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June Books

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Issue: 46 Section: Literature & Ideas Geography: Canada Topics: poetry

May 27, 2007

June Books

A review of Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid

by Regan Taylor

Photo: House of Anansi

Tyrannosaurus Rex Versus the Corduroy Kid
Simon Armitage
Anansi: Toronto, 2007.

Armitage's eleventh poetry collection first came out in Britain in 2006, where it was promptly shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot prize. Anansi's edition of this book marks Armitage's first Canadian publication; here's hoping it'll bring a wider audience into contact with one of England's greats.

The full range of Armitage's talents is on display in this work. He is at turns prophetic (“A Vision” claims that “the future was a beautiful place, once”) and historical (“The Bayeux Tapestry” is told in the ruthless, exhausted voice of William the Conqueror). He can be tender, as in a trio of quiet, elegiac poems in the voice of a son to a dead father. He can write sonnets that gently mock the irrelevance of both aging squeegee kids (“The Clown Punk”) and poetry itself (“Poetry”); in the latter, the writer's chosen genre is likened to an amazing but sadly overlooked ornamental clock hidden away in Wells Cathedral. Most memorably, Armitage can be funny. His humour is wry and bleak, and never cheap, even with the four-letter words and scatological references. In “The Six Comeuppances,” a man in the throes of an epic mid-life crisis says: “I was all over the place, like the shit / of a mad person.” A punchier simile is hard to find outside the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel.

Armitage takes one of poetry's riskier gambles; instead of using an elevated diction to make poetry out of small things, Armitage takes large, sometimes ambiguous and unsettling ideas and serves them straight up. Aside from some colourful slang new to these eyes (notably: “hoik” and “shonky”), all of Armitage's words come from familiar territory, and you won't catch him relying on polysyllables or fancy word choice to get at his themes. The brand of English here is warm and solid and reassuringly unpretty. Reading these poems, you can almost hear them pronounced in the round, lackadaisical accent of Armitage's native Yorkshire. This is most true in a suite of poems called “Sympathy” (quite possibly inspired by his stint as a probation officer in the 80s, before he became a full-time poet). Each part tells the story of a “case”—some unfortunate victim of violence, economic hardship, or plain old bad luck—and reiterates it through the voice of the perpetrator, in full-blown accent: “Anyways, on t'morning after t'party, / I trogs downstairs, still bolloxed, and gives t'pantry / t'Hans Blix, lookin' for brain-numbin' drugs.” The voices are vengeful, regretful, and above all, human; despite belonging to society's 'misfits', they cut straight to the reader's sympathy.

This isn't to suggest there isn't plenty of bold, inventive language here—there is. In more than one place, Armitage employs slant rhyme to push slightly unnerving poems over the edge into eerie, trading on that sense of something not quite right. In “The Perverts,” a creepy, insinuating quatrain:

We cornered one coming out of the gym.
Now everyone feels a whole lot better.
We held a buttercup under his chin,
made him kneel, asked him if he liked butter.

Armitage has been called the Philip Larkin of his generation; brief, haunting lines like these make this conparison seem particularly apt.

Mid-way through the book, the reader comes across “Surtsey,” an arresting pair of poems. The first, “Genesis,” riffs on an island formed off the coast of Iceland by volcanic activity in 1963— also, we're told, the year of the poet's birth. Armitage recounts the rapid development of an ecosystem as observed by avid scientists: “And the liquid stone / had barely set when a microbe blew in, / press-ganged by a wind squeezed out of the west[.]” Eventually this new land gets its own “brainless” deity, in the form of a fishing float washed up onshore. The creation of life, and of myths, is on fast-forward in this accelerated, artifice-heavy world. In the companion poem, “Where Are They Now?” the island is a haven for “a waist-high mob” of forgotten child stars and whiz kids, among whom the poet feels, oddly, at home.

Tyrannosaurus Rex includes a sample of Armitage's ambitious translations—portions of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Odyssey bookend the volume, and they're surprisingly fresh for two of the most dreaded college literature class staples. If the excerpts are any indication, Armitage has breathed new life into Odysseus' swagger (“And I was the last man to escape, suspended beneath / the cockiest ram of the lot”), and infused Sir Gawain's gore with appropriately English matter-of-factness (“his bloody neck still bled”). Whether interpreting old work or creating what's new, Armitage never backs away from what's hard to hear, or tell.

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