by Simon Armitage
On another occasion, we got sent out
to tackle looters raiding a bank.
And one of them legs it up the road,
probably armed, possibly not.
Well myself and somebody else and somebody else
are all of the same mind,
so all three of us open fire.
Three of a kind all letting fly, and I swear
I see every round as it rips through his life –
I see broad daylight on the other side.
So we’ve hit this looter a dozen times
and he’s there on the ground, sort of inside out,
pain itself, the image of agony.
One of my mates goes by
and tosses his guts back into his body.
Then he’s carted off in the back of a lorry.
End of story, except not really.
His blood-shadow stays on the street, and out on patrol
I walk right over it week after week.
Then I’m home on leave. But I blink
and he bursts again through the doors of the bank.
Sleep, and he’s probably armed, and possibly not.
Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.
And the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out –
he’s here in my head when I close my eyes,
dug in behind enemy lines,
not left for dead in some distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered land
or six-feet-under in desert sand,
but near to the knuckle, here and now,
his bloody life in my bloody hands.
This poem was set as an unseen for Year 11 and I have given myself the same task – 40 minutes to write a critical appreciation of the poem. A podcast version of this post can be found here: https://anchor.fm/jonathan-peel/episodes/Teaching-Poetry-Remains—Simon-Armitage-esuinl
The poem explores the events of war and the aftermath in terms of the response of the soldiers who have committed near-atrocities whilst part of the front-line force. The sense of guilt in the first person narrator of this monologue is increasingly tangible as the poem develops, as though the relatively matter of fact evidence given in the opening stanzas is replaced by an altogether stronger sense of guilt and of the recurring horrors of PTSD a sshown in Stanza 7 -‘he’s here in my head when I close my eyes.’
At the start of the poem the persona is speaking and we arrive in medias res as he explains the events which make up the poem.: ‘on another occasion’ suggests this as only a single part of a much bigger picture involving a tight knit group of soldiers who are ‘all of the same mind’ and ‘three of a kind’, the latter phrase somehow conjuring up images of the three Musketeers and esprit de corps. The poem begins by placing the action clearly in the plural until by stanza three, the narrator has become fixed on his individual role in the sorry business. Armitage foregrounds the soldier by placing the singular pronoun ‘I’ at the start of the first two lines of the quatrain. This poem is personal.
The language of the opening is colloquial – the looters ‘leg[s] it’ up the road as though the speaker is an excited young man, but this quickly changes in the last line – the juxtaposition of the ideas ‘probably armed’ possibly not’ bringing the story to a temporary halt. Here Armitage uses the caesura to highlight the moment of indecision – ‘probably’ suggests uncertainty and however slight that uncertainty, there is the possibility playing on the speaker’s mind that the victim was unarmed.
At the start of stanza two, the repetition of ‘somebody else’ suggests not only an anonymity for the perpetrators, but also creates the sense of them being ‘every soldier’ and opens the poem to a wider reading than the memory of a single man. The long line with 13 syllables extends what is a poem of varied structure as though the speaker has lost control of their emotion. The poem oscilates around an iambic beat and tetrameter and pentameter lines. Some are suddenly longer, such as this, and others suddenly cut short, as though bringing the speaker to a more sudden stop – the next line is a surprising 6 syllables in length. This variation of line length, apparently random, yet intensified by the use of caesurae to break up the organisation still further creates a sense of the speaker losing control of their emotions and of the organised and ‘safe’ thought processes of the military world falling apart in his memory, once he is alone, at ‘home on leave’.
The action of the shooting of the looters is vivid, intensified by the use of the present tense and by the emotive lexis of destruction. The rounds ‘rip’ through the looter, the alliterative monosyllable conveying the swift brutality of the death. Armitage uses a metaphor in which he replaces the prosaic idea of the body being shot with the more emotive and powerful ‘life’ as we are forced to focus on the action which has destroyed this life itself. Not only this, but the image of ‘broad daylight on the other side’ is remarkable, conveying a sense of the utter perforation of the body which has been shot -as though momentarily suspended in mid-air and allowing the tormented memory to see clean through the bullet holes. He lies on the ground ‘sort of inside out’, a homely phrase as though the speaker is having difficulty computing what he sees. The sentence crossed to the next stanza and he sees an image reflecting the cruelty and harshness of war as his ‘mate’ ‘tosses his guts’ back into the body – the verb suggesting the act of clearing up so much offal left over on a butchers slab – no emotion leading to dehumanisation. The image continues as the body is ‘carted off’. There is no respect in death for this victim.
At this point, introduced by the short sentence at the start of Stanza 5, the poem shifts from narrative to effect at a volta. The final stanzas flow into one another by much enjambment and by the use of fragmenting caesurae. The line ‘End of Story. But not really.’ uses the two short sentences to launch the memory. The deed is done. The aftermath lives on. The looter has now become a ‘blood-shadow’: a compound noun suggesting an image of a ghostly presence suited for a horror movie. The speaker cannot escape the evidence of his action and the constant reminder of his deed haunts him even after he has left the theatre of war. He sees the image when he blinks, suggesting not only a common natural action, but also an action linked to crying and the image is given a double entendre with the verb ‘bursts’ implying not only the sudden movement through the door, but also the idea of his body literally bursting open as the bullets hit. The idea of the guilt returns in a repetition of the nightmare question of whether or not the looter was armed and in his imagination now there is a subtle change – the body is now ‘torn apart’ by the dozen rounds fired.
The speaker cannot shift the image – he can’t ‘flush him out’, a phrase suggesting both purification and a military action, even with the combination of drugs and alcohol he is using as a falls apart mentally. in his mind the looter has successfully infiltrated ‘behind enemy lines’ and taken up residence in his own head – ‘dug in’. In this way he lives on to torment his liller rather than lying in the street or being buried. In the compounds ‘sun-stunned, sand-smothered’ we see something of the complexity of the memory and response to the land in which this took place. Both sun and sand can be positive images, but by the addition of the verbs ‘stunned and smothered’ the image is one of harshness and death, as though the sibilance used in the line suggests the insidious manner in which these potential positives have been overtaken by events.
Indeed, the final couplet – the length itself suggesting that the speaker has simply run out of energy makes this poem clear: the Remains of the title refer both to the dead man himself and the thoughts which remain in the speakers mind. His suffering is real and it hurts. As he repeats ‘bloody’ in the final line we hear both the anguished swearing of a young man who regrets his actions and note also the figurative idea of his having blood on his hands.
He has become a latter day Lady Macbeth for whom the guilt will never wash away.
40 minutes exactly.