Ambivalent Intimacies in Simon Armitage’s Dead Sea Poems
by Janet Lewison
I’m the man in the joke, the man in a world of friends
where all the clocks are stopped,
synchronising his own watch.
Armitage’s conclusion to ‘White Christmas’ above, perfectly exposes the emotional redundancy that lies at the heart of so many relationships. For Armitage reveals here the hollowness of the material world, where objects take the place of human interaction, comically avoiding the awkwardness of intimacy through studied displacement. We have all glanced at our watches in the company of others, but Armitage’s choice of the verb, ‘synchronising’ reveals the loneliness and ‘preciousness’ of such a self-conscious gesture. The foolishness of such empty self-consciousness recalls the stumbling social ineptitude of T.S.Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock’ whilst also offering an echo of Auden’s poem ‘Funeral Blues’ made famous of course as a set piece in the hugely successful film, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. It is typical of Armitage’s technique that we seem to nearly hear or recognise echoes of other texts, and that this ‘intertextularity’ deepens the resonances of his writing.
The writer V.S.Pritchett once wrote of Dickens that ‘the distinguishing quality of Dickens people is that they are solitaries. They are people caught living in a world of their own.’ Pritchett continues in the same essay: ‘the solitariness of people is paralleled by the solitariness of things.’ Pritchett’s views upon Dickens are revealing when considering the work of Simon Armitage. For in Armitage’s world the experience of being human often appears a lonely, bleak sojourn, only endurable because of the inevitability of its end. Armitage’s protagonists fail to connect with each other. Objects fail to connect with each other. Language is shown to be brittle, arid, and cliché ridden. Characters soliloquise rather than risk rejection. They exist on the lonely periphery of near intimacies. As Don Paterson recently avowed aphoristically ‘All that moves is ghost.’ In Armitage, people are not just spectral or absent to each other, they are even spectral to themselves .
Armitage’s conclusion to ‘White Christmas’ cynically revisits the intensity of Auden’s’ mourning poem’ Funeral Blues’ where the speaker demands of the world that it should stop and acknowledge the death of the beloved:
‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
...He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;’
Auden, ‘Funeral Blues’
Auden’s speaker tells us what we all would hope to know when our time comes: that we were unique, needed and loved. The rhythm of the poem communicates the all- encompassing quality, all- obliterating quality of the feelings represented. The declaratory aspect to the Auden poem transforms the intensity of individual secluding loss into something shareable, something communal. This transformation is healing as it reminds us that grief is universal as well as profoundly individual. Auden’s poem speaks of grief in monumental terms, and in giving grief somehow the ‘right size’, makes life and love seem worthwhile.
Armitage, however, seems unsure and cautious about such rewards for loving and living. In ‘White Christmas’ his narrator is a forlorn figure outside of any developed intimacy or experience of reciprocity, whose life is merely, and only, coincident with others. In fact his only reciprocal relationship is with his watch; a victim of linear time’s illusory pressures.
Armitage’s collection The Dead Sea Poems offers the reader a highly ironic and often problematic reading of intimacy in contemporary society. Armitage is both witty and despairing as he exposes the difficulties human beings endure in attempting to find anything to believe in today. It is ironic therefore that in a poetry so concerned with intimacy and connection, that we see such a heavy investment in the language of distance and betrayal.
People are faithless in Armitage yet animals are faithful; specifically of course that most companionable of human associates, the dog. It is especially striking that Armitage’s preoccupation with intimacy in this collection manifests itself repeatedly through a recurring deployment as a motif of man’s supposedly ‘best friend’. Dogs litter the poems as both victims of mankind’s duplicity and abuse, highlighting the degradation of kindness and sympathy in today’s world and the consequences of such degradation for our humanity. It is also possible of course that Armitage wishes to ironise the cliché that the ‘British are a nation of dog-lovers,’ both in terms of the cruelty inflicted upon dogs by humans and also the possibility that dogs may be in many cases conscious or unconscious substitutes for intimate human relationships.
I will begin this discussion of intimacy in Armitage with a discussion of ‘White Christmas’ which carefully dismantles the loaded symbolism of the happy, iconic festive day, and examines the shortcomings of such impossibly ‘happy’ familial situations.
The poem opens with a real ‘White’ Xmas, revealing that the ideal may actually serve to isolate and separate individuals who expect to be together.
