Magnetic Field: Simon Armitage, Faber
As a poet reviewing someone else’s poetry, I am acutely aware of how interpretation can be a massively subjective undertaking and as such, possibly at odds with the intentions and motivations driving the work. When the reviewee happens to be professor of poetry at the University of Leeds, has been awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry and is the current poet laureate, (whereas the reviewer is, in this case, an ex-lettuce picker from Goole) then the trepidation levels get cranked up even more. So, with that in mind …
In Magnetic Field: The Marsden Poems, we have a love letter to a muse that was there for the poet at the beginning and has continued to be a source of inspiration through to the present day. The poems about the village have been organised chronologically in terms of when the subject matter is set. Fifty poems about a place Armitage considers to be ‘genuinely unique … as a liminal, transcendent and transgressive location’. I have visited Marsden to read poetry during the jazz festival and can, with limited experience, say that it is, indeed, an interesting place. There is a thriving art, music and literature scene, and it is populated with a significant number of folk of creative bent wanting to share their passions on a wider canvas.
The hardback version of the book is a lovely thing to behold; the cover design by Faber is a photograph taken by the author looking towards the back of the terrace where he grew up as a child (the football field in the foreground and the A62 in the distance). It incorporates a shiny central band for the author name and title, illustrating (I believe) the magnetic attraction he feels towards the village. Inside there are other black and white photographs taken around Marsden (perhaps by Armitage, but I couldn’t find an attribution for them). There are even handy maps created by Neil Gower at the front and back of the book, should the reader wish to do what will surely become the ‘Armitage Trail’ some time in the future.
Armitage begins the collection with ‘Miniatures’ where he is the kid engaged in imaginative play with ornaments and figurines on the front-room carpet of childless neighbours. He writes with affection about their home life, paints a picture alluding to their quirky kindness in a 21st birthday gift and conjures an image of the couple as miniatures in his model village; the king in his kingdom of “oil-guns and ratchets”, the queen “draped in laundry”. One gets the impression it is here Armitage is charting an aspect of that “creative wellspring” he writes about in the introduction, being that “scribe at his desk” where instead of imagining his neighbours clean white linen sheets, he sees a future of “white paper, clean pages”.
In ‘The Shout’ we start innocently but end with an appalling revelation. In a primary school science experiment requiring little teacher planning and no resources, Armitage and “the boy whose name and face I don’t remember” are sent outside to “test the range of the human voice”. Unfortunately, Marsden is not big enough for the investigation to conclude, as the boy doing the shouting disappears beyond the edge of the village boundaries, committing suicide in Western Australia where he is asked to stop shouting as Armitage can still hear him. From experience, the death of a childhood friend resonates in a way that is captured well with this shock ending, sound waves reverberating around the planet, lending power to the idea of the range of the poet’s voice and the impact of such an awful trauma through Armitage’s skill.
We also find wonderfully crafted poems documenting and celebrating the lives of the poet’s parents in Marsden. I do not know how many writers include elements of their relationship with their parents in their work, but I’ll hazard a guess that it’s a fairly high number. In ‘Harmonium’ Armitage delves into his memories of being a member of Marsden church choir, singing hymns in a scene of religious beauty, accompanied by a Farrand Chapelette harmonium, just as his father had done in his time as a boy chorister. Armitage senior challenges his son with the image of a time when the poet will have to shoulder his father’s coffin, in the same way that they are carrying out the harmonium (after Armitage decides to save the musical instrument from a sad end at the municipal tip). The poet fails in his “shallow or sorry phrase or word” of response, but succeeds in the crafting of the poem after the event. In ‘Kitchen Window’, we have work featuring his mother and the idea of trying to make contact through barriers of separation: the glass pane of the new window
Undressed and carried, cloudscapes tilted
in its mirror and the planet swayed, though
set in place it seemed a solid nothingness –
a panel of air or frozen light
that magnified its own transparency.
Armitage describes his mother polishing the window from the inside, while as a boy, he watched outside, beyond the barrier until she “fell away behind net curtains … sinking to deeper darker reaches and would not surface”. Reading deeper, I wonder if he is alluding to aspects of old age and cognitive decline, cruelly impairing the ability to communicate. Writers have certainly used the idea of a window as a veil separating the dead from the living, but here I’m inclined towards an interpretation making reference to aspects of dementia (which, because of the beauty of poetry, could be completely off track and the subject might have gone off into the parlour for a sit down with a copy of Woman’s Own and a nice cup of tea).
‘It Ain’t What You Do It’s What It Does To You’ is a title adapted from jazz musicians Melvin ‘Sy’ Oliver and James ‘Trummy’ Young’s 1939 song for Ella Fitzgerald (later reinterpreted by a Bananarama and Fun Boy Three version in the 1980s). Here Armitage uses the image of skimming flat stones on Black Moss Reservoir “on a day so still I could hear each set of ripples as they crossed” and feel “each stone’s momentum spend itself against the water; then sink” as a contrast and comparison to the sound of walking barefoot in the Taj Mahal (something he says he has not done). Similarly, he has not felt the adrenaline rush associated with parachuting, but he has “held the wobbly head of a boy at the day centre, and stroked his fat hands”. The poet muses that all these transformative experiences affect a sense of something else. I would suggest, in his case, a feeling of great attachment to this place; somewhere which is “the last village in the Colne Valley as it climbs westwards from the former textile town of Huddersfield into the West Yorkshire Pennines”, surrounded by a natural amphitheatre of moors and hills where a creative wellspring gushed and bubbled out of an end-terrace house on the corner of Wood Top and Old Mount Road, eventually, though not finally, entertaining us with this fascinating and informative collection.
To finish, I return somewhat perversely to the introduction of the collection, where Armitage begins with a description of the village he remembers as a child and how it appears now. The mills stand unused, empty and decaying, the Mechanics Institute clock still rarely tells the right time, the gasometer has gone but Samuel Laycock continues to occupy a plinth in the park, seemingly reluctant to give up his position as ‘The Marsden Poet’, gazing out from a plaque set on ancient stone. This seems to rankle the poet laureate (with some justification) as Laycock left the village at the age of 11, being associated more with the hardships of life in the Lancashire cotton industry, having spent most of his remaining 62 years in Stalybridge, Fleetwood and Blackpool. It should be said that Armitage doesn’t hold a grudge and includes a couple of poems in the collection (‘To Poverty’ and ‘The Two Of Us’) written after Laycock. Perhaps a blue plaque is in order on Armitage’s “cathedral of the ordinary”, as is the case on Ted Hughes’ birthplace in Aspinall Street, Mytholmroyd, just over the hill in the Calder valley. Or maybe instead of naming beers in the village brewpub after the surrounding reservoirs, they could call one Armitage Ale or Simon’s Cider (in Goole, mine would be a pint of Poet’s Piss). The man surely deserves some physical recognition in the village as, with understated skill and marvellous accessibility, Armitage continues to put Marsden on the map.
I thoroughly recommend this collection.
Jonathan Humble teaches at a small rural school in Cumbria. His work has been published online and in print in a number of magazines and anthologies. A collection of his poetry, My Camel’s Name Is Brian, is available through TMB Books and a new collection, Fledge, will be published by Maytree Press at the end of July 2020.