Simon Armitage, the new Professor of Poetry, has selected two of his own poems for Oxford Today readers.
The English Astronaut
He splashed down in rough seas off Spurn Point.
I watched through a coin-op telescope jammed
with a lollipop stick as a trawler fished him out
of the waves and ferried him back to Mission
Control on a trading estate near the Humber Bridge.
He spoke with a mild voice: yes, it was good to be
home; he’d missed his wife, the kids, couldn’t wait
for a shave and a hot bath. ‘Are there any more
questions?’ No, there were not.
I followed him in his Honda Accord to a Little
Chef on the A1, took the table opposite, watched
him order the all-day breakfast and a pot of tea.
‘You need to go outside to do that,’ said the
waitress when he lit a cigarette. He read the paper,
started the crossword, poked at the black pudding
with his fork. Then he stared through the window
for long unbroken minutes at a time, but only at the
busy road, never the sky. And his face was not
the moon. And his hands were not the hands of a man
who had held between finger and thumb the blue
planet, and lifted it up to his watchmaker’s eye.
© Simon Armitage, from Seeing Stars (Faber & Faber, 2010)
Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass
It seemed an unlikely match. All winter unplugged,
grinding its teeth in a plastic sleeve, the chainsaw swung
nose-down from a hook in the darkroom
under the hatch in the floor. When offered the can
it knocked back a quarter-pint of engine oil
and juices ran from its joints and threads,
oozed across the guide-bar and the maker’s name,
into the dry links.
From the summerhouse, still holding one last gulp
of last year’s heat behind its double doors, and hung
with the weightless wreckage of wasps and flies,
mothballed in spider’s wool . . .
from there, I trailed the day-glo orange power line
the length of the lawn and the garden path,
fed it out like powder from a keg, then walked
back to the socket and flicked the switch, then walked again
and coupled the saw to the flex – clipped them together.
Then dropped the safety catch and gunned the trigger.
No gearing up or getting to speed, just an instant rage,
the rush of metal lashing out at air, connected to the mains.
The chainsaw with its perfect disregard, its mood
to tangle with cloth, or jewellery, or hair.
The chainsaw with its bloody desire, its sweet tooth
for the flesh of the face and the bones underneath,
its grand plan to kick back against nail or knot
and rear up into the brain.
I let it flare, lifted it into the sun
and felt the hundred beats per second drumming in its heart,
and felt the drive-wheel gargle in its throat.
The pampas grass with its ludicrous feathers
and plumes. The pampas grass, taking the warmth and light
from cuttings and bulbs, sunning itself,
stealing the show with its footstools, cushions and tufts
and its twelve-foot spears.
This was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut.
Probably all that was needed here was a good pull or shove or a pitchfork to lever it out at its base.
Overkill. I touched the blur of the blade
against the nearmost tip of a reed – it didn’t exist.
I dabbed at a stalk that swooned, docked a couple of heads,
dismissed the top third of its canes with a sideways sweep
at shoulder height – this was a game.
I lifted the fringe of undergrowth, carved at the trunk –
plant-juice spat from the pipes and tubes
and dust flew out as I ripped into pockets of dark, secret warmth.
To clear a space to work
I raked whatever was severed or felled or torn
towards the dead zone under the outhouse wall, to be fired.
Then cut and raked, cut and raked, till what was left
was a flat stump the size of a barrel lid
that wouldn’t be dug with a spade or prised from the earth.
Wanting to finish things off I took up the saw
and drove it vertically downwards into the upper roots,
but the blade became choked with soil or fouled with weeds,
or what was sliced or split somehow closed and mended behind,
like cutting at water or air with a knife.
I poured barbecue fluid into the patch
and threw in a match – it flamed for a minute, smoked
for a minute more, and went out. I left it at that.
In the weeks that came new shoots like asparagus tips
sprang up from its nest and by June
it was riding high in its saddle, wearing a new crown.
Corn in Egypt. I looked on
from the upstairs window like the midday moon.
Back below stairs on its hook the chainsaw seethed.
I left it a year, to work back through its man-made dreams, to try to forget.
The seamless urge to persist was as far as it got.
© Simon Armitage, from The Universal Home Doctor (Faber & Faber, 2002)