In both Tony Harrison’s poem’s “Bookends” and “Long Distance 2” the main idea of the poems follow the relationship between the three people in his family: him, his father and his dead mother. The poems concern the loss of his mother, and how both he and his father grieve over her, and how they try to accept and deal with her death in very different ways. Harrison also conveys the strained relationship he has with his father, which was held together by his mother before she died.
This comes across very strongly in “Bookends” where he uses the title as imagery in the form a simile to depict the differences between his father and himself. They are “like book ends”, they “sit, sleep, stare”, facing away from each other, and never seeing eye to eye. When Harrison refers to the “books” which separate them, the books represent Harrison’s education, which his father always resented. This was due to his belief that his son the “scholar” would be led into the illusion that he was in a higher class or rank than his father who was “worn out on poor pay”. His father believed you were born into a certain class, and that you should seek a profession and education within that class.
Another image portrayed in “Bookends” is that of his mother and the “apple pie” which they are “chewing”. It is as though they are “chewing” over the death of Harrison’s mother, ruminating rather than enjoying it, because it was the “last apple pie” she ever cooked. It is not pleasurable because the pie represents the mother, so it is as though they are eating the memory of her. Also the word “chewing” has a very dull and labouring feel to it, which reflects the scene of Harrison and his father, left reminiscing over the last gift given to them by his mother. The only reason they can share it is because she was the one who baked it – they could not share or create anything together.
The idea of an apple pie is that of a warming, homely, thing that brings people together. It is something that can be shared, which gives the sense of a family or a community. The mother was what kept them together. She was vital, and without her there’s nobody there to tell them they’re “alike”. So now they “don’t try” to “talk much”, because all they have in common is the sense of loss, and now she’s not there anymore there is no reason to try and get along.
This sense of grievance continues in “Long Distance 2”. But it concentrates more on how Harrison’s father deals with the loss, and how he denies the reality of his wife’s death. This is shown when even though Harrison’s mother was “already two years dead”, his father would still keep a routine of keeping “her slippers warming by the gas”, and continued to “renew her transport pass” along with putting “hot water bottles” on “her side” of the bed. We feel a sense of pity for Harrison’s father and his inability to accept his wife’s death.
All these habits are because she is never coming back. Another image that shows us that he can’t let go of her is that he is under the delusion that he “knew” she had just “popped out to get the tea”. This would have been a routine thing for her to do; so everyday he would await the familiar sound of her key “scrape in the rusted lock” as she came back with “tea” (dinner). He would have felt this everyday, a sense of anticipation at her return, which ingrains the sense of daily loss, and shows us that he used to rely on her for food. It also shows us that he associated a certain sound with her returning home, which was a memory he would be waiting and listening out for but that he will now never hear.
Both “Bookends” and “Long Distance 2” derive from the death of the mother and how this affects both Harrison and his father, but this is where they also differ. “Bookends” shows the difference between Harrison and his father, and how they deal with her death together and how it affects their relationship directly after his mother’s death. But “Long Distance 2” concentrates much more on the effects of her death on the father two years later. He is still “raw” over the loss of his wife, and two years has done nothing to ease the pain.
The structure and rhythm of “Bookends” and “Long Distance 2” is irregular and awkward at times. I think Harrison intended this so as to emphasis the sense of her sudden death and the irregularity and instability of their lives afterwards. “Bookends” has 8 verses and 16 lines, with a continuation of rhyming couplets until verse 7. It has a simple structure, which is interrupted at the end very abruptly. Line seven summarises the whole poem without any explanation. It’s rhythm and rhyme are completely different to the rest of the poem. It is very powerful, and is directed by Harrison at his father as a statement, showing exactly how much this loss has affected him.
“Your life’s all shattered into smithereens”, it has long sounds and syllables, which drag on, unlike the short abrupt and explosive monosyllables in the first 6 verses. Harrison uses vowel sounds to create a long and continuous movement along with many long “Ss” and “Ls” to make this line stand out. It continues the sense that life is never going to be the same again, that his father has no hope at patching it all together, because it’s “shattered” like shards of glass that have been smashed into tiny pieces.
Like his life, it is all broken up. The last verse is a long verse, with 3 lines in it, and it is a statement of explanation for the differences between him and his father. All the other lines in the poem have 9-10 syllables, but the last one has 11 syllables, with the word “books” repeated 3 times, which is the extra thing between them, Harrison’s “books”. This is a metaphor for his education and the tension between them. It also goes back to the title, which sums up the poem.