Remains by Simon Armitage

The poem ‘Remains’ arose when Simon Armitage took part in a documentary for Channel 4 in 2007 called The Not Dead based on the emotional experiences of soldiers returning from conflict, and the post-traumatic stress that they suffered as a result both of what was done to them and what they did to others. The programme inspired a volume of poetry of the same name, written not solely about the experience of conflict, but about the flashbacks and feelings that the soldiers endured when returning to civilian life. The title The Not Dead sums up the key issues that it examines: these men are not dead, they are not traditional casualties of war, but they are not truly alive any more either–they are caught in a sense of limbo between their old lives and their new lives. As ex-soldiers they cannot fit comfortably into civilian life, nor can they return to the life of war. ‘Remains’ itself is based on the account of a soldier who fought in Basra, and it gives a voice to someone troubled by his actions in war, who re-lives the incident in his mind again and again. It is powerfully linked to Shakespeare’s Macbeth in its description of guilt. The title ‘Remains’ refers both to the ‘remains’ of the body that the soldier describes, and to the guilt that remains in his mind. He wants to forget the experience, but is unable to do so, the visible ‘blood-shadow’ that it leaves on the road paralleled by the blood-shadow on his mind.

The poem opens as though half-way through a conversation: ‘On another occasion’, making it clear that the incident of which the solider speaks was one among many. This conversational tone gives the impression of a dramatic monologue, and it certainly appears to both have ironic elements and also reveal more about the speaker and his state of mind than he perhaps intends. It additionally gives us, as readers, the sense of eavesdropping on what may be a private conversation, something reinforced by the confessional tone later in the poem. The speaker describes an incident when he was sent out with other soldiers to ‘tackle’ looters in Basra. He shoots one of the looters, and the event comes back to his mind again and again as he thinks through the experience. If the looter was armed, then his action is a justified act of self-defence. If he was not, then he has murdered someone. It is likely that his action would have been seen as justified by the army, given that the looter was ‘probably armed’, but his ambivalent feelings about it are made clear in the repeated phrase ‘probably armed, possibly not’. The ‘possibility’ is what haunts him, along with the desensitising brutality that he has experienced.

The use of the word ‘tackle’, and its connotations of sport, also minimises the action that the soldier was asked to take. Was he instructed to shoot the looter, and ‘tackle’ is a euphemism that he uses, or was he directly told to ‘tackle’ him, the decision about what this entailed being left up to him, and the euphemism is in the orders? The poem doesn’t make it clear which interpretation is the case, but the casual lexis is in stark contrast to the events that it describes. In this way, it is reminiscent of the lexis used in earlier war poetry to make war seem more acceptable. Sir Henry Newbolt’s Vitae Lampada, for instance, creates a link between schoolboy sport and the courage needed to fight in war, and Jessie Pope picked this up to use in propaganda poetry such as ‘Who’s for the Game?’–poetry that poets such as Wilfred Owen bitterly objected to (‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is probably Owen’s most famous counter blast to Pope, but ‘Disabled’ also poignantly describes how the speaker thought war would be like a football match).

The use of the present tense throughout the poem is striking, creating a sense of continuous action and drawing the auditor–and the reader–into the action that is described. This use of the present tense to describe past actions is known as the historic present and is a strategy which makes past events vivid and immediate. In this case it also makes it clear that the soldier is constantly re-living the events that he describes, which are continually present to him in the dreams and hallucinations that he describes as the poem goes on. The initial description of the looter’s death seems clear and detached, as though language is a barrier that the speaker is using to defend himself against stronger feeling.

The poem is written in irregular quatrains, loosely tied together with half-rhyme, and concluding with a couplet. The rhymes are not strong in the first stanzas, for instance ‘fire/swear’, ‘side/times’, but get stronger as the poem moves towards the conclusion of the initial account, with what is almost a clear AABB quatrain in stanza 4: ‘agony/goes by’, ‘body/lorry’. This pattern is then repeated, with the following two stanzas again having loose rhymes (‘rounds/out’) and then the seventh stanza again offering clear AABB rhymes: ‘eyes/lines’, ‘land/sand’. The final couplet is unrhymed. In some ways there may be a suggestion that the rhymes indicate the intensity of experience—certainly the way in which they seem to creep up on the reader, with the apparently casual quatrains firming up in these terms, creates a striking poetic effect.

The poem seems to seek to imitate the speaking voice, and the language used is strikingly colloquial, using words and phrases which are associated with the ordinary speaking voice, with a sprinkling of slang: ‘legs it’, ‘mate’, ‘letting fly’, ‘carted off’. Armitage here seems to be trying to imitate the soldier’s idiolect so as to make the effect of reportage more convincing. As such, he’s following in the tradition of soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen, who sometimes shocked contemporary audiences with his use of the colloquial in his poems. In ‘Remains’ the language is initially simple and direct—even brutal: ‘he’s there on the ground, sort of inside out’. As the poem progresses, the language seems to become more sophisticated, with poetic effects such as alliteration becoming more frequent and elaborate: ‘sun stunned sand smothered land’. The use of wordplay, as in ‘near to the knuckle’ partakes of both these linguistic modes—both colloquial and poetic.

