Andy Armitage’s pamphlet is among a number of new releases from the poetry press Half-Moon Books, which is based in Otley, West Yorkshire, where a local group of poets have developed, and where there are a number of regular events and meetings. Half-Moon Books came into existence to support this diverse and motivated group of writers, and judging on Armitage’s pamphlet, more attention needs to be paid to the Otley writing community.
Armitage’s intriguing debut opens with a nostalgic image of first love: a hazy picture of a teenage couple in school uniform, heads tilted towards each other, and their eyes, although obscured by a blurry filter, locked in youthful infatuation. The photo encapsulates all that this accomplished pamphlet tries to illustrate: the atmosphere of adolescence, the inconstancies of time and the emotional pain brought about by loss of control in a relationship. Armitage’s poetry, for a debut writer, shows an admirable and well-developed understanding of poetic verse, but above all a finely-tuned radar to the trials and tribulations of young love. As someone recently out of university, I personally found his lines veracious and resonant.
The poems in Armitage’s debut publication form a sequence, directed towards his first love. They share a unified strand of loss, constantly supported by the retrospective narration throughout, which has undertones of regret, despair and pain. Yet, before these elements come to the forefront of the reader’s attention, Armitage depicts the familiar routines of life at school with nostalgic detail. In the poem ‘Sally’, we are told that ‘the universe was the size of a village’, which draws to mind teenage naivete, in which there is a general ambivalence and ignorance of other communities. The aesthetic qualities evoked by this poem are captured in that opening photograph. The imagery is so vivid; the ‘candyfloss air’, the ‘confusion of coloured lightbulbs’ and the introduction of Sally (?) herself, ‘dark haired with a gypsy tan, in ripped 501s and Docs’, collectively paint a colourful image. Even as he describes the ‘dread and excitement’ of hearing her, his reaction is typically boyish and juvenile: ‘as though I’d left the shop without paying’. Likewise is his attitude in the poem over the page, ‘Among school children’, when the narrator admits: ‘I made myself famous among classrooms with stunts of disobedience.’ The poet is finely aware of school-boy strategy: playing the class clown, hiding under ‘a practised nonchalance’, and ensnaring the object of his love with laughter and ‘public displays’. Skilfully switching between the narrative voice of youth and, due to retrospective narration, the background voice of present adulthood, Armitage creates a layered impression. In the atmosphere he constructs, we almost forget that he is writing retrospectively, so vividly we are immersed in his world, although we are of course reminded of Armitage’s perspective by the title of the book.
As the collection progresses, the adult voice gets louder, and increasingly pervades the narrative. The poem ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ — which was highly commended in the York Literature Festival Poetry Competition 2018 — marks a significant shift in the collection. With the uneasy final lines: ‘Do not let go my hand just yet’, Armitage begins to explore the darker aspects of his relationship, and the growing anxiety surrounding his loss of control. One of the things I find so effective in Armitage’s pamphlet is the depiction of his protagonist’s inner conflicts. We are first shown both his ideal, and, for a while, his reality: the euphoria of his early relationship, the sentimental head-tilts and the success of winning his love’s laughter. Yet this is in conflict with his older retrospection, which is still desperately seeking a return to his unattainable fantasy. While this can at times bring an unsettling air to the writer’s depiction of past romance, it does bring a depth of emotion and mood that goes beyond the nostalgia that characterises the early poems in the collection.
Although the poems retain their unified strand, this conflict precipitates the protagonist’s lack of control over his relationship, as well as the collection’s loss of control over its poems, which seems to amble in various directions, as their titles demonstrate: ‘Midas’, ‘Eurydice’ and ‘Eucharist’. These clearly contrast with the collection’s earlier, simpler titles: ‘Snapshot’, ‘Among school children’ and ‘The snare’. As infatuation and obsession seizes the collection’s protagonist, causing irreparable damage to the relationship, the language of feeling used in the book reaches a peak of poignancy and originality. This is the collection when it is at its most effective: when its emotions are truly let loose.
Above all, in Letters To A First Love From The Future, the theme of time is Armitage’s principal investment. Throughout, we have a merging of past, present and future, but not in a conventionally linear structure. Time is loose. Although the collection acknowledges the immense power of time, the protagonist largely ignores this sad truth. He maintains that ‘even your own face is only half-remembered’, and yet just a page later he claims that ‘your eyes look back at me from the faces of other women’. This is not to say that Armitage is showing inconsistencies however, rather that the speaker of these poems has been fully transported to the time of young love, and the internal confusion of the emotions that surround this are reflected in the narrator’s voice. A strange but captivating journey.
Letters To A First Love From The Future, Andy Armitage, Half-Moon Books, 2018, £6.00 (paperback).
For more information, visit Half Moon Books.
Words by Ronan Gerrard
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