Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Book Review: Seeing Stars by Simon Armitage

There is a scene in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in which Monsieur Jourdain, an uneducated but wealthy tradesman determined to improve his social standing, returns from a lesson with his philosophy master utterly entranced with a new discovery. He has, he pompously informs his wife, spent his life speaking prose! Prose! His more grounded wife counters that the only thing she has heard him speak recently is “total rubbish” but he departs more self-satisfied than ever. It is a hilarious scene in which Molière ruthlessly mocks Jordaine’s pretentious predilection for fancy notions over substance.

I start this review with this anecdote because one of the responses I hear most often in relation to Seeing Stars, is that it “isn’t really poetry, is it.” Such nonsense! As if form were more important than content! As if Jourdaine could become a gentleman simply by knowing the form in which he speaks. Whether Seeing Stars is conveyed in a form that more closely resembles poetry or prose is largely irrelevant. What matters is whether it has an effect on the individual reading it, and Seeing Stars is, for me, a collection of rather wonderful and moving vignettes that its author, or rather one of his collage of narrators, handily refers to as ‘story-poems’. These story-poems combine narrative drive and plot twists with awareness of language, pacing, and the impact of an odd transgression mid-line. In this hybrid form, Armitage excels.

There is a performance quality to the work. Armitage debuted many of these pieces at readings for a couple of years before publishing Seeing Stars and that gently lulling Yorkshire accent is apparent even when reading on the page. If there is a focus, it is on the substantial over the stylish, the meaningful over the meaningless. Armitage has a sneer for those “critics, sponsors, trustees, rich benefactors and famous names”, for whom art is canapés, champagne and glamorous receptions. Seeing Stars is their antithesis: an intimate and memorable chorus that suggests that often the most meaningful things in life are the least dramatic.

The title itself, and the works contained, conjure connotations of awe-struck wonder at the majesty of life, of punch-drunk shock at things gone wrong, of the flat disappointment that comes with encountering a celebrity who turns out to be just like everyone else, who cannot transform everyday monotony into something spectacular.

Seeing Stars is gritty, surreal, tender, and often hilarious. In ‘Last Words’ a woman who has been mortally wounded by a spider makes a last phone call and finds herself conversing with a similarly dying man stranded at sea. In ‘The Christening’ a sperm whale sites ‘finders keepers’ as justification for the British Crown continuing to own the Elgin Marbles and in ‘Seeing Stars’ an injudicious remark by a pharmacist to his customer results in a nasty altercation that leaves him reeling. One of the more poignant passages comes in ‘The English Astronaut’ when the narrator follows an astronaut to a Little Chef on the A1 and watches him stare out of the window at the busy road, never at 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.”

In many ways, Seeing Stars most closely reminds me of a collection of Murakami short stories, where the fantastical and the mundane exist together, overlapping and interpreting each other and emotional states are elucidated through grandiose experiences. However, where Seeing Stars differs is in the liberal use of satire and farce. These reverential experiences are never allowed to become too heartfelt before Armitage’s wicked, pen cuts them down a peg or two. There are many laugh-out-loud lines, and some exemplary first lines:

“I hadn’t meant to go grave robbing with Richard Dawkins
but he can be very persuasive.”
‘The Experience’

“I fear for the long-term commercial viability of the new
Christian cheese shop in our neighbourhood.”
‘Cheeses of Nazareth’

How could you not wish to read on after these? Armitage casts an absurd eye over various aspects of life that might otherwise become too heartfelt. In ‘The Delegates’, he lambastes consumerist waste, in ‘Bringing It All Back Home’ he turns the cult of celebrity on himself, recalling Googling his own name and imagining participating in the Simon Armitage Trail, a guided-tour of his life where the turnout is ‘woundingly low’. Family interactions, Thatcherism and the perception of Yorkshire in the wider world all intwine.

This is an entertainment rich, content conscious collection that works on many levels and provides a satisfying reading experience. In substance it is full of ideas and humour and wry glances into the sort of poignant, absurd, contradictory lives we live and have always lived.

If this review has whetted your appetite, you can read three of the poems here, or listen to Simon Armitage read from them here.
Seeing Stars is one of six books selected for the Norfolk-wide Summer Reads campaign, run by Writers’ Centre Norwich. For more information, see www.summerreads.org.uk

Seeing Stars was first published by Faber and Faber in 2010. The edition shown above is the paperback edition, published in January 2011. ISBN: 9780571249930, 74pp


Anonymous said...

Hello, Sam. (Ben)

Unknown said...

Hello Ben. Thanks for last night, it's always a good evening at Castle Street.