Much of Tammy Armstrong’s new collection draws its images and scenes from southwestern Nova Scotia, especially Shelburne County, which no previous poetry has reflected and delved into so richly. Armstrong’s current residence is Shag Harbour, a seaside village about a three-hour drive from Halifax. In opening up her senses to her surroundings, she has built a book of mist and rock, foxes and coy-wolves, nor’easters and blueberry barrens, and the ocean “teething good loam and lawn into its soft, eroding throat.” Her poems also absorb 21st-century complexities and dramatize how village life connects to the global village. Only after reading the book three times did I Google “year of the metal rabbit” and learn that 2011 was the most recent example of that year type; while I leave it up to students of the Chinese Zodiac to investigate the title’s significance, Armstrong’s reference is just one of many factors giving her work a cosmopolitan reach.
Her vision and language aren’t only attuned to the spawnings and structures of nature; we don’t travel far in her book before coming across sights such as cars nearly colliding on a highway, a fish-bait plant burning and pollution spreading. “The Vestas: Pubnico Point Wind Farm” describes 17 wind-towers, each one “named for a woman in the life of the wind backer / who sells their collective work to a Florida conglomerate.” Wittily, the poem contrasts “wrecked weather” and “dissected skies” withthe “giantesses” of turbines trying to corral and utilize nature’s turbulence. “Shells, Twigs, Vertebrae, Jaw” is another poem where non-human phenomena mix with the manufactured; oaks, robins and trumpet vines co-exist with sandwich bags, half-mirrors and quartered telephone-poles. Early on, Armstrong notes “the new cellphone tower / staked to Cape Island” and “antennas, dark with contraption,” and the poem ends:
The neighbours raise [their cellphones] toward the sun
scanning slow across the sky
between things, beyond things
for half-caught signals.
Just the sort of thing that drowns out a bird
singing to all that over-handled air.
Even in a village far from dense human populations, technology makes the very air seem crowded, crisscrossed with our busy communications. Human threats to the natural world also give troubled tones and awareness of violence to the ekphrastic “Hare on the Tracks” and to “Black Market Love Charm,” with its snap-necked hummingbirds sold in San Diego’s SmokEnjoy Hookah Lounge.
Though the Shelburne County poems glimpse human work and leisure, their speakers seem more observant than socially involved. The poems include sharply etched images of neighbours: “From the stoop, I watched the neighbour—/ gone tooth and scruff sometime over the past year / a touch of bird about him now / flocked on some upper bough of thought.” One winter day another neighbour carries snared rabbits over his shoulder, but the poet is “afraid he’ll want to talk,” and after she takes the initiative by asking, “Are those rabbits?” she feels foolish for having done so. Without making her relative newness to the village an overt theme, Armstrong implies the position of someone who has settled in after decades of living elsewhere, distinct from those whose roots in the area go back generations. At one point the poet seems to write revealingly of herself as a “shade and corner thing.” Elsewhere, however, the pronoun “we” often overshadows “I” and suggests a loving partner at her side.
In contrast to the collection’s southwestern Nova Scotia emphasis are poems indebted to times and experiences in Maine, British Columbia, Colorado, New Mexico, Louisiana and Georgia. A longer discussion of the book might trace similarities and dissimilarities between the Shag Harbour environs and distant locations remembered and evoked. A longer review might also explore in-depth how Armstrong, complementing her precise imagery of the seen and heard, also writes transformatively, plunging under the surfaces of things. In her imagination’s wilder reaches, she finds a “lamp sealed safe within [a humpback whale’s] smooth folded brain”; an interior voyage into the patterns of blue willowware china becomes possible; and under huge mounds of road salt “poets might be interred / beside the bones of slithery greyhounds” (discovering that comic image, I thought At last, the great Canadian poem about road salt!).
Armstrong is attuned to both the powers and limits of words. She hints at how much of existence eludes the reach of our language: “Today, the ocean steeped a colour we could not name. / Yesterday, it was mussel hinge, and later today, perhaps moon seep.” (At such a moment Armstrong exercises multiple-metaphor experimentation reminiscent of Don Domanski, one of the four poets she concentrated on for her doctoral dissertation exploring “animal presence” in Atlantic Canadian poetry.) For one poem she’s picked as an epigraph lines from Dermot Healy about hares that “afford us a break / From the language that would explain them.” With word-compoundings reminiscent of Hopkins and Marianne Moore, Armstrong tries to translate non-human sounds; she hears petrels’ “chatter-nag,” robins “rain-warble” and grackles’ “spit-fizz”—as well as seeing a hare’s “stutter-twitch” and a river’s “bright-work.” She stretches conventions when she concentrates her language in fresh ways. An adjective becomes a noun in “shapeless forests of fog and dim”; a noun becomes a verb when clear water could “island each one of us.” A caterpillar’s “prophetic kink bristles parable,” a quality of light is experienced as “the day’s glare-whiteness,” and a fire “puzzles soot peonies into the air.” (I get lost, however, with “the toad plodding through its cotton anniversary.”)
To conclude an appealingly detailed list poem titled with a phrase of Elizabeth Bishop’s, “Many Things Filled with the Intent of Being Lost,” Armstrong desires inclusiveness: “Let’s keep it all / to have more selves that we need / and no thin places between our stories.” When she writes in another poem, “No more less-than, nearly, almost, otherwise. / Those were last year’s words,” she questions hesitation and celebrates exuberance. With lines ranging from burnished and compact to loping and expansive, along with lush and percussive sounds, propulsive rhythms and intricate sentences, Year of the Metal Rabbit is driven by perceptual curiosity and linguistic energy. Armstrong’s most adventurous book of poems so far, it should make many of her long-time readers anticipate her future poetry with happy, optimistic expectations.
Tammy Armstrong has published