Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Simon Armitage and a Summary of 'Remains'
'Remains' is a war poem from Simon Armitage focusing on the experiences and feelings of a soldier involved in the shooting of a looter.
It is a dramatic monologue, the speaker looking back in time describing the incident and then reflecting on their personal response to the shooting of an individual who may have been armed, maybe not.
- The reader isn't given specifics—there's no mention of which war the soldier is part of for example. And it's not clear if the shooter is actually a soldier. At no point in the poem is the reader told the person shooting is a soldier.
- It's known that the poet wrote 'Remains' following the war in Iraq and subsequent testimony from soldiers experiencing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). One in particular, Guardsman Tromans, a British soldier who served in Iraq in 2003, was interviewed by the poet.
- The language (diction) is informal, colloquial, as if the soldier were in natural conversation. In this sense, the poem is similar to Thomas Hardy's poem 'The Man He Killed'.
- The form of the poem is formal, eight mostly neat free verse stanzas (quatrains) with one couplet underlining. However, the syntax (the way clauses and grammar 'ride' the form) produces undercurrents and hesitation which brings a sense of instability and uncertainty. This mirrors some of the symptoms of illness so many war veterans experience.
- The title itself, 'Remains', could be seen as a pun, used by the poet to mean human remains and the psycho-emotional wound that stays with the individual soldier.
- The main theme of the poem is the psychological effect of war—trauma, remorse and response.
Poetry and conflict have been closely linked for millennia—think of Homer's Iliad for example (and Michael Longley's 'Ceasefire' poem, directly inspired). In the first World War, poems by Wilfred Owen and others helped establish the horrific nature of the battlefield.
'Remains', whilst clearly a poem about conflict, highlights the personal experience of an ordinary 'squaddie' with the emphasis on inner psychological reaction, the ending reminiscent of the fifth scene in Shakespeare's play Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth repeatedly attempts to wash off imaginary or real bloodstains from her hands ('Out damned spot'), after her involvement in the killing of Duncan.
Both metaphorically reflect guilt, emotional disturbance and a distressed conscience.
Simon Armitage published 'Remains' in the book The Not Dead, 2008. It was also read out during a documentary of the same name the poet made for Channel 4 in 2007.
'Remains' by Simon Armitage
On another occasion, we got sent out
to tackle looters raiding a bank.
And one of them legs it up the road,
probably armed, possibly not.
Well myself and somebody else and somebody else
are all of the same mind,
Read More From Owlcation
so all three of us open fire.
Three of a kind all letting fly, and I swear
I see every round as it rips through his life –
I see broad daylight on the other side.
So we’ve hit this looter a dozen times
and he’s there on the ground, sort of inside out,
pain itself, the image of agony.
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.
End of story, except not really.
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
and he bursts again through the doors of the bank.
Sleep, and he’s probably armed, and possibly not.
Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.
And the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out –
he’s here in my head when I close my eyes,
dug in behind enemy lines,
not left for dead in some distant, sun-stunned, sand-smothered land
or six-feet-under in desert sand,
but near to the knuckle, here and now,
his bloody life in my bloody hands.
Line-by-Line Analysis of 'Remains'
The informal opening line is spoken by someone representing a group or number of other people—we got sent out—as if they are already in the middle of explaining their involvement in an event or routine or job.
The reader has no idea what that specific job might be but is given a strong clue in the second line, which dynamically energises this first stanza. This person is either a member of the police or security force or army and the situation potentially is extremely serious. Enjambment, when a line runs on into the next without punctuation yet maintaining the sense, helps build momentum.
All of a sudden we're plunged into the drama. Because the speaker is talking as if in conversation with a third party, the leap seems natural enough, and the language used is colloquial British (local, familiar, streetwise) . . . legs it up the road . . . means to run off, which further reinforces the idea that the speaker is an ordinary person, an everyday individual.
The fourth line reinforces the seriousness of the situation. The looter running away could be armed, with stick, knife, sword, machete, gun in hand?
Probably . . . possibly adds some uncertainty and tension. And that word looters certainly has a heavy quality to it—looters are breaking the law through thieving—and is associated with riots and war. If you're an innocent bystander caught up in a horrible violent and dangerous situation not of your own making, that's one thing, but if you're given the label of looter then everything changes.
The first person speaker is together with others but doesn't want to name them or give any hint as to identity—perhaps it's safer and legally cleaner not to. The reader only knows there are three individuals and they're all as one when it comes to deciding what to do.
For good or bad they all shoot at the person, the suspected looter, running off up the road. We can only assume (and hope) that the shooters are not policemen, for what kind of police force has a shoot first and ask questions later policy?
These three people must be soldiers; they're in a war zone.
The last line of this second stanza repeats the collective act of shooting, but the language changes subtly . . . letting fly . . . to attack or give free rein to. Plus the first person speaker I is seen for the first time in a poignant and I swear.
Enjambment again, between stanzas, carrying on the first person near confessional tone. The speaker is so engaged in the shooting that he believes he sees every round—each bullet leaving the gun—and entering the victim's body, here given the word life which suggests so much more than mere flesh and bone.
