Lit Guides

Remains | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Remains by Simon Armitage

Remains by Simon Armitage is written in the first-person narrative as a monologue that grapples with the themes of war, guilt, conscience, and trauma. The question of the moral dubiety of warfare also arises as an overarching theme throughout the poem. Remains is a free-verse poem as it has no regular meter, and consists of eight stanzas with four lines each, except the last stanza which contains two lines. The first four stanzas are almost anecdotal as the narrator recalls the memory of an incident, while the last four stanzas deal with the guilt and trauma that it resulted in. Despite the flashbacks, almost the entire poem is in the present tense, which helps convey the after-effects of the incident- though it happened in the past, it flashes in the narrator’s mind constantly, as though it is happening on repeat every day. The only line in the past tense is the first one, in order to clarify that it starts with a memory, not a present incident. Armitage uses colloquial, everyday phrasing and vocabulary to create a feeling of closeness between the reader and the poem. There is also symbolism, imagery, and alliteration to form a vivid picture for the readers.

Armitage employs enjambment, caesura, polysyndeton and repetition in the poem. This, along with the uneven sentence structure, produces an erratic flow. This is done to deliver the suspenseful emotion of the poem and the torn and listless mind of the narrator. Armitage was inspired to write a collection of war poetry- of which Remains is a part- after watching a documentary called ‘The Not Dead’ which focused on the lives and memories of ex-soldiers. Unlike several other war poets, Armitage himself has never been to war he writes based on what he perceives from other people’s experiences and states that he hopes to convey ‘a scrap’ of what war veterans have gone through.

Remains | Summary

The poem begins with the speaker recalling an incident where he, along with some other soldiers, was sent to tackle a thief who had been robbing a bank. The looter tried to escape in his vehicle, and it was unknown whether he was armed or not. The narrator and two others all share a similar mindset, so the three of them began shooting immediately. The bullets hit the thief and the speaker was able to see each one rip through his body and take his life- in fact, the bullets pierced a hole so clean that the narrator could see through it to the other side. After about twelve shots to the thief’s body, he was crumpled on the ground with no distinctions between his insides and the outside.

The image was disturbing and painful, full of agony. One of the narrator’s fellow soldiers tosses some of the fallen innards back into the dead thief’s body, and then he is placed into the back of a lorry to be taken away. And that should be the end of the story, but for the narrator, it is not. The splatters of the thief’s blood remain on the street, and the shadow of the incident haunts the narrator every time he is on patrol, for he needs to walk past that area week after week.

Finally, the narrator is at home on his break. But even then, he has no peace. When he blinks, he can see the image of the thief bursting through the doors of the bank. He cannot sleep peacefully, because every time he tries, he recalls the way he did not know if the thief was armed or not. His dreams are full of gory flashbacks, the memory of the thief being torn apart by twelve rounds of bullets- all sent by the narrator and his mates. These recollections disturb the narrator to the point that he turns to alcohol and drugs, in hopes of forgetting his guilt and the picture of the thief’s body. Yet in the end, even the drinks and drugs are not enough to flush the image of the thief out of the narrator’s mind.

Remains | Analysis

Remains | Analysis, Lines 1 – 4

“On another occasion, we get sent out

To tackle looters raiding a bank.

And one of them legs it up the road.

Probably armed, possibly not.”

The title ‘Remains’ represents two things- one is the physical remains, that is, the dead body of the thief. The other is the way that image and memory remains in the narrator’s mind, causing him stress and agony

The first line is in the past tense, indicating that this is a memory of an event. ‘On another occassion’ also leaves the impression that the readers are meeting the narrator mid-conversation, giving it a rather intimate tone. The phrase “legs it up the road” means the looter attempts to escape, and Armitage uses very casual phrasing to increase the authenticity of the poem. It is also key to note that the act of raiding a bank is a crime, as thievery is morally wrong. 

The word ‘probably’ and ‘possibly’ in the fourth line express the narrator’s uncertainty about the thief’s status- whether he carried weapons or not. This is of utmost importance, as it suggests that the thief could have been unarmed, and attacking an unarmed man can churn one’s conscience. Enjambment is used between lines one and two.

Remains | Analysis, Lines 5 – 8

“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”

In Line 5, Armitage uses polysyndeton to describe the number of people who were with the narrator. It is also a key factor that the narrator specifies in all four of these lines that he was not the only one shooting. Hence, the death of the thief is not because of him alone, but his two fellow soldiers, as well. It is almost as though the narrator wants to make it completely clear to the readers that this was not only his doing. However, as we see further in the poem, this fact does not reduce or alter the weight of his trauma.

