Thursday, 26 November 2009

Mother - Simon Armitage

The central theme of Simon Armitage's poem 'Mother' is that of the bond between a mother and son, and the moment at which the son finally becomes independent as he embarks upon adult life. The poem is in fact an extended metaphor, as the situation described is that of the mother helping her son to measure up his new house. The son gradually moves further and further away, upstairs, extending the measuring tape, while his mother desperately holds on to the end of the spool.

Armitage begins the poem by saying 'any distance greater than a single span / requires a second pair of hands', recognising from the outset that he still needs his mother. As we are told that it is the measurements of a house that are being taken, Armitage uses metaphors such as 'the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors' that convey an image of vast empty spaces: it's the first time that he has a house of his own, and there is a sense of adventure, exploring wide open spaces.

The opening line of the second stanza explains that it is the mother that is holding the 'zero-end' of the tape, thus being the stationary base, whilst the son is the one gradually moving away, taking the measurements. This eventually leads to him climbing the stairs, 'leaving', and the unwinding of the tape is seen as a metaphor for the years that the mother and son have spent together. The one-word 'sentences' 'Anchor. Kite.' close the second stanza and it is obvious that the anchor is the mother, whilst the kite is the son, about to fly away and experience independence.

In the third and final stanza, Armitage describes his tour of the bedrooms as a 'space-walk', once again making this sound like a great adventure. Going up into the loft, he realizes that this is 'breaking-point': the spool of tape has been fully extended, and if the son is to go any further, 'something / has to give'; either the mother or the son will have to let go. The mother, however, is described as pinching 'the last one-hundredth of an inch': we feel how desperately she is trying to hold on, she cannot bear to let her son go. The son, on the other hand, opens a hatch in the roof, knowing that he must keep on going. Outside the 'endless sky' awaits him, and the final brief line tells us that he will 'fall or fly': will success or failure meet him? He has no idea what the future holds, yet knows that he has to take this step and rely purely on his own resources for the first time.

The poem consists of two four-line stanzas and a third stanza of seven lines, of which two are extremely short. The length of lines throughout the whole poem is in fact very uneven, perhaps mirroring the situation where objects being measured are of varying lengths. Sentences, too, range from one brief word to an extension over five lines. Often one line spills over into the next, giving a sense of length of the relationship between mother and son, or of the ever-increasing distance between them as the son moves away.

It is also noticeable that in the first two stanzas the son directly addresses his mother: 'You come to help me' and 'You at the zero-end'. By the third stanza, however, the focus is on the son himself, and we are conscious of the first-person emphasis in phrases such as 'I space-walk' and then 'I reach / towards a hatch.' He is on his own now.

This is a carefully constructed poem that makes skilful use of pertinent imagery to convey its theme. The language itself is not emotional, yet we can feel the mother's reluctance and sense the mixture of adventure and trepidation that the son feels as he steps into adulthood. For me it is a masterpiece.

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