By Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times, 19 April 2020

It was the evening of the supermoon earlier this month. The poet laureate, Simon Armitage, and his family took one of their regular walks from their home near Huddersfield.

As usual, they passed a cemetery, but this time there was something different. Police incident tape draped the entrance, the gate was padlocked and then they saw, standing by an open grave and leaning on a spade, an “astronaut in a hazmat suit”.

“It was really alarming to look sideways and see this figure. And he — I assume it was a he — was the only person in the graveyard. It was one of those moments when it completely brought it home to you. And it was right there, staring back at us in this very disarming silence, this incredibly still evening.”

Back home, he talked about the scene with his wife, Sue, and their daughter, Emmeline. Over the next week, Armitage, 56, struggled to distil this encounter with the pandemic into a poem. Finally, in 83 words entitled Still Life, he succeeded. “The poem is full of ambiguities. The ambulance is about emergency and crisis, but also there’s a rush for help and hope. Also the title says clearly that what was going on in the cemetery was life that had been stilled.”

The poem also suggests the eerie feeling of distance from one another that now shrouds our lives. “I was thinking about all the enforced distances, places you can’t walk, people you can’t talk to. I don’t know whether this man was burying somebody or digging a grave, but there was nobody else in attendance.”

Armitage knows a number of people who have had the virus and recovered, but this scene was a reminder of those who do not. He sees the work as an essential part of his role as poet laureate.

The most difficult thing about the poem was the supermoon. “I couldn’t make that happen with the moon; I couldn’t make the moon empathise with what was happening. It just seemed so disconnected.” He tried many adjectives — shameless, flagrant, indifferent — before landing on one that captured its seeming callousness — “cold-blooded”.

Still Life
By Simon Armitage

The local cemetery’s
out of bounds,
entrance draped

with a candystripe helix
of incident tape,
chain and padlock

wreathing the gate.
We’ll edge past
on a path that slaloms

the hawthorn hedge,
exchange stares
with the astronaut

in a hazmat suit
and visor and mask
and over-shoes

and white leather gloves,
propped on his spade
at an open grave.

The universe
breathless and
muggy tonight,

a cold-blooded moon,
marooned villages
under the hill,

a stagnant dusk
that parts to allow
an ambulance through.

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