The imagery becomes more graphic, the emotion building despite the still plain yet dynamic language and matter-of-fact tone. Daylight is seen—are the bullets literally opening up the victim's body? Or has the victim fallen, creating more light?
Either way the scene is harrowing, made even more surreal by the conversational nature of the narrative. So . . .
The looter is riddled with bullets and lies on the ground, a mess. The speaker can't tell inside from outside, so torn is the flesh.
The previous stanza ends with a comma, indicating a slight pause as the soldiers look down at the looter, a male, who is pain itself—little wonder about the agony following such a barrage of flying hot metal.
Almost cheerily, as if a neighbour is clearing out the garden, another of the soldiers puts the looter's intestines and bowels (guts are the stomach organs or entrails) back where they belong, then the body is taken away by truck.
The language in this fourth stanza reflects the as yet unaffected attitude of the soldier—he is simply doing his job, with his mates, getting on with the task of keeping the streets peaceful and clean.
The use of the verb tosses signifies an almost couldn't care less approach, like tossing an item on a fire casually for example. And the last line contains carted which suggests that an animal is being loaded up for disposal. A lorry is British English for truck.
All in all a sorry end for the victim who we can only assume was a poor man unable to stop himself from taking money out of a ruined bank building.
The first line of the fifth stanza is a turning point in the poem. With the looter dead the incident might be considered closed, done with, sorted. The soldiers by shooting this man have restored peace and kept the street safe. Let's all move on.
But the speaker, the guy with the gun, can't move on. In physical terms the logic is clear. Bullets fetch blood and plenty of it. In this case the looter's blood stains the street—note the wording of blood-shadow as if the dead man is still alive with a shadow intact—and it so happens that the same soldier walks over it week after week on patrol.
The last line jumps in time and space to the soldier's home, enjoying a spell of leave (holiday or time off). Not only is there an abrupt shift of zone and geography, the reader is suddenly right there with the speaker's eyes, blinking. In the blink of an eye - in a flash, in a millisecond.
Enjambment again in evidence as the sixth stanza opens with the soldier's psychological experience to the fore. He's revisiting, reliving the scenario in his mind, the looter again 'seen' running out of the bank.
Even when asleep the speaker thinks of whether the looter was armed or not. If armed perhaps that would be a good excuse for the killing; if not then more guilt might be the outcome. Who wants to shoot an unarmed person?
In his dreams the looter is still torn apart by the bullets, loads of bullets. The soldier speaker can't escape the trauma. The single sentences, end-stopped for emphasis, underline his dilemma.
Drugs and alcohol can't alleviate the pressure . . . burst/torn/flush . . . all active verbs bringing home the event with avengeance.
There's a confession. The soldier still has the looter in his head, lodged in his mind, alive and affecting his psyche.
This is the devastating result of the shooting—there's no forgetting the victim who was gunned down unceremoniously and treated in such a way, without dignity or a known burial. he was simply killed and then someone else disposed of the body.
Note the length of line 27 with stretched, alliterative phrases and full rhyme with the last line, land/sand.
Just a brief pause between the final quatrain and end couplet. What is past isn't forgotten or shrugged off as just part of the job, part of being a soldier in a foreign land.
Being near to the knuckle means close to being unacceptable, being uncomfortable—the looter's death won't go away, it remains. The blood is a symbol of life but in this poem it also relates strongly to death.
So it is that the soldier has to bear his cross, has to find a way of dealing with his mental distress. The image is of bloody hands (as Lady Macbeth had in Shakespeare's play Macbeth—she couldn't get rid of the stain of murder and was psychologically disturbed, repeatedly rubbing her hands saying 'Out damn spot').
The word bloody means to be associated with blood but it is also a British swear word, an expletive commonly used to reinforce feelings of anger or disgust.
Poetic Devices in 'Remains'
Where two or more similar sounding consonants are close together in a line. For example:
sun-stunned, sand-smothered land
Similar sounding vowels close together in a line:
A pause in a line, either through punctuation or natural wording, causing a pause for the reader. For example:
probably armed, possibly not
When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, or a stanza end, maintaining the sense. For example, between stanzas 2 and 3:
and I swear
I see every round as it rips through his life -
Words that rhyme or near rhyme within the poem, bringing texture, connection and echoes for the reader. The fifth stanza for example:
Repeated words reinforce routine and feeling.
somebody else and somebody else
week after week
When the letter s begins words close together, bringing a sharp hissing feel:
- 'Remains' Annotated Poem - English - Stuvia US
- Thain, Marion. “AN ‘UNCOMFORTABLE INTERSECTION’: THE MEETING OF CONTEMPORARY URBAN AND RURAL ENVIRONMENTS IN THE POETRY OF SIMON ARMITAGE.” Worldviews, vol. 5, no. 1, Brill, 2001, pp. 58–79.
- Why I love…Verbal Questioning for 'Remains' by Simon Armitage @AQA Power and Conflict – susansenglish (wordpress.com)
- Shakespeare's Macbeth, Act V Scene I
© 2022 Andrew Spacey