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This review is taken from PN Review 134, Volume 26 Number 6, July - August 2000.

AT WORK ON THE WORD SIMON ARMITAGE, Killing Time (Faber) £6.99
JAMIE MCKENDRICK, Sky Nails (Faber) £8.99

As its punning title suggests, Simon Armitage's account of the closing days of the last millennium is preoccupied with death and destruction. Ironic and understated, Killing Time isn't exactly an apocalyptic work; but war, famine and a clutch of local disasters - the Paddington train crash, the Brixton and Soho bombings, the massacre of children in their Colorado school - give a sombre cast to a poem which pointedly distances itself from the millennial celebrations. 'Like actors trapped by Cinemascope,' says Armitage, 'we do whatever we do / between two black borderlines'; and though the immediate reference is to the brevity of winter daylight, there are deeper resonances to that image of darkness pressing in upon a vulnerable and delusive world.

The mood is very much that of the late 1930s, and the poem's presiding genius is Louis MacNeice. Both metrically and tonally, Killing Time is unashamedly indebted to MacNeice's Autumn Journal; and Armitage's desperate revellers, 'wild for starlight that passes for meaning' in a world of damage and disintegration, are direct descendants of those figures who, in MacNeice's poem, play out their parts against a backdrop of last-ditch diplomacy and encroaching war. Homage invites comparison and it has to be said that Armitage's poem lacks the assurance of its model, lapsing too frequently into awkwardness or monotony: what I miss here is MacNeice's nuanced variety (it's instructive to compare his distinctive catalogues with the more ponderous Armitage versions) as well as his deft splicing of personal ...


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