‘The Manhunt’ ostensibly describes a wife and her views on her partner’s experiences in the military. She explores issues with her partner’s physical and mental health. Originally it was going to be called “Laura’s poem”. The poem is melancholy and uses a lot of striking metaphors to create an image of a man that has been through a great deal of torment, both physical and mental, and is quite changed due to the ordeal. The poem’s title is coincidentally the name of a kids game which almost takes away from the gravitas of the poem. But I think this is deliberate, the implication being that the wife/girlfriend is trying to rediscover her man. To hunt or find the man she fell for. Simon Armitage does a fine job of creating sympathy for the narrator who is obviously very understanding and caring.
Form and Tone
The subject matter of ‘The Manhunt’, which can be read in full here, is a person (who I will assume is a woman, though this is not stated) talking about their partner’s injuries, both physical and mental. Although not stated one would assume that the man the narrator is talking about is in, or was in, the armed services, possibly the RAF. ‘The Manhunt’ is unsurprisingly poignant. It is written in thirteen couplets. There is a vague rhyming pattern to the couplets but this is inconsistent which I think gives the poem a fragmented feel, perhaps this is to represent how their relationship has been? ‘The Manhunt’ contains a lot of the striking imagery that is a hallmark of Armitage’s. The narrator comes across as gentle and supportive.
Analysis of The Manhunt
After the first phase,
after passionate nights and intimate days,
This couplet clearly talks about the early relationship between the narrator and their partner. It champions the time period using positive adjectives such as passionate and intimate.
This, I think, describes her partner “letting her in”. The frozen river referenced here gives the image of a glacier. Perhaps the suggestion is that the stress and worry of her partner’s position in the military has caused deep worry lines like a ravine on his face?
only then would he let me explore
the blown hinge of his lower jaw
This couplet contains a harrowing image of her partner’s lower jaw. Is this a physical description? Has her partner had their jaw physically blown? Or is this a metaphor for a partner that has become increasingly tight-lipped and monosyllabic? Not all men are comfortable talking about their feelings. Perhaps her partner’s jaw hinge doesn’t operate often, preferring instead to keep his emotions inside?
Describing her partner’s collar bone as porcelain has a two-fold meaning. Firstly, we tend to associate porcelain with things that are beautiful, maybe even precious. However, it is a very fragile, easily-broken material. Once again though I would question whether she is talking about an actual injury to the collar of her partner or if it is a metaphor for his wider self?
and mind and attend
the fractured rudder of shoulder-blade,
Throughout ‘The Manhunt’ the narrator uses kind, sympathetic verbs such as mind, tend etc. Although does the word “mind” have a double meaning? It is unlikely, although it would not be beyond the poetic abilities of Armitage to be that clever in his choice of words.
Once again the narrator describes her man using adjectives that have beauty, yet a delicacy. Only in this instance, perhaps she also hints at her partner’s occupation? Mentioning parachutes as a metaphor for his lungs could well be a telling hint as to her partner’s profession, by the end of the poem it is easy to assume that her partner is a military man but could this be a hint as to his specific role within the military? Could he be a pilot?
Only then could I bind the struts
and climb the rungs of his broken ribs,
This couplet is heavy on the double meanings. The comparisons with her man are all manufactured items, rather than organic living things. Could the allusion be that her partner has become mechanical? Perhaps he has an almost robotic mannerism? These items, once again, could be imagined to be part of a plane, so are perhaps another hint as to her man’s vocation.
It is unclear whether the grazed heart is literal or metaphorical, or maybe even both. Later in ‘The Manhunt’ the narrator references a bullet in the chest, but throughout this poem where the metaphor ends and reality begins is often ambiguous.
only then could I picture the scan,
It is revealing that after tending to him and comforting him that she begins to see the bigger picture. Once again the metaphorical and literal are so seamlessly close here that it is impossible to ascertain what is real and what is purely for descriptive purposes.
This on appearances would be describing a physical ailment. But once again there is an air of ambiguity. It is revealed in this couplet that the partner had been shot. The impact of this is compared, rather symbolically to being like the process of childbirth. I think this is the narrator’s way of highlighting the life-changing impact of the wound.
Then I widened the search,
traced the scarring back to its source
When the narrator talks of scarring it is unclear whether she is talking about physical or mental scars. Using phrases like “widening the search” gives this an almost military feel. This device has been used several times in ‘The Manhunt’ and is effective at showing the reader something without actually telling them.
Here we are clearly looking at a metaphor the unexploded mine is clearly a reference to her partner’s brain. This couplet helps to emphasize the emotional impact on the narrator’s partner. This ordeal has been a significant and life-altering event.
every nerve in his body had tightened and closed.
Then, and only then, did I come close.
The “coming close” that is used in this couplet is interesting. What is she coming close to? It’s not made clear from the poem’s content. I think the implication is that the narrator has to work hard and softly cajole sentiment from her partner. It’s as if in order to be close to him, to get him to open up she has to be very sensitive and attentive. It is hard to not feel sorry for the narrator who never complains about what she has to go through, instead shows unrelenting empathy and understanding towards her partner.
About Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage is an English Poet, songwriter, play write and translator hailing from a county in the North of England called Yorkshire. His poetry often contains colloquialisms based on his home town. He usually writes poems about contemporary issues and his work is often informed by his prior life experiences (he used to work as a probation officer). Armitage is a highly decorated poet with many accolades to his name including a CBE.