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Poem of the Week: manifesting lockdown frustrations in Simon Armitage’s 1997 ‘The Mariner’s Compass’

Simon Armitage’s 1997 poem “The Mariner’s Compass” begins with something many of us are now agonisingly familiar with – ‘living alone’ – and ends the same way many of our hopes did last week: ‘Under the rules, close contact / with another soul means disqualification’. The poem, written a lifetime before lockdowns blotted out our horizons, is concerned with the same narrowing of life.

Stasis, especially state-imposed, only makes more profound the desire to escape, because homeliness arises purely out of wanting to be somewhere. Hence the setting of the entire poem is not a home but a ‘rented house’, taking on the mobility of an exploratory ship. This is something yearly student renters will feel only too familiar with – how can we feel at home in something we can neither own nor leave? Armitage’s attempted solution is a metaphorical journey. Rounding ‘the Cape of Good Hope’, the ‘world’ that the speaker sails is the isolated human mind. Something which, as the invoked Magellan et. al. thought of the globe, is simultaneously vast and seemingly circumnavigable; something which could be mastered.

Lockdown-forced introspection carries the same heft as we pass the point of hope, (insert here vaccine, Christmas, or merely the sheer weight of time elapsed since this mess began) the fundamental task becomes not completing the voyage – something which is notably lacking from the poem – but merely ‘[coming] through in one piece’. The virus and its shockingly incompetent mismanagement have combined to bring to each of our doors a potent and insistent stream of morbid, familiar absurdity – ‘flying fish / lying dead in the porch with the post’.

Time is passing, the way it always does, in abrupt shifts from ‘last week’ to ‘this morning’; self-consciously relative phrases which slip away like the phenomenon they try to pin down. This wind is both metaphorical in the invisible, unstoppable current by which this year has been carried, and very real, in the desolate, freezing waste of going out to see a friend ‘wave from the cliffs’ and ‘talk nervously’. It has been hard to not ‘save fuel’ by just letting it happen, to ‘peg out the duvet covers and sheets’ under and around which our worlds have been based. We have ‘run upstairs’ to our minds, to comfort and ‘old-fashioned thought’ and the cognitive dissonance of ‘plotting a course by the stars’. In the face of all this time wasted, the desperation of finding something to do and some way to do it veers dangerously close to a realisation that we are travelling great lengths, around the globes of our minds, and yet almost a year later we are back in the same familiar and alien place. What is the point of a compass?

Last week (see, no one is immune) I saw a meme which, like this poem, made me want to laugh and cry at the same time – the punchline simply reading ‘how the f*ck is it almost March again’. I did what any right-minded person would do and sent it to a groupchat, and I watched with tired impatience as the message-reacts came waving in. We are all on cliffs right now and we are all sick to death of it.

The Mariner’s Compass

Living alone,I’m sailing the world
single-handed in a rented house.
Last week I rounded the Cape of Good Hope,
came through in one piece;


this morning, flying fish
lying dead in the porch with the post.
I peg out duvet covers and sheets
to save fuel when the wind blows,


tune the engine so it purrs all night
like a fridge,run upstairs
with the old-fashioned thought
of plotting a course by the stars.


Friends wave from the cliffs,
talk nervously about the coast-guard station.
Under the rules, close contact
with another soul means disqualification.

Image: Shetland Arts via Flickr