In Mother, Any Distance and Climbing My Grandfather, these modern poets explore the ways that relationships change over time. In Mother, Any Distance, a new relationship is being forged as the child seeks independence by moving out but contemplates the ways that the relationship will stay the same in its love and support. In Climbing My Grandfather, Waterhouse considers the ways that understanding one another can change over time and, particularly, the way that understanding across the generations can develop.
Simon Armitage uses an extended metaphor of distance to suggest the potential gulf that can open up between parent and child when the child leaves home. He describes “acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.” These are both big open spaces which could seem intimidating, particularly the “prairies” which have connotations of adventure and discovery, of exploring a new frontier. This suggests the excitement with which a new chapter of one’s life can start. However, he also uses far smaller measurements, like the “one-hundredth of an inch” that his mother measures towards the end. This in particular could suggest her desperation in trying to hold on as much and as long as she can, stretching the relationship to its breaking point.
In Climbing My Grandfather, Waterhouse also uses an extended metaphor, this time of climbing, to explore the distance between people and how the gap of understanding can be bridged. His opening line “I decide to do it free / without a net” suggests that this could be dangerous, as opening up to others often involves become vulnerable and giving up your ‘safety net.’ As he ascends, and becomes closer to his grandfather, he passes overhangs, “scars” and “screed”. The climbing vocabulary is used to create a visual image of the grandfather, for example his “screed cheek” perhaps pockmarked, wrinkled, no longer smooth. It also works as a metaphor for the difficulties he has in developing the closeness in their relationship.
Both relationships experience moments of tension in these poems. For Armitage it is the “breaking point, where something / has to give.” By separating the final clause onto its own line Armitage draws our attention to this taut moment when the relationship seems to hang in the balance, the mother and son pulling away from one another. The semantic field of space exploration also contributes as he “space walks” through the attic with his mother as the “base” to which he can always return. This demonstrates the adventure and ambition the speaker feels about moving on with their life, but it also has an undercurrent of the dangers associated with space travel. For Waterhouse, the moment of tension comes half-way when he comes across the “glassy ridge of a scar.” This could be a literal scar, perhaps a memory of serious injury, or a psychological one. Either way, Waterhouse does not probe further but “gently” moves on. The wound here is already healed and to reopen it would be simply too painful – and not benefit their new relationship. This demonstrates a kind consideration, and sensitivity in Waterhouse’s approach, understanding that the relationship must be on terms beneficial to both.
Both poems, too, have similarly optimistic endings. Waterhouse finds his way to the heart and mind of his grandfather, watching the “clouds” and “birds” that symbolise his thoughts and soul. There is a sense of peace, which contrasts the effort of the rest of the poem, as Waterhouse simply lies “knowing/the slow pulse of his good heart.” The final line tells us that the effort has been worth it, and he feels a sense of satisfaction, even completion, in his journey to understanding. In Mother, Any Distance, the speaker has found their freedom as they “fall or fly”. Although this is a conditional, ending the poem on “fly” with its open syllable is suggestive of possibility and hope rather than a plummeting fall. Perhaps the most important line of the poem might be “Anchor. Kite.” This metaphor, with the imagery of flying that is echoed throughout the poem, represents the son as flying free, seeking – and finding – the adventure he seeks. “Anchor” in this context seems caring and loving. His mother is his anchor tethering him to safety – she is the safety net that he needs to enable him to take the risks he wants without fearing they will be too much for him. The caesura, rather than separating them, functions as the string between the two, an almost invisible connection that binds them together.
Waterhouse similarly uses the form and structure of his poem to represent his ideas. The free verse and long enjambed sentences reflect the way that getting to know one another and form relationships is an ongoing process, eternal as mountains seem, and that there is no one ‘path’ to take but everyone must find their own way up. The sentences become longer towards the end as he becomes more determined, and more able to find the closeness with his grandfather than he desires.
For both poets, the relationships with their mother/grandfather as not simple or one-sided. Rather, they are represented in a way that reflects the complexity of relationships, moving together and then apart, then back again. They explore the effort that is required to maintain close relationships, and the benefits of doing so: a warm, loving and secure mutual relationship that enables us to flourish.