Monday, April 5, 2010

Book of Matches: Reflections on the Title

The very first poem in the sequence “Book of Matches” from Armitage’s collection of the same name draws the reader’s attention back to the pun in the title: the reader hasn’t just opened a book in the literal sense of the word, namely a printed product of various pages, but metaphorically also a book of matches as the full title says, that is to say a small paper packet containing several dozen matches. Each poem can be understood as one matchstick. This is also reflected in length of the poems: apart from the last poem in this sequence, all of them have fourteen or fifteen lines and could thus be read in about the time it takes for a match to burn out.

The narrator himself lights the very first match by means of the first poem: “I strike, then from the moment when the matchstick / conjures up its light, to when the brightness moves / beyond its means, and dies, I say the story / of my life –”. This first stanza adds a new dimension to the whole sequence: while the matchstick burns down to the narrator’s finger, he tells the story of his life (“dates and places…names and faces”). In fact, the following autobiographical poems, as Armitage himself repeatedly admits, contain particular moments from the poet’s actual life: a recollection of his birth, for instance, as well as memories of his mother and father, the parish spinsters he observed as a child, his “butterfingered” proposal to a girl in the chemistry lab or the spinal disease he suffered from.

In the last poem the final match is torn from the book and the cycle is closed – at least the poetic one. However, the cycle of the narrator’s life goes on: “The ones who know me hold me at arm’s length, / the others want to see me dead. / Not yet.” In the poem “Let this matchstick be a brief biography” (p. 22) the analogy to the cycle of life becomes even more obvious: here the matchstick becomes “the sign or symbol / for the lifetime of a certain someone”. All that is left in the end is the spine that is “spent, bent” and “out of line”: death.

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