‘...the roads are impassable/and my wife is snowbound’
Bing Crosby’s ever popular song of intimacy and closeness is rather undermined here by the banal reality of road closures and personal separation. His wife is ‘alone’ and it is not certain whether this revelation indicates pity on the part of the speaker or surprise. We are uncertain as to the condition of their marriage, or why they should be apart at this time anyway. The flat irony of this initial utterance is continued into the deadpan and laconic description of their ‘telephone’ gifts:
‘‘Mine is a watch, the very one/I would have chosen’
The lack of proximity, this very ‘white Christmas’ exposes the ambiguity of gift giving. Is the narrator flattered by being verbally presented with a gift that he has dropped hints about, or is he disappointed by the lack of originality in their gift giving and relationship? Does the geographical distance actually expose a fundamental tiredness in their affection for each other? Needs are being anticipated and met without any risk taking on either side. The italicised reference to ‘Here come the hills of time’ seems pointedly ironic and revealing. ‘Time’ is under scrutiny clearly in this poem, and the unsettling ambivalence of these ‘intimate’ presents engenders tension and disquiet.
In any case the choice of present is not a genuine choice or gift (unlike the original Christian gifts) and thus Armitage guides the reader to ponder the actual degree of closeness and care in the marriage. Distance and proximity are mixed up in terms of meaning and the reader recognises the essential loneliness of so many ‘intimate relationships.’ Where is the risk and passion in a designated gift?
This lack of spontaneity is contrasted by the very real needs of the dog. The dog is ‘gnawing’ and ‘howling’ and demands attention. The use of the present participle contrasts the immediate demands of the animal with the language of dissociation that describes the narrator’s situation with his wife. The narrator yields to this need and takes the dog through the ‘clean snow’; a detail that draws attention to the untainted state of his relationship with the animal, and perhaps by implication the more ruinous condition of his human relationship? Is the dog his surrogate marriage partner perhaps?
He arrives at his parents’ home and there we see another couple subvert the iconic image of the happy couple. This subversion is of course dependent upon the viewpoint of the narrator. Geographical distance becomes psychical separation. His mother is ‘Marie Curie’ a cool scientific woman who prepares the festive feast as if it were some kind of operation. By contrast his father is a buffoon or clown; the ‘Fred Flintstone’ character. What is the truth of their relationship and why should the narrator ‘read’ them in this way?
Marie Curie’s connection to cancer research further taints our encounter with the couple. We wonder at the ‘dis-ease’ of the situations and intimacies within the poem. The parents are opposed to each other through the narrator’s peculiar register. If the narrator regards his parents in this way then we can only surmise that he sees them as very different from each other and significantly from himself. Intimacy is once again under ironic scrutiny, and the past seems an unspoken tumour that cannot be ‘radiated’ or cured.
This very tangible sense of estrangement and ‘cancer’ in the family home is heightened by the vindictiveness of the ‘guest from the past’ (whose past one wonders and what might have happened to cause such ill feeling?) ‘Home’ appears ‘unhomely’ and uncanny; a place of long established hostility. Once again, the poem subverts the fairytale ‘white Christmas’ with all its ‘cute’ folk lore and ‘kitschy’ commercials. It also underlines the very real distance of the family from any caring intimacy or ‘faith’ in each other or even God!
The dog, the only present ‘partner’ for the narrator behaves as dogs do, antisocially drinking from the toilet. Yet the animal also ‘begs at the table’ as a possible parody or animal version of the Christian story. Only the child, the narrator’s ‘baby Jesus’ behaves in a loving way to the shunned dog accompanying the speaker to the cellar with gifts for the animal. If the dog is some sort of surrogate friend for the narrator, or even intermediary between the son and the parents, then its cold treatment is an indication of the lack of intimacy and spontaneous care in this family. This suspicion is followed through by the narrator’s ‘base metal’ arms that will not move to greet his father. The narrator’s embrace and affection have been too devalued perhaps in the past to render him willing or capable of reciprocity on this superficially ‘family’ occasion. He quits the family home, preferring solitude to deception even though he has to journey along ‘the black lane’. He seems all too aware of the aridity of his past.
The detached objectivity of the ‘car. With my sister inside’ accentuates the overriding tone of progressive estrangement in ‘White Christmas’. When Armitage sardonically rechristens the child as an ‘infant Christ’ he also ignores his sister’s appropriation of the child to perpetuate the myth and lie of the happy ‘white Christmas.’ After all, if his family have rejected the dog as his go-between or companion then he will in turn reject the child as their manipulative final farewell gift. He refuses to acknowledge their false gestures, choosing only the loyal dog as his companion.
The poem ends on a note of isolation and lack of intimacy. He reads himself outside normal connecting human time:
‘All the clocks are stopped....’
