Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Unthinkable - Simon Armitage

A huge purple door washed up in the bay overnight.
its paintwork blistered and peeled from weeks at sea.
The town storyteller wasted no time in getting to work:
the beguiling, eldest girl of a proud, bankrupt farmer
had slammed that door in the face of a Freemason's son,
who in turn had bulldozed both farm and family
over the cliff, except for the girl, who lived now
by the light and heat of a driftwood fire on a beach.

There was some plan to use the door as a jetty
or landing-stage, but it was all bullshit, the usual idle talk.
That's when he left and never returned.  Him I won't name -
not known for his big ideas or carpentry skills,
a famous non-swimmer, but last seen sailing out,
riding the current and rounding the point in a small boat
with tell-tale flashes of almost certainly purple paint.

Armitage's straightforward, slightly profane style strongly reminds me of Philip Larkin, and I mean that as a compliment.  Managing to capture serious sentiments while stile maintaining the mode of humor, this poem, to me, is about how we assign objects with their own lives, endowing stories to the environments and objects around us, often getting swept up in those stories we weave.  In this case, the event is the beaching of a large purple door from parts unknown.

Immediately, the "town storyteller," a beguiling title, began to spin yarns about the genesis of the driftwood.  He tells a romantic story that makes us, the reader of the poem, feel some degree of attachment to the door.  We feel like it must have a story to tell us, and lacking real knowledge, we supply our own.  The story invented here is almost circular in nature.  A young girl, evicted from her home by a spurned suitor, has her house demolished, turned into driftwood.  With a pleasing circularity, we learn that she survives "by the light and heat of a driftwood fire on a beach."  We feel bad for her, but still, the story is neatly self-contained and fits with the door's sea-born arrival.

The question of what to do with the door is summed up by Armitage as "the usual bullshit."  The smalltalk we make, plans without intention, are shared and dismissed in the space of two lines.  It's what I've often heard called "shooting the shit," idle talk with no real weight behind it.  What is actually done with the door in answered by the sudden departure of a nameless figure who it seems has likely built a boat out of the door, and gone to sea on it, despite being a poor carpenter, small thinker, and non-swimmer.

This is the hardest part of the poem for me to understand.  This enigmatic man driven to what sounds like a suicidal journey by the arrival of this mysterious, romantic door.  It's hard to fathom, but I think it relates to the stories we tell about objects.  Maybe this man, entranced by the town storyteller's tale of intrigue, love, and anger, felt the deep need to set out into the unknown.  At the end of the day, it is almost impossible to every really know what someone is thinking.  I suppose that's why this poem is called "The Unthinkable."

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