Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'In The Attic' By Andrew Motion

In the Attic

Even though we know now
your clothes will never
be needed, we keep them,
upstairs in a locked trunk.

Sometimes I kneel there,
holding them, trying to relive
time you wore them, to remember
the actual shape of arm and wrist.

My hands push down between
hollow, invisible sleeves,
hesitate, then lift
patterns of memory:

a green holiday, a red christening,
all your unfinished lives
fading through dark summers,
entering my head as dust

Andrew Motion in 2009
Andrew Motion in 2009
Andrew Motion’s disconsolate poem of loss and mourning shadows our own zeitgeist in its four, pared back and simple quatrains: how many times will this act of silent oblation before the memory of the dead have been enacted over the last twelve months?

The process of grieving is unfinished business; it endures, as the poet’s self-lacerating lines imply, in the rehearsal of rituals like these – a listless forage through a box of memory to re-embody the lost figure, to conjure ‘the actual shape of arm and wrist’. The need, for many, to hold the physical tokens of a life close is reinforced by an unwillingness to let them go, as though they were the only means of preserving a connection.

The poet’s free use of alliteration in the first, and early in the second, stanza, is deliberately tortuous; it inscribes pain to the undertaking and prepares the ground for the irony of failure. An intense, reflective longing embodied in an act of mimesis is as hollow as an invisible sleeve. That the narrator’s mind’s eye fails to recreate the landscape of the past beyond the vague occlusions of a ‘green holiday, a red christening’, yields a stark truth: memories cloud over time and loved ones recede into the dark.

The suggestion of lives unlived, perhaps foreshortened, renders the final line of Motion’s poem heartbreaking in its powerlessness to connect.

‘In the Attic’ is taken from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion.