Car Boot Sale
I churned through the sodden mud-pocked field, where
Foldaway tables sprawled like Formica
Shipwreck victims. Over Matlock, black clouds
Gathered like distant relatives, uninvited,
Destined to outstay their welcome. Trembling 5
Artefacts clung together – glazed ashtrays
And tattered Beano annuals. A flaccid
Bullworker failed to flex arthritic springs,
Now shame-branded with a freezer label.
The flotsam and jetsam of Avalon 10
Peddled for pennies on the pound and just
When I was ready to call it a day,
Head to the inn for a jarful of hope,
I saw it. A brutalist, open-throated
Pyramid. Scourge of edam or gouda 15
Or cheddar. This dairy defiler had
Seen better days. Dented and rusted in
Hard to reach places, but there was not a
Speck of plastic to blunt its purpose. I
Paid the dowry – no unseemly haggling. 20
Carried it home and set it on a shelf.
Each time I prepare a fondue it bites
My Judas fingers, keeping me honest.
How characteristic is ‘Car Boot Sale’ of Armitage’s work in ‘The Unaccompanied’?
The first way in which my poem is, I think, aligned with Armitage’s style is that it has been shaped to create a dynamic tension between the prosaic and the mythic. This is perhaps captured most clearly in the line ‘The flotsam and jetsam of Avalon’ which both elevates the somewhat kitsch ritual of a car boot sale, but at the same time is deflatory, because the subject matter is presented through an ironic lens. Armitage achieves this same effect in poems like ‘Poundland’ and ‘Prometheus’; the detritus of our postmodern landscape is shown to be entropic and yet is imbued with symbolic power. This sense of decay is reinforced by the extended metaphor of the shipwreck, explored in the first stanza. The fact that the field is ‘sodden’ and that ‘black clouds’ are gathering on the horizon, is almost apocalyptic. The use of ‘scourge’ in the second stanza further suggests that the narrator is navigating a world in its death throes, just as those ‘rubbernecking’ the last snowman as it drifts past them, ‘pure stroke victim’, are witness to the end times. (1)
I also sought to underscore this incongruence between the mundane and the transpersonal through the reverence with which the narrator treats the cheese grater which is afforded an almost totemic potency. The fact that ‘haggling’ for a better sale price would have been ‘unseemly’, coupled with the implied personification of the object using the noun ‘dowry’ is at once laughable but also positions the object as a nostalgic talisman of a past which was more honest, simpler and devoid of artifice – ‘not a/Speck of plastic to blunt its purpose’.
‘The Unaccompanied’ is a collection which is quick to condemn materialism and the exploitation of the natural world, and the poet often voices a sense of inadequacy when comparing himself to his father’s generation, perhaps best illustrated in ‘Harmonium’. I think Armitage’s respect for the past, and for his own heritage is managed more subtly in these poems than in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ (2) but it is a repeating motif here and so I was keen to adopt a similar relationship to the past in my own work. I rooted the geography of ‘Car Boot Sale’ in the north of England, Armitage’s stomping ground, by referring to the clouds looming over Matlock and, following the volta that draws my poem to a close, my narrator refers to himself as a ‘Judas’ because he betrays his working-class origins in preparing a fondue, a meal with middle class pretensions. The fact that cheese grater ‘bites’ him each and every time he does this, positions it as a kind of guardian of authenticity and thus heritage; it keeps him ‘honest’.
I elected to write ‘Car Boot Sale’ in pentameter, using blank verse, but I am aware that many of Armitage’s poems in the collection employ syllabic irregularities to echo the sense that things are coming apart at the seams in the world he is witnessing. The form used in the in his verse suggests that he is incapable of maintaining the order and control which might have been characteristic of previous generations of writers he reveres such as Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin (3). With this in mind, I have allowed two of my lines to run to more than ten syllables for effect. Line 4 of the first stanza, for example, ‘Gathered like distant relatives’ employs twelve syllables, foreshadowing the fact that they will long outstay their welcome. Likewise, the introduction of the cheese grater in the second stanza uses a disruptive caesura and then an additional syllable to close out the line – ‘I saw it. A brutalist, open-throated/pyramid’. In this case, the breach of form and structure emphasizes the forceful presence of this kitchen utensil which is described in terms more suited to an Inca or Aztec temple!
Where I feel that my work departs from Armitage is in the concentration of writing features exhibited in a single poem. By attempting to create verse which echoes all the key elements of the collection, ‘Car Boot Sale’ is in danger of being a caricature, rather than characteristic of his writing style. ‘The Accompanied’ is an anthology which spans almost a decade’s worth of material and the style and subject matter reflect his range and versatility as a poet. The bizarre narrative arc and imagery of ‘Tractors’, for example, is far removed from the acidic lexis and structure of ‘Thank You for Waiting’. Likewise, ‘The Present’ with its self-reflexive allusion to the despair Armitage struggles with to realise his own poetic vision, has little in common with the sympathetic character sketch of ‘Nurse at a Bus Stop’ which is a far more grounded piece of social commentary rather than confessional in tone. In a sense, then, ‘Car Boot Sale’ is too characteristic of the collection to be convincing as a text that belongs within it!
1 ‘Last Snowman’ – the opening poem of ‘The Unaccompanied’
2 ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, Armitage, S. Faber & Faber (2008)
Total word count for commentary (including quotations and references) - 842
Word count for commentary without quotations, titles or references - 746