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. He had several jobs before becoming a freelance writer, including: shelf stacker, disc jockey and lathe operator.
Armitage has published several poetry collections, such as: ‘Zoom’ (1989), ‘Kid’ (1992), ‘Book of Matches’ (1993), ‘The Dead Sea Poems’ (1995), and ‘Moon Country’ (1996). Armitage has also written for TV, stage and radio.
‘Remains’ is from a collection of poems called ‘The Not Dead’, which was written in 2007 for a TV documentary of the same name. It is a collection of modern war poems based on the experience of soldiers in recent conflicts. ‘Remains’ is based on the experiences of a soldier who served in Basra in Iraq. He suffered severe PTSD as a result of his experiences and the poem recalls one particular event where the soldier shot the looter of a bank and was left with horrendous flashbacks reliving the moment of the man’s death. He turned to drink, drugs and crime on his return to Britain and the poem focuses on his overwhelming feelings of guilt and his struggle to come to terms with his experience.
The word ‘remains’ has several meanings: it is often used to refer to what is left of a human body after death – in this case, the brutally injured corpse of the looter. It could also refer to the guilt and remorse felt by the soldier which ‘remains’ long after the event and haunts his dreams every time he closes his eyes. Perhaps it also refers to the ‘remains’ of the soldier, suggesting that he is changed as a result of his experiences and is only a shell of the man he was before he went to war.
The poem is written as a first-person monologue, with the soldier as the speaker, and is presented in a very anecdotal style. The poem is structured into eight stanzas, the first seven of which contain four lines and the last one only two. The shorter last stanza leaves the reader in no doubt that this soldier is not likely to recover from the mental effects of his experiences any time soon. The focus of the first four stanzas is on the actual shooting and the final four portray the ensuing mental torture of the soldier when he returns home.
The lack of regular rhyme or rhythm, along with the use of enjambment, help to create a sense of natural speech and the idea that the speaker is relating an anecdote. The opening phrase, ‘on another occasion’, also suggests that this was not an isolated incident, but one of many faced by the soldier on a daily basis.
The irregular line lengths and varied sentence lengths also imply an erratic chain of thought; the short sentences in stanza six signifying interrupted sleep. The faster-paced rhythm of the long final sentence portrays the disintegration of the speaker’s mind and thought processes and he seems to be increasingly more anxious and agitated by his guilt-laden flashbacks.
Ideas and Language
The poem contains a great deal of colloquial language, such as ‘legs it up the road’ and ‘one of my mates.’ This helps to create an authentic voice, implying that this could happen to any soldier. The colloquialisms, along with the use of the present tense, also create an intimate relationship with the reader, as though the speaker is addressing a friend.
The use of the present tense also helps convey a sense of immediacy for the reader, putting us at the scene and keeping the narrator there in his head, reliving the moment countless times. The fact that the soldiers who shoot alongside the speaker are referred to as ‘somebody else and somebody else’ reinforces this idea of the ordinary soldier experiencing life-changing events in the course of a day’s work – the details aren’t important, because it is just another day like any other.
The use of the passive voice at the start of the poem, ‘we get sent out’, reveals that the soldiers are following orders and at the mercy of their superiors who decide what they need to do. It also serves to distance the soldier somewhat from his actions, suggesting that shooting the looter was not his decision; it was something he was ordered to do.
The poem contains some violent, graphic imagery, which lends itself well to comparison with Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’. The metaphor of the bullet ‘ripping’ through the man’s life and body so that the soldier can ‘see broad daylight’ through his bullet wounds is particularly shocking and disturbing. The image of the looter on the floor ‘sort of inside out’ is equally dramatic, albeit scarce on details. We are, however, left in no doubt that this is a traumatic sight and one that will stay with the speaker for ever. It encourages the reader to view war as a particularly unpleasant experience, but one that becomes dangerously routine over time.
The horror of the shooting is amplified by the description of the other soldiers’ casual reaction to it. One of the men ‘tosses his guts back into his body’ and he’s ‘carted off in the back of a lorry.’ The verbs ‘toss’ and ‘cart’ suggest a complete lack of respect for the victim and perhaps a desensitisation to death for some of the soldiers. The description dehumanises the victim and portrays him almost like cattle being disposed of without dignity or care. Reflecting on the event, the speaker is filled with remorse that he didn’t feel at the time.
The repetition of the line ‘probably armed, possibly not,’ portrays the speaker’s lingering doubts. He is tortured by the fact that the looter may not have been a threat and has great difficulty justifying the killing of a potentially unarmed man.
Guilt is also shown through the use of anaphora. Using the phrase ‘I see…’ to begin two lines effectively shows how the moment of the looter’s death is etched on the speaker’s mind forever. Armitage also uses alliteration ‘but I blink, and he bursts again through the doors of the bank’ to emphasise the speaker’s feelings of guilt. The repetition of the plosive ‘b’ lends a punch to these memories as they almost pierce the conscience of the soldier and disrupt his sleep.
The language used at the end of the poem suggests some bitterness and anger about the way the soldier’s life has been negatively affected by his experiences. The use of sibilance and assonance in the lines ‘in some distant sun-stunned, sand-smothered land’ create a sharp hissing sound, perhaps hinting at the fact that the speaker is angry about being sent off to fight a war that he feels has little to do with him. The pair of compound adjectives, seemingly offered sarcastically, present an idealistic view of the war zones.
In reality, war was no holiday; the profound effect the experience had on the speaker’s life is summed up in the last line, ‘his bloody life in my bloody hands.’ The tacit reference to the bloody hands of Lady Macbeth – who descended into a deep depression and took her own life after her part in King Duncan’s murder – alludes to the seemingly endless psychological effects of murder.
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