Remains | Analysis, Lines 9 – 12

“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”

Here, for the first time since the beginning of the poem, the narrator refers to himself individually, using the word ‘I’ rather than ‘we’. Hence the readers can tell that this is where his personal recollection and trauma begins. There is a detailed description of the act of shooting and the injuries it elicits in the thief- especially that of him being “sort of inside out”, which highlights the pain and gore. The phrase ‘as it rips through his life’ represents the bullets killing him, as well as the physical rips it causes in his body- holes through which the narrator can see the other side. 

Remains | Analysis, Lines 13 – 16

“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.”

The narrator himself admits how painful the scene is, which indicates the beginning of his stirred conscience. It is also important to note that it is this particular image- the thief on the ground, dead and covered with blood- that remains in the narrator’s mind for a long time, stopping him from living peacefully. The way he calls his fellow soldier ‘one of his mates’ is once again an example of the colloquial language used by Armitage. Despite describing a graphic situation that not many people have experienced, it is spoken about in an informal way that helps the readers feel closer to the poem. Further, the casual tone of lines 15 and 16 where he describes the tossing of guts and the removal of the body emphasizes how normal the actions are. It is just another part of war – an expected and common sight. This highlights the theme of war. However, judging by the trauma of the narrator, we may assume that though he has seen such sights before, it is his first time being the one to cause the death. 

Remains | Analysis, Lines 17 – 20

“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”

We see the first signs of acknowledged guilt in this stanza. The “not really” signifies that despite the incident concluding and the job being done, the narrator is unable to move on from it.

Armitage uses imagery such as “blood-shadow” to add to the brewing emotion. The word ‘shadow’ in this phrase creates a haunting tone, as though the narrator is literally being followed- which, in his mind, he is. It materialises the narrator’s mental state. The emphasis on him walking over it every week implies that the location triggers the memory in him. However, it goes beyond just the area- even when he returns home, he is unable to forget the image of the dead thief. These are signs of post-war trauma, and one of the many reasons why veterans suffer from PTSD.

Remains | Analysis, Lines 21 – 24

“And he burst again through the doors of the bank.

Sleep, and he’s probably armed, possibly not.

Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds.

And the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out –”

These lines explain that the thief never leaves the narrator’s mind, especially clear when he closes his eyes. We see a repetition of the first stanza here, as he is revisiting the incident- it is inescapable. The reiteration of “probably armed, possibly not” suggests that one of the narrator’s greatest reasons for guilt is that he could have killed an unarmed man. He is still unaware of whether the thief had any weaponry means of protecting himself, and this thought haunts him. The words ‘blink’ and ‘sleep’ are used to show how constant these war flashbacks are- one must sleep every day, and blinking is an unstoppable and natural action. Thus, this shows that the memories are equally unyielding. It is also interesting that the narrator remembers exactly how many rounds of bullets it took to kill the thief- a dozen. Finally, we see that the narrator may have become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Drugs and alcohol usually push one into a different state of mind for the time being, causing them to forget reality. The narrator presumably turned to these substances in hopes of forgetting the thief even for a few moments- in his desperation to live peacefully- but it seems to have failed. The fact that even drugs and alcohol did not help him forget shows just how deeply and painfully the incident struck him.

Remains | Analysis, Lines 25 – 30

“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.”

The final two stanzas are written in one unstopping line- this creates a tone of erratic desperation, as it seems like the narrator is growing more and more anxious and traumatised. We also see imagery- “sun-stunned, sand-smothered, land”– to describe the war field where the shooting took place. Here we may bring up the question of warfare’s moral ambiguity- the narrator is consumed by guilt for killing a possibly unarmed man. However, he was sent to do so by a higher authority, and he was carrying out his duty as a soldier against a thief who was looting. It is difficult to find a right or wrong answer here, but in the end, it is the soldier who lives with the agony. One is led to wonder whether that is fair, or whether a lifetime of guilt is too harsh and unforgiving a punishment for a man who simply carried out the mission he was given in the midst of war. 

The thief is perpetually lodged in the narrator’s mind, meaning he cannot stop thinking about it at any time, and whenever he closes his eyes he can only see the image of the dead body “dug behind enemy lines” which once again forms the image of a war zone. The use of the term “six feet under” is colloquial, referring to how corpses are buried in graveyards, six feet below the ground. The blood here- ‘bloody’ life and hands- is symbolic of grief, trauma and most of all, guilt. The thief being “near to the knuckle” indicates that the poet feels that he is always in arm’s reach. The blood is a physical representation and reminder of the fact that the narrator had killed a man. “His bloody life” refers to the thief being dead- especially the way he died, from bleeding to death of bullet injuries- while “bloody hands” refers to the narrator’s hands being covered with the blood of the one he killed. Having ‘blood on one’s hands’ means being responsible for someone’s death. This strong conclusion solidifies the narrator’s guilt, as he is consumed by sorrow and agony and unable to wash the image of the thief’s body from his mind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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