The image of the three soldiers all shooting at the running man is a brutal one (especially as it seems as though he is running away as he ‘legs it up the road’. The use of ‘legs it’ again grounds the experience in the soldier’s lived everyday life–it is the phrase you would use about someone running away following a minor incident of vandalism perhaps, and not something you associate with war. At this point we are introduced to the soldier’s companions–not named, but anonymised as ‘somebody else and somebody else’. They join with him in shooting the man, and this seems to justify his decision as they ‘are all of the same mind… Three of a kind’, the internal rhyme mind/kind reinforcing this connection. Again the words used to describe the shooting seem to minimise it: ‘letting fly’ is a phrase that is more commonly used about someone losing their temper verbally, though it can be associated with physical violence (this verbal connection is subtly reinforced by ‘I swear’ placed at the end of the line). The phrase is not usually associated with gunfire, and this contrast between language and meaning emphasises the contrast between the soldier’s experience and his ability to rationalise it.

Tanaphora at the start of stanza three reinforces the violence of the assault. The three soldiers have clearly massively over-used necessary force in this instance, the violence of ‘rips through his life’ suggesting the unstoppable force of the bullets from a machine-gun. The hyperbolic image of ‘broad daylight on the other side’ is almost comic-strip vivid, suggesting a huge hole in the man’s torso as he is hit ‘a dozen times’ by the three soldiers, literally turned inside out by the assault. The shift of the enjambement from the colloquial ‘sort of inside out’ to the lyrical ‘pain itself, the image of agony’ gives an aching seriousness to the death, which is then deflated by the bathetic ‘one of my mates…tosses his guts back into his body / then he’s carted off’. There’s a half-reminder here that ‘tosses his guts’ is actually slang for ‘vomits’. The soldiers are not sick at the sight of what they have done, but it’s hinted that they might be. The necessity for actually picking up the ‘guts’ of the dying man is couched in terms that depersonalise him as a problem to be tidied up.
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The key line halfway through the poem: ‘End of story, except not really’ has a strong caesura which indicates how this incident will haunt the soldier on his return to civilian life. The possibility that the looter was not armed haunts him, especially as he has to travel past the spot for the rest of his time in Basra. The use of the term ‘blood shadow’ for the stain that has been left on the street comes to represent a real shadow on his mind, reminiscent of the ineradicable ‘bloody spot’ in Macbeth. Another reminder of Macbeth is the focus on sleep and sleeplessness. In Macbeth, the eponymous hero is haunted by the murders that he has done to get the crown. When he first does the murder, he fixates on his hands, covered in blood. He cannot sleep subsequently, and he and his wife are both haunted with what we would now call post-traumatic stress, endlessly re-living the murder and focusing on its bloodier aspects: .

The soldier here seems to go through a similar process. Just as Macbeth is unable to sleep after the murder, believing ‘Macbeth has murdered sleep’, so the soldier experiences flashbacks when he shuts his eyes: ‘blink /and he bursts again through the doors of the bank’. Macbeth explains to his wife how he experiences: ‘the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly: better be with the dead, / Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace, / Than on the torture of the mind to lie / In restless ecstasy’. In a similar way, the soldier explains how his sleep is disturbed with a vivid juxtaposition of the words ‘sleep’ and ‘dream’ with repetitive reminders of the action from earlier in the poem: ‘Sleep, and he’s probably armed, possibly not, / Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds’. Like Macbeth and his wife, the soldier can find no respite, ‘he’s here in my head when I close my eyes’ despite attempts to block his experience with alcohol and pills: ‘the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out’.

Just as Macbeth imagines King Duncan coming out of his grave to haunt him, the speaker of this poem feels that the dead looter is ‘here’, and ‘not left for dead…six feet under in desert sand’. The reality of the haunting is brought home by the final image of ‘his bloody life in my bloody hands’, the imagery again recalling the strongest and most persistent image in Macbeth, which haunts both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Macbeth as he feels that nothing, not even the ‘multitudinous seas’ (Act 2 scene 2) can wash the blood from his hands, Lady Macbeth as she sleepwalks, endlessly washing her hands and unable to cleanse them from the blood of the murder as ‘who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?’ (Act 5, scene 1)

The final irony in the poem comes from the use of colloquialism again: ‘bloody’ is an expletive as well as a literal description. The speaker’s ‘bloody hands’ are hands covered with blood and also hands with which he is annoyed, just as ‘his bloody life’ is an exclamation of helpless frustration at the responsibility of war. The looter’s life has been in the soldier’s hands, and now because of his decision, it will remain, like Macbeth’s guilt, staining his ‘bloody hands’ beyond the time of war.

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