’s all true,” I say. The couple have open mouths like Os.

He leans in. “I’m not coming!” he shouts, and he turns and walks briskly away. 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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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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