In the first of a new series of close readings, Hilary Menos unpacks the poem ‘Incredible’ by Simon Armitage
After the first phase, after the great fall
between floorboards into the room below,
the soft landing, then standing one-inch tall
within the high temple of table legs,
or one-inch long inside a matchbox bed . . .
And after the well-documented wars:
the tom-cat in its desert camouflage,
the spider in its chariot of limbs,
the sparrow in its single-seater plane . . .
Simon Armitage’s poem ‘Incredible’ was inspired by the 1957 American science fiction film The Incredible Shrinking Man, or perhaps Richard Matheson’s 1956 novel The Shrinking Man on which that film was based. In terms of plot, the protagonist (Scott in the film, Carey in the book) is out on a boat trip when he is enveloped by a strange mist. He starts to shrink. At first this provokes taunts from local youths, then it causes friction within his marriage and family, and then it begins to threaten his life. At just seven inches tall he is attacked by a sparrow in his own garden; later he has a battle with his family cat, and then fights off a large spider with a pin. And he continues to shrink.
Armitage inhabits the story as narrator, in the first person singular, though that only becomes completely clear in the last three lines of the poem. The poem is in (broadly) free verse, with (mostly) five beats to the line, and has no specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. It has five stanzas of five, four, eight, one and five lines (if a stanza can be one line long – I guess it can).
At the outset Armitage introduces a Biblical feel, the ‘great fall’ evoking the fall from grace, the event in the Bible when Adam and Eve are forced to leave the Garden of Eden because they have sinned against God. He continues the evocation of the spiritual throughout the poem with the use of words like ‘temple’, ‘dominium’, and ‘cathedral’, and with “each needle’s eye / became the next cathedral door, flung wide”, which refers to the belief that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. We are clearly located in a spiritual, if not quite a religious, space.
Armitage is so good at changes of tone – look at the lulling, long syllabled first two lines, with the lovely alliteration of first, phase, fall, and floorboards, and the magisterial “great fall”, and the shift to the snappy and choppy “one inch long” inside a “matchbox bed”
The poem may not use any particular rhyme scheme but this doesn’t mean there’s no attention paid to sound – quite the contrary. There is occasional full rhyme – fall / tall, balloon / moons, resist / exist – but much of the joy is in the half rhyme, which is by turn playful – kept on / headlong, molecule / balls, temple / table – and emphatic – scale / smile, then / bone. Armitage is so good at changes of tone – look at the lulling, long syllabled first two lines, with the lovely alliteration of first, phase, fall, and floorboards, and the magisterial “great fall”, and the shift to the snappy and choppy “one inch long” inside a “matchbox bed”. And so good at matching the sense of the language with the sound – the long, stretchy resonance of neutrinos “dawned and bloomed”, or the brittle clacky sounds of yardsticks / pit-props / buckled.
Armitage is a master of the concentrated image. His descriptions of the cat, the spider, the sparrow, the “high temple of table legs” are brief, visual and potent. “Earthrise” is the famous photograph of Earth taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission; it has been described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”, and it widens the scope of the poem, drawing us into the universal. The phrase “every atom ballooned” makes our narrator’s shrinking active and visible, almost visceral, as does the image of molecules rising as billiard balls and passing as moons. When we find ourselves down among the neutrinos we know we are now operating at a sub-atomic level and firmly in the realm of quantum physics, and as “yardsticks, like pit props, buckled and failed” we know that the whole damn mine – the classical laws of physics, the structure of the Newtonian universe, rationality, everything we take for – is falling in.
So, for me, the poem is partly about the limits of our knowledge; if laws of science cease to apply, and we have nothing tangible to hold on to, what do we have left? The film falls back on God as an answer; at the end Scott realises that, no matter how small he becomes, he will still matter because God knows he exists. The original book doesn’t do this: Carey realises that while he will continue to shrink he will not disappear, as he originally feared, and his epiphany comes when he realises, “If nature existed on endless levels, so also might intelligence.” Armitage is clearly with the book on this – what remains is consciousness, a kind of “I think, therefore I am” awareness of self.
Armitage is a master of the concentrated image
Much of Armitage’s output tends towards the boyish and wise-cracky but this poem doesn’t – the mood is serious from the get-go, and only briefly veers towards the light-hearted in the wars with cat, sparrow and spider, and it’s an odd sort of humour – funny for us, but life and death to the shrinking man. I find myself coming back, also, to the phrase “well-documented”, which hits a wry tone, hinting of war-weariness and a kind of distanced perspective on war in general.
So … it’s about man’s journey towards an understanding of his place in the cosmos, isn’t it? The poem certainly shows a contrast between the vastness of the universe and the smallness of the individual. But it also asserts the persistence of the individual, and of self-awareness. Might it also – in that many poems are also about the process of writing poetry – be about the near disappearance but ultimate persistence of the lyric ‘I’? Perhaps this is a leap too far. Anyway, this is what I get from this poem – maybe this close(ish) reading will help others get more from it. Let me know if your understanding of it differs from mine, and we’ll add interesting and helpful comments below. Contact us here.
‘Incredible’ was first published in The Guardian in 2001, then in The Universal Home Doctor (2002), and in Armitage’s Selected Poems. Buy The Universal Home Doctor from Faber.