He snubs his sister, focusing his attention needlessly upon his watch as some symbol of careless indifference to intimacy, seeking to stress his need to be elsewhere, when of course the literal ‘White Christmas’ means he has nowhere to go but an empty house with his surrogate wife, the dog. Looking at one’s watch is a commonplace preoccupation today, suggesting the need to be elsewhere, even if that elsewhere means killing present connections or possible intimacies: ‘Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’ (T.S.Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)
‘White Christmas’ is a bleak poem as it is all too acute in its ironic expose of the emotional imperatives that govern our behaviours especially at such apparently intimate times as Christmas, ostensibly a time of togetherness and intimacy of a pleasant kind. The very isolation of the final phrase ‘synchronising his own watch’ offers the reader no respite from the bleakness, no healing space on which to base a future or a hope of one.
Armitage’s short poem ‘Stray’ utilises a vocabulary of grotesque detail with careless, seemingly indifferent cliché:
‘burn marks, lesions to the skin/that sort of thing’
The throwaway ‘that sort of thing’ exposes a society that is redundant of compassion and whose very vocabulary fails to meet the needs of any disturbing event. In other words Armitage deploys cliché as a means to highlight how unexamined and indifferent our lives are when they are choked up with meaningless readings of the world. We are what we say; our identities are dependent upon the language we use. Any insufficiency or deficiency of language renders us ‘insufficient’ and deficient as human beings too. We may become careless and cruel.
‘– go on,
get out- in bare feet’
The plight of the stray animal has echoes of the Christian story just like ‘White Christmas’ and seems to suggest that contemporary society has little care for others, even the most vulnerable and undemanding. The sadism highlighted through the bare details of the torture inflicted on the dog, exposes an urban landscape of deprivation and inhumanity. This Godlessness with its final parody of that old recurring cliché of ‘pull yourself together’ or ‘get a life’ is bitterly ironical and reveals the anger and horror felt by the poet towards complacent commentators on modern life. Understandably the reader who might have felt exonerated from blame at the beginning of the poem, recognises reluctantly at the end that our world’s complacent philosophy of ‘pull yourself together’ is cruelly uninvolved. We are all implicated in this ‘bad Samaritan’ story. .
In case this shift of responsibility escapes us, then we only have to look across the page to see the final stages of the poem ‘Give’ to notice that Armitage is once again exploring the indifference of society to those who are deemed outside the norm. These outsiders are of course those who are economically vulnerable and therefore do not ‘contribute’ to the material wealth of contemporary society. To be poor is to be invisible. Armitage’s poetry resurrects the invisible and marginal from the shadows of our society and makes us think again about responsibility.
‘It’s not as if I’m holding out/ for frankincense or myrrh, just change....’
Once again we recognise the barely veiled irony of the reference to another aspect of the Christian story. Are we so fallen from kindness and decency in today’s greedy world that we would be suspicious of anyone who had hopes that aspired to the freely bestowed gifts of the Three Wise Men? The juxtaposition of the Christian tale with the pathos of the ‘change’ once again forces the reader into an uneasy recognition of the indifference or complacency that is the disease of modern life. Once again we as readers recall the tale of the Good Samaritan and are made to think.
The poem ‘Before you cut loose’ returns to the plight of the stray dog with explicit savagery:
‘…put dogs on the list/ of difficult things to lose.’
We are plunged into a world of disposable objects, where any life seems valueless or an irritant. The poem does not even begin at a beginning; it begins in the middle of some anecdotal reflections about the loyal behaviours of dogs. The use of cliché however renders the reflections complacent and insensitive. ‘’I heard one story of a dog that swam/to the English coast from the Isle of Man’. Cliché takes the place of imagination, and in replacing imagination, it curtails our capacity for intimacy and care. Armitage’s savagely sardonic poetry attempts to provoke us out of indifference; exposing the limits of our thoughts and outlook; highlighting our faithlessness and nullity. These ‘dog’ poems highlight the animals’ defiant faithfulness in a world faithless, godless and completely careless:
‘A dog got rid of - that’s a dog for life.’
The bleak reality of the urban landscape in Armitage shocks the reader through its powerful and immediate use of detail. We see how far this world has fallen from any pre-existing ideals. This ‘fall’ is exposed through Armitage’s sardonic exploration of our ill-treatment of the vulnerable and powerless. It is a world where healing rarely arrives, promises fail to be kept and nothing can save us from the loneliness of our incoherent lives:
‘…your fingers open, slowly, like
a flower, from a fist. As if. As if.’