Simon Armitage, The Universal Home Doctor, Faber
Simon Armitage's poetry is obsessed with lists. Many of his poems are lists. In his Selected Poems again and again they use 'random' but accepted sequences to give them their, relatively loose, structure. Within a poem there will typically be a flurry of sub-lists as well, unearned trills which can lack purchase or semantic purpose, and even in terms of pure sound can occasionally become monotonous fill.
Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with a good roll call, alphabet, or other ordering: Ken Cockburn's recent anthology from Pocketbooks, The Order of Things, showed how these basically simple forms can elicit pieces from a great emotional range. The exam question can do this beautifully, and edgily, too (see Tom Leonard's work in that book for a variation on the theme). Perhaps, though, Simon Armitage should be a bit more aware of their function in his work and treat them with more care.
In fact, there is a carelessness here in other ways that surprises me. A younger Armitage would have satirised some of the slack images: whale song, butterflies kept under glass, and the phantom limbs of amputees, are all clichés, yet they appear here, unironically I believe, as if they were objects of revelatory comparison. The overall sense, for this reader, is a tiredness to the book, a haste in publication. But there are still one or two flourishes of definite interest. It's a good sign, for instance, that there is not, strictly speaking, a title poem in the collection. How many other sleepwalker poets fail to imagine a new word or phrase that will give shelter and shape to the whole collection? Instead, most simply choose what they feel is the Most Significant Poem in the book - it's usually portentous - and use that.
Here The Universal Home Doctor, though it is mentioned in one poem, "Birthday", stands for one of the collection's themes: the avoidance and danger of an all-encompassing kind of hypochondria. Quite a few of the poems have the tone that Julian Barnes has in Metroland, or Nick Hornby to some some extent in High Fidelity: a "let's not get things out of proportion, basically things are fine as they are" attitude. It's a tone which can be read as balanced, or as complacent. Certainly the enumeration in "The Back Man" of various forms of normality (a list again) seems to relish attacking the neo-gothic vogue in contemporary literature. The persona declares he's likely to be found "not shaking the hands of serial killers / but dead-heading dogwood with secateurs." A nice play on dead-head, that, and it's a settled image in contrast to the little-boyisms that still bubble up now and again here, as with the poem based on the Incredible Shrinking Man, "Incredible". There are also a couple of squibs on Englishness, including one poem, "The Twang", which imagines St George's Day celebrated in New York (don't laugh, Tartan Day does happen there).
The finer things in this book cast a strong light on the slight ones. I liked "The Shout" especially, a sparse and devastating homage to a childhood friendship, and the little piece towards the end, "The Keep", a lullaby with an interesting use of archaic syntax. So, as one of Simon Armitage's unreliable monologues might say: "My advice? To the reader: Get one from the Library not the Net. To the author: Write more, yeah… but publish less."
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