Poem introduction

I recognise that one of the tropes in my work is too collide two apparently incongruous things, and that's definitely going on at some level in this poem. The poem is called 'Poundland', I started to write it almost immediately after a student of mine at Sheffield University had come into class one day, and he told me that he'd been into Poundland, in Sheffield and there on the shelf was a copy if Ezra Pound's poems for a pound, and I could only imagine that this was some kind of stock taking error, that the word pound had jumped into the wrong column. I've always been obsessed with that section in Homer's 'Odyssey' where Odysseus visits the underworld to seek an audience with Teiresias and as soul appear before his eyes, he suddenly recognises his mother, who he didn't know had died. It's actually passed over fairly swiftly in the poem but it is a heart stopping situation and Ezra Pound writes about Odysseus' visit to the underworld in the first of his Cantos, so in Ezra Pound style language I also make a visit to the underworld, but I've just transposed that classical underworld with the contemporary commercial outlet known as 'Poundland'. Other pound shops are available. I threw the kitchen sink at this poem, so almost every supermarket reference I could think of went in there. There's a reference at one point to a song by David Bowie called 'God knows I'm good', and Ginsberg's 'A supermarket in California' gets a little nod and a wink.

Poundland

Came we then to the place abovementioned,

crossed its bristled threshold through robotic glass doors,

entered its furry heat, its flesh-toned fluorescent light.

Thus with wire-wrought baskets we voyaged,

and some with trolleys, back wheels flipping like trout tails,

cruised the narrow canyons twixt cascading shelves,

the prow of our journeying cleaving stale air.

Legion were the items that came tamely to hand:

five stainless steel teaspoons, ten corn-relief plasters,

the busy bear pedal bin liners fragranced with country lavender,

the Disney design calendar and diary set, three cans of Vimto,

cornucopia of potato-based snacks and balm for a sweet tooth,

toys and games, goods of Orient made, and of Cathay,

all under the clouded eye of CCTV,

beyond the hazard cone where serious chutney spillage had occurred.

Then emerged souls: the duty manager with a face like Doncaster,

mumbling, “For so much, what shall we give in return?"

The blood-stained employee of the month,

sobbing on a woolsack of fun-fur rugs,

many uniformed servers, spectral, drifting between aisles.

Then came Elpenor, our old friend Elpenor,

slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display.

In strangled words I managed:

          “How art thou come to these shady channels, into hell’s ravine?”

And he:

          “To loan sharks I owe the bone and marrow of my all.”

Then Walt Whitman, enquiring politely of the delivery boy.

And from Special Occasions came forth Tiresias,

dead in life, alive in death, cider-scented and sock-less,

Oxfam-clad, shaving cuts to both cheeks.

And my own mother reaching out, slipping a tin of stewing steak

to the skirt pocket of her wedding dress,

blessed with a magician’s touch, practiced in need.

 

But never until the valley widened at the gated brink

did we open our lips to fish out those corn-coloured coins,

those minted obols, hard won tokens graced with our monarch’s head,

kept hidden beneath the tongue’s eel, blood-tasting,

both ornament and safeguard, of armour made.

And paid forthwith, then broke surface

 

 

and breathed extraordinary daylight into starved lungs,

steered for home through precincts and parks scalded by polar winds,

ladened with whatnot, lightened of golden quids.

 


from The Unaccompanied (Faber, 2017), © Simon Armitage 2016, used by permission of the author and the publisher

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