This poem is from the 1993 collection Book of Matches so titled because each poem is supposed to be read in twenty seconds, the time it takes for a match to burn. This is significant for this particular poem since the collection deals with time passing (hence the match image) as does ‘Mother, any distance’.
The volume is also interesting because it is a series of sonnets and this poem might be described as a broken or fractured sonnet, an idea that will be explored later in the guide.
Armitage’s other famous collection of poem is the 1992 Kid, which, like this poem, deals with growing up.
Armitage studied Geography at Portsmouth University and this may help to explain the abundance of spatial imagery in this poem.
What is the poem about? The speaker’s mother comes to the house he is moving into in order to help him to measure things such as the walls and floors. This causes the speaker to think about how he is moving out and becoming more independent with Armitage using spatial imagery in order to consider the relationship between mother and son.
In terms of theme there is a clear similarity to ‘Walking Away’: both poems look at the way in which a parent and child’s relationship changes other time. However, there is a noticeable stylistic difference: whilst Armitage’s poem is written from the point of view of the child, Day-Lewis’s is written from the point of view of the parent.
The poem begins by addressing the speaker’s mother directly: the poem is a private one written to one specific person. Thus, this rather arresting first word helps to establish the relationship between speaker and addressee.
Armitage then introduces the first of many spatial images: ‘any distance greater than a single span / requires a second pair of hands’. ‘Single span’, here, refers to one’s outstretched hands and as such any distance greater than this would require another person’s help.
This image helps to establish a sense of co-dependence: the speaker relies on and needs his mother’s help. The two are clearly close and this is augmented by the fact that the poem begins by directly addressing her.
The poet then uses asyndeton in order to list the various things that he needs help measuring in the new house: ‘You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors / the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors’. The asyndeton emphasises just how many things the speaker needs help with and so underlines his dependency.
Whilst the first of these two lines is a literal depiction of what needs the measuring, the second becomes metaphorical and as such the imagery is worth paying attention to.
Both of the images (‘acres of walls’ and ‘prairies of walls’) are hyperbolic depictions of the space within the house. They suggest vast open spaces and as such perhaps imply a sense of excitement or trepidation on behalf of the speaker.
This is compounded by the image evoked through the use of ‘prairie’: this is traditionally associated with Wild West and as such it is connected to notions of exploration and the Frontier. There is a sense of adventure evident here, but also that it is daunting.
This dual tone (adventure and trepidation) is also captured by the rhyme scheme in the first stanza. Whilst ‘doors’ and ‘floors’ are full rhymes, ‘span’ and ‘hands’ produce only a half-rhyme. This perhaps suggests a distance or dislocation between Mother and speaker, which the poem will continue to explore.
Thus, the first stanza establishes the speaker’s two possible reactions to his moving house and the ensuing independence from his mother: he is at once excited by the prospect of freedom and adventure, but also finds it daunting and unnerving.
In the next stanza Armitage continues the spatial imagery in order to further probe the speaker’s relationship to his mother. Armitage describes how the mother keeps hold of a ‘spool of tape’ whilst the speaker moves ‘up the stairs’ with the ‘line still feeding out, unreeling / years between us. Anchor. Kite’.
The tape comes to represent their shared history, the time that they have spent together. It is also perhaps reminiscent of an umbilical cord and so metaphorically symbolises the connection between the two that has been forged over the years.
The two are connected, but there is also a sense that it is coming to an end.
This is further suggested by the somewhat oblique conclusion to the stanza: ‘Anchor. Kite’. This refers us back to the previous description of two possible reactions to the speaker’s moving house.
Both an anchor and kite are objects connected between two things. However, this juxtaposition suggests the competing dynamic between speaker and mother. The kite suggests freedom, flying and liberty and this is perhaps what the speaker wants: this is what seems to excite him when he sees the house as a ‘prairie’ to be measured in ‘acres’. However, the anchor is kits opposite: it is associated and weighting down, holding back and restriction, and perhaps this is how the speaker perceives his mother.
Thus, there is establishes a tension in the relationship: the speaker is excited at the prospect of his freedom, whilst the mother yearns for her son to remain next to her.
This tension comes fully to the fore in the next stanza: ‘I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb / the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something / has to give’.
The speaker, still with tape in hand, has reached the top of the house, but his mother is still keeping hold below. As Armitage makes clear, ‘something / has to give’. The mother must either relinquish control and in doing so allow her son the independence he craves or the relationship will sever. One might also notice how the use of enjambment across ‘something’ and ‘has to give’ structurally mimics how the tape is at breaking point: just as the poetic line breaks so too must the line between mother and son.
Thus, Armitage is employing an extended metaphor and space and measurement in order to trace the decaying relationship between mother and son as the latter desires freedom and the former an inviolate bond.
As the son continues to move upwards, the mother’s fingertips ‘still pinch / the last one-hundredth of an inch’. The lexical choice of ‘pinch’ evokes both a sense of pain and also desperation. It is implied that if the mother does not let go then she will end up hurt and the fact that it ends the line perhaps emphasises that this is to be the defining characteristic of their relationship should she keep hold.
Also, the specificity and precision of the measurement demonstrates the lengths (no pun intended) the mother is willing to go to in order to keep her son near her.
At this point, one might feel pathos for the mother since she is clearly not, unlike the speaker of ‘Walking Away’, emotionally ready for her son to leave.
At a stretch (again no pun intended), one could also gloss the use of the ellipsis here: in addition to signalling a tonal shift in the poem, it also typographically mimics the tape between mother and speaker.
The poem concludes with a sense of optimism for the speaker although there is no sense that the mother shares this optimism: ‘I reach / towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky / to fall or fly’.
The image of the ‘endless sky’ returns us to the image of the prairie and this impression of speaker entering something that is boundless and independent. Whilst there is also a sense that the speaker may not survive on his own, the tone is overall one of sanguinity.
This final image also creates an interesting juxtaposition to the rest of the poem. Throughout the poem Armitage has employed specific and precise spatial imagery: the speaker was ‘recording / length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base’. The speaker’s life, Armitage suggests, has been regimented and constrained. The speaker has lived with what he perceives to be stricture and restraint. However, this final image represents an escape from this: where he plans to go it is ‘endless’: there are no more measurements, but freedom and an escape from the constraints previously imposed upon him.
Thus, the poem is a meditation on growing up and the changing relationship between parent and child, but there is not quite the same sense of acceptance that exists in ‘Walking Away’.
One might also have noticed that the form of this poem is that of a slightly disjointed sonnet. Sonnets are traditionally used to convey one’s love and are associated with the courtly love tradition in poetry. As such, the use of a broken sonnet mimics how mother and son have reached ‘breaking point’.
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