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Mother, Any Distance – Simon Armitage

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Mother, any distance – Simon Armitage

Simon Armitage was born in Marsden, West Yorkshire in 1963. He studied Geography at Portsmouth, and Psychology at Manchester, qualified as a social worker and worked for six years as a probation officer. He has also worked as a shelf stacker, disc jockey and lathe operator. He is now a freelance writer and broadcaster. He has taught creative writing in various universities. His work includes song lyrics, plays and scripts for TV and radio.

Simon Armitage's first collection, Zoom, appeared in 1989, published by Bloodaxe. Subsequent poetry books, all published by Faber, include Kid (1992), Book of Matches(1993), The Dead Sea Poems (1995), Moon Country (1996), Cloud Cuckoo Land (1997).Killing Time (The Millennium Poem; 1999), Travelling Songs and The Universal Home Doctor (both 2002).

From Book of Matches,

“Mother, any distance greater than a single span”

Book of Matches (1993) is a collection of poems without titles. Each poem is meant to be read in the time it takes a match to burn down - about twenty seconds, unless you want to burn your fingers. There is a pun in the title: we call a packet from which we tear out the matches a book, but this is also a book in the normal sense, with words for us to read.

The speaker in the poem (who may be the poet himself) is measuring up a house - it appears that he is moving in, and is measuring for curtains and carpets. His mother has “come to help” him as he needs “a second pair of hands” to measure distances greater than the span of his two arms. (“Span” as a measurement traditionally refers to a hand span, from thumb to little finger when the hand is splayed.)

While his mother stays put, he reels out a tape measure, calling figures for her to record. Eventually he reaches the limit of the tape - as he looks at an open hatch, opening on an “endless sky”. He imagines himself passing through this - “to fall or fly”.

The poem explores the emotional connection of mother and child (we may assume it is a son, but if the poem is not autobiographical, there is no real reason why the speaker should not be a daughter). The tape measure becomes a metaphor for this. Now the child is ready to let go, but is unsure whether he can succeed on his own.

The reeling out of the tape is like the passing of the years - and the poet compares it to other kinds of line. Perhaps his mother is an anchor and he is a kite - this may bring security but may also limit his freedom to fly. Yet another image of attachment comes in the suggestion that the poet is space-walking - the phrase is a pun, as he is also walking through the “empty” space of the bedroom.

The “last one hundredth of an inch” marks the limit of the tape measure - beyond this, the speaker has to let go (or break the tape). The conclusion of the poem is ambiguous, but reflects a real experience most of us undergo, not knowing whether independence is a chance for us to thrive or to fail. The mother's fingertips “still pinch” - she has come to help the child measure up, but now may be reluctant at the last to let go.

The poem has an irregular rhyme scheme - including occasional internal rhyme. The speaker suggests the sense of adventure in leaving home with images of vast space “acres” and “prairies”, and “reporting...back to base”. The mother is seen as a fixed point in an uncertain world, but she is not stopping her child from moving out.

What do you think of the poem's central image of the tape measure's unreeling? Explain what it means in your own words.

How does Simon Armitage present the relationship of mother and child in this poem?

How do you understand the image of the “hatch that opens on an endless sky”? Is this exciting or alarming or both at once? Or do you read it in any other way?

How does the poet capture a universal experience - whether specifically setting up house on one's own, or more generally becoming independent of parents?

What do you like or dislike about this “match” from the book?

Mother any distance

Written by Simon Armitage, who is a modern poet.

In the form of a dramatic monologue.

The poem

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