Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A blog for a seminar

This blog will contain posts by students in the seminar that I (Andrew Shields) am teaching this spring semester (2010) at the University of Basel. The seminar is on the British poet Simon Armitage. The seminar will run from March 2 to May 25. I have not completely finalized the syllabus for the course yet, but here is where it stands right now (click on the image to see the schedule):


  1. Book of Marches: "Mother"

    It takes much longer than a match to burn down to think about the relationship Simon Armitage has with his mother; and the question of whether this relationship could be anyone with their parents, naturally follows.
    The poem is in a collection of poems called “Book of Matches” and even though the poems do not have titles, the incipit clearly functions as the title: “Mother”. At the same time the title could be functioning as a dedication, much deeper as an invocation, from which he cannot let go; he is still trapped in that “second pair of hand”, without which he cannot do anything.
    He is measuring up a house, presumably because he is moving in there: “you come to help me”; well known situation, he is moving out from his parents' house to his first flat of his own. The mother helps “to measure the distance greater than the span of his two arms”; the mother therefore helps him to make his way into the unknown. This scene recalls a topic dear to Armitage: he often starts off his tales from a small place, a limited space, where everything is within eyeshot, but soon he makes us leave that place for the unlimited (“the parries of the floors”, “the acres of the walls”). Here, from a small room where carpets and curtains are measured we then “space-walk” though “a moment” in the relationship we all have had with our mothers: separation. The mother is the “zero-end”, the fix point in his life, from there everything moves around her; he wheels out like “the spool of tape”; and unless the tape is going to be cut, the zero-end and the stripe will always be one continuum. He recalls various figures until he reaches the limit of the tape. The tape itself is the metaphor of this unwheeling relationship that is coming to an end. What best describes their relationship, or everyone’s relationship with their mothers, are the “Kite” and the “Anchor”: him being the kite, her being the anchor; the anchor does not move, is always there, while the kite tries to fly, must learn how to fly, but will always be tied up with his anchor, if not he falls down.
    “The last one-hundredth of an inch…I reach towards a hatch that opens an endless sky to fall or fly”. His moving could not be slower here, he fears the moment, he is nervous about opening that door, he is scared about the unknown, does he open that door? Did he let go? Or is it the mother that holds him back because she is “still pinching two floor below”?

  2. "A Vision" by Simon Armitage,

    “The future was a beautiful place one” is a sentence that is usually uttered by elders when they think back of what their past life has been and draw a balance of what has happened to them. But it also a sentence breathe out by Armitage on his fortieth birthday, which that sound more like an expression of mid-life angst.
    The title of the poem is “Vision” but more than a vision it is actually a “Remembering” or “Unfulfilled dreams”. The perspective from which Armitage starts of his remembering though, could be an explanation for this title; namely: the vision that he, and all his generation had of the world and life in general back then when the telling starts.
    To whom is he telling all of his anxieties? All of this resentfulness? “Remember the full-blown balsa-wood town on public display in the Civil Hall?” Is it a school companion that at this same time might me as disappointed as him? It is someone that has shared his experiences: “people like us”. Friends that have shared his same experiences.
    The language Armitage uses to tell us about all of this is too poor and insignificant to be the only way to read this poem. “They were the plans, all underwritten in the neat left-hand of architects”, here is the clue: first of all, a message written on a hand becomes blurred, in the end you cannot read anything anymore. Second, the left-hand is less important then the right hand, unless you are left-handed. Third, the architect is himself, he himself has underwritten it and maybe also his friend/s. The future Armitage is now looking for has disappeared a long time ago.
    Why is there no epiphany at the end? Why does he not offer the an alternative to the “extinction” of the past future, of the unlived future? “Unlived and now fully extinct” is the deletion and killing of dreams.
    16 lines: 4/4/4/4. Right in the middle of the poem (between line 10 and 11) the poet could be about 20 years old. The 10th line is broken at the word dog-walking when he is probably still a kid. Line 11 continues with fuzzy felt grass, which is the grass that you can feel during an amorous play on the field. At this pint he has gown up. In line 12 the young men dives “model drivers”, “electric cars”. 40th line: the end.

  3. Out of the Blue: a Collage recalling the falling body in Jonathan Safran Foer Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

    Walk. Don’t Walk. Walk. Don’t Walk.

    I get here early
    Just to gawp from the window.

    If I stand on my toes can you see me wave?

    And a lurch.
    A pitch.
    A sway to the south.

    A torrent of letters and memos and forms
    now streams and storms
    now flocks and shoals
    now passes and pours
    now tacks and jibes
    now flashes and flares
    now rushes and rides
    now flaps and glides…

    then a lamp
    a coat
    a screen
    a chair

    I see raining flames
    I see hardware fly

    Abdoul calls his mother home
    Monica raises her hand to her eye
    Joseph presses his face to the glass
    Abdoul tries his mother again
    Abdoul tries his mother again
    Glen writes a note on a paper plane
    Paul draws a scarf over Rosemary’s face
    Dennis goes down on his hands and knees
    Stephanie edges out onto the ledge

    From the end of the phone
    to a place called home¨
    so our words can escape,

    My beautiful wife,
    sit down in the chair,
    put the phone to your ear.
    Le me say.
    Let me hear.

    I am still breathing

    Do you see me, my love. I am failing, flagging.

    Crane into the void.
    Lean into the world.

    It’s not in my blood
    to actually jump.
    But others can’t hold.

    So a body will fall. And a body will fall.
    And a body will fall. And a body will fall.

    The body arrives,
    the soul catches up.

    The enormity falls.
    Then all senses fails.

    A wish for the earth to be solid and not to give

    The numbers game.
    The body count.

    All lost.
    All lost in the dust.
    Lost in the fall and the crush and the dark.
    Now all coming back.

    Everything changed. Nothing is safe.

    I have chosen verses from “Out of the Blue’s” first 13 poems and put them together to a longer poem, recalling Jonathan Safran Foer’s falling body in his book “Extremely Lound and
    Incredibly Close. Why? Because when I was quickly scrolling through the pages with that falling body there were no words there to tell the story of that falling body. Simon Armitage has recalled that commonly seen experience of falling bodies and has given words to them.
    I’ve also chosen some names remembered on poem 6: they are all from the Victim’s List of 9/11, more precisely: List of World Trade Center Victims (not including plane crews or passengers). Millicent never got an answer. Anthony doesn’t talk anymore. Abdoul has never called his mother. Monica doen’t raise her hand anymore. And Glen’s mote on the paper plane, has probably become ash. Exacly like him.