A Sense of Restraint: Comments on Armitage’s ‘Remains’

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While physical and mental conflict spills from every blood-drenched line in Remains, there’s another conflict underpinning the poem; the internal and institutional conflict that surfaces when soldiers are required to undertake police duties. There’s a gulf between the fundamentals of the roles. Of course, core objectives of the British Army include peacekeeping effort and the providing of humanitarian aid, but the training of soldiers for combat in the field is relatively removed from the training of the police for domestic law enforcement. The power dynamics are different in each. In Remains, we’re presented with a broken person – somebody torn apart by the consequences of blurred edges between the powers of the soldier and the powers of the police officer. The poem couldn’t be better placed as a thematic bridge of our cluster. I am going to use masculine pronouns to describe the voice of the poem from hereon in.

What follows are some comments that may not feature in your initial reading– especially as a teacher new to the poem, or perhaps an NQT. I am not going to analyse the whole thing; just a few lines that I find interesting, or when I have noticed a pattern that I’d like to share.

In Remains, some of the mental trauma can be seen through the casual, colloquial language at the poem, and the evident lasting damage. The language is at odds with the severity of the events which unfold here – we’re faced with a disconnect. The opening three lines belie the horror of the events that are to come:

On another occasion, we got sent out

to tackle looters raiding a bank.

And one of them legs it up the road…

At first reading, you’d be forgiven for reading ‘tackle’ and ‘legs it’ and imagine a group of soldiers embarking on little more than a game. A sport. It’s significant, too, that the phrase ‘we got sent out’ features on the opening line. This was an order – it’s clear that there are superior powers making the decisions here. From the opening, we know that this is a man without full control. He ‘got sent’. There is absolutely no ambiguity here that our soldier was under orders.

The second stanza – every desperate line of it – presents the reader with a juxtaposition between strong comradery and an anonymity so striking that we’re thrown into turmoil. I’ll illustrate:

Well myself and somebody else and somebody else

are all of the same mind,

so all three of us open fire.

Three of a kind all letting fly, and I swear

‘[S]omebody else and somebody else’ is such a fascinating turn of phrase at this position in the poem. Of course, he’s glossing – the monologue is presented as mid-interview, and it’s understandable that he wouldn’t list all the names of those present – but there’s a flippancy to it. The other soldiers don’t matter to him. They’re just ‘somebody else and somebody else’ and just like that, they’re tossed aside. What follows, though, is at odds with this. They’re ‘all of the same mind’ and as the Gestalt Intelligence kicks in, along with it comes the instinct to kill. There’s a determination to emphasise this group think: each and every line is a reminder that he didn’t act alone. This is further galvanised through one of the only internal rhymes in the poem (‘same mind/three of a kind’). The stanza is glued together with this, further reinforcing this message of oneness. It eases the burden of responsibility from him, yet we know that he carries the looter’s ‘bloody life’ in his ‘bloody hands’ in years to come. Despite the repeated references to the group all being complicit, we know that he hasn’t absolved himself of any responsibility. It’s a show. He wants the interviewer to believe him and, by extension, he wants us to believe him. It’s crucial that we look across the whole poem for the internal contrasts and conflicts over this.

Perhaps this is a hard line to take, but there’s a sense that the soldier – our narrator – is the victim in the next stanza. Something is tugging at me here, begging me to feel sad that he had to witness this bloody murder. Consider the anaphora:

I see every round as it rips through his life –

I see broad daylight on the other side.

And the abject horror rises for the reader. The sympathy goes to the soldier for the very fact that he had to witness this murder – yet he’s the perpetrator. The anaphora brings about this pathos. The narrative is centred on his experiences, yet the victim here is clearly the looter. Perhaps this egocentric phrasing is symbolic of the effects of PTSD. Perhaps we should focus on the subsequent softening – afterall, he knows that he has destroyed a ‘life,’ suggesting that so much more has been lost here than one beating heart. The ‘broad daylight on the other side’ is laden with meaning here, although this is a more accessible line in the poem. By the final line of the stanza, it’s vital that we consider exactly who is ‘sort of inside out.’ More than one life is destroyed after this shooting.

The imagery in the following stanza is graphic and crude, which in turn muffles the internal trauma.

One of my mates goes by

and tosses his guts back into his body.

Then he’s carted off in the back of a lorry.

The way the guts are tossed ‘back into his body’ and the way he’s ‘carted off’ gives a devil-may-care feel here. Of course, we can focus on the verbs and say how they’re violent, but we should also turn our attention to the structure of the poem – and also to what we already know. We know there’s doubt, eating away at him (‘probably armed…’). We know that he’s witnessed something that nobody should ever witness, regardless of blame (‘I see every round as it rips through his life’). Like Owen, Armitage is exposing the realities of war to his audience. As for the structure, it gives us everything at this point. Look to the next stanza, and all casual posturing about ‘mates’ and ‘guts’ and ‘back of a lorry’ evaporates. Although, while we’re talking about the ‘back of a lorry,’ then some consideration of what has been stolen and from whom may be worthwhile.

The unreliable narrator comes to light at this point. Of course, he’s unreliable throughout the poem, but look at the timeframes in the next part of the poem:

His blood-shadow stays on the street, and out on patrol

I walk right over it week after week.

Then I’m home on leave. But I blink

We have a ‘blood-shadow’ (teeming with analytical opportunities) which ‘stays on the street.’ The length of time remains ambiguous; it simply ‘stays’. He recalls walking over it ‘week after week.’ Would a ‘blood-shadow’ remain on a street for that long? Possibly, especially in hotter climes. Do we get the impression that his memory is reliable? Absolutely not. This part of the poem – the volta – shows us a marked changed in his mental state, reflected in the growing chaos of the structure. This is illustrated with the time-frames here. We have the ambiguous ‘stays’, the ‘week after week’ and another loose ‘then’ (‘Then I’m home on leave’). We’re taken from the indefinite ‘stays’ to a very short, finite ‘blink’. The sense of time, place, and stability is falling apart as we read.

Remains starts in the past tense; it’s a memory, after all. By the second stanza, it’s moved to the present tense, where it remains. It remains: live, real, and in the forefront of his conscious mind. There is much in the way of human life and remains being tossed aside in this poem.


Featured image is Basra’s ‘Highway of Death – labelled for non-commercial reuse on Google.

Further links:

“How soldiers deal with the job of killing” – BBC News 2011:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-13687796

An interesting, relevant article in the Atlantic on the potential consequences of soldiers being tasked to undertake police work:

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/01/asking-our-soldiers-to-do-police-work-why-it-can-lead-to-disaster/251380/

Somebody has put together a really decent YouTube clip for teaching this poem. I don’t usually bother with video to support the poems, but this is worth it. It’s 8 minutes long and is taken from Armitage’s The Not Dead:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DHWqppktFo

A beautiful, language-rich analysis of Remains has already been written by Mark Roberts, here: https://markrobertsteach.wordpress.com/2017/01/24/remains-by-simon-armitage-a-guide-aqa-power-conflict-poetry/

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