Mother, any distance: Armitage

Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch … I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.

I gave this poem recently to my Y11 class as an unseen. It is also in the AQA anthology at GCSE. This post reflects the writing of an unseen (in 35 minutes), without the contextual awareness of the poem in its original setting within Armitage’s anthology.

Despite the poem having 15 lines, the subject matter suggests that we should see this as a sonnet, taking the two half lines (11&15) as contributing to an overall count of 14. The anomalous nature of these lines will, however, throw emphasis onto them, marking as the y do the point of recognition of the realisation of the son’s need to find freedom, and the inherent danger in that step.

Armitage is describing the relationship between his ‘mother’ – an unusually formal and possibly ironic rendering of ‘mum’ – and himself and she is foregrounded in the tile and first line, being placed in the position of strength as the first word. This reflects her dominant position in his life thus far. The pair are ostensibly measuring up a home. He has sought her help – the task being too big for him alone, the rooms being metaphorically described as ‘acres’ and ‘prairies’. These terms are interesting – both generally refer to farmland – land of fecundity and increase. The prairies also suggest the pioneer spirit of the American settlers – his new home is his statement of relocation as clearly as though he were hitching up his wagon in the 19th century and setting out on the adventure of life.

Within this discussion of parting and new beginnings, the pair are joined by the tape measure, as a form of umbilical cord which seems to stretch around the house. Mother holds the ‘zero end’ suggestive of her role as the birth mother, the one who sustained his life at its ‘zero end’, and he moves away ‘recording’ but the countdown from ‘metres’ to ‘centimetres’ suggest she is always being pulled back towards zero – his mother. At the end of the second quatrain Armitage uses the two single word sentences ‘Anchor. Kite.’ The shock and power generated by this powerful interruption of the flow of the stanza, with the caesurae forcing the reader to pause and consider the intention of the poet helps to emphasise the role mother plays. She is his ‘anchor’ – descending the depths to hold him steady in all metaphorical weathers; he is the ‘kite’ which soars free, attached to the anchor and feeling the freedom and pull of the air which calls him.

He describes himself as space-walking conveying both the sense of other worldiness and dislocation of exploring his new flat, and also reflecting the ever growing distance between the two of them. As he rises higher and higher in the flat, like the kite, the distance grows and he becomes aware of the need when ‘something/has to give.’ Armitage uses enjambment here to provide an infinitesimal break as the though strikes. The half line reflects both the import of the realisation and the actual power of the idea of breaking. The silence implied in the missing feet in what is a poem built around the pentameter, suggests the recognition of the moment.

In the final quatrain, the mother is distanced, a sad, lonely figure still holding on to the tape, caught in the pure iambic pentameter of line 12 and 13, as though she is unaware of the change in the relationship. The alliteration of the P consonant in ‘tips still pinch’ providing an aural recognition of how fine the hold is now and how ready to break. Armitage draws out the moment by providing the internal rhyme on ‘pinch… inch’, the last time the pair are together is caught in language.

It is he who is the active breaker of the link, following the ellipsis which allows for the unspoken thoughts which he has concerning his ‘escape’ – he climbs still further and opens the hatch to emerge into the new world, as though being born again. The sky is ‘endless’ in possibility, yet the final half line suggests the realisation of the danger which is now to be faced. The rhyme of ‘sky… fly’ suggests an anticipated positive outcome, yet the initial shock, after the enjambment of the recognition of the potential ‘fall’ is a small jolt, and a nod to the reality of this precarious moment in the journey from child to adult.