Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage: AQA Love and Relationships

Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage

You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape,

Simon Armitage

Welcome back to Beyond English’s AQA Love and Relationships poetry bonanza. This week, we’re exploring Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage. We’ll be focusing on:

  • Context
  • Structure
  • Analysis

Mother, Any Distance Context

Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage is taken from his poetry collection, Book of Matches, a collection of short poems without titles, which are meant to be read in the same amount of time it would take for a match to burn down. 

Armitage was born in West Yorkshire in 1963. He graduated from Portsmouth with a degree in geography and later completed an MA at Manchester University, where he wrote his dissertation about the effects of television violence on young offenders.

Armitage’s distinctive style features conversational, street-wise language and often dark use of humour. Mother, Any Distance explores some of the poet’s recurring themes – adolescence and family relationships, taking a look at the close bond between mother and child 

Mother, Any Distance Structure

The poem is almost structured into sonnet form – a traditional form to explore love and relationships. However, it has an extra line, which draws the reader’s attention to what is contained here ‘to fall or fly.’ This suggests a sense of apprehension from the speaker about what the future holds and highlights the uncertainty about whether the mother has adequately equipped her child with the skills to survive without her. 

The sonnet-like structure allows the poet to deal with two separate thoughts: the first eight lines describing the speaker and his mother still connected by the literal tape measure and the last seven lines describing the speaker moving away from his mother, literally, into the loft and metaphorically away from his childhood dependence on his parents. Ultimately, the mother lets go of the tape measure as the distance grows too great and the speaker is left to discover an ‘endless sky’. 

Armitage chooses not to use the traditional ABBA rhyme scheme of a sonnet, instead using an irregular and unpredictable arrangement for both. This helps reflect the ambivalence of the speaker’s feelings about the future, that his new-found independence is exciting, but also slightly frightening. This idea is summed up neatly in the rhyming couplet at the end of the poem: ‘towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky/to fall or fly.’ 

Mother, Any Distance by Simon Armitage Analysis

The extended metaphor of the tape measure – ‘You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape, recording length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base,’ – runs throughout the poem. We begin to understand this as both the lifespan and dependency of the child; the mother is there right from the beginning and the distance slowly increases as the line is ‘still feeding out, unreeling years between’ them. 

The speaker calls upon his mother to help him measure the large areas of his new home and record its dimensions. Quickly, however, the mother is left pinching the final ‘inches’ of the tape, barely keeping hold of her child as he still needs her. As the speaker makes his way up to the loft, they reach ‘breaking point, where something has to give.’ One person has to let go of the tape measure, almost like cutting the umbilical cord. It is the speaker’s time to cope with the demands of life alone. 

Some of the other metaphors used in the poem draw on the dichotomies of excitement/fear and freedom/restriction. The mother is referred to as an ‘anchor’ and the son a ‘kite.’ An anchor is a stabilising force, it prevents a ship from drifting away, keeping it safe. However, it also limits where a ship can go and prevents it from sailing, suggesting that a mother who keeps too tight a grip on her child, will inhibit them and prevent them from achieving their full potential. Similarly, a kite has the potential to fly where it wants – within limits – but it has a grounding influence in the shape of the person at the other end of the string. Here, the mother could be viewed in two ways: as a guiding influence, ensuring her child is safe and supported, or as a controlling and limiting figure, preventing the child from straying too far, keeping them close at all times. 

Other metaphors in the poem, such as the ‘acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors’ hint at the speaker’s ambivalent feelings about his impending change in circumstances. Acres and prairies are both vast expanses of space, implying freedom and room to run and explore with a sense of no boundaries or barriers. However, they also suggest empty space that needs to be filled, which can be daunting for a young person. They can also be quite lonely and isolated places, implying a sense of anxiety about leaving the family home. 

The final lines ‘I reach towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky/to fall or fly’ throw up the image of the speaker bravely leaping to his new life of independence and freedom, leaving the reader to ponder whether he will indeed fall, but secure in the knowledge that there will be someone there to catch him if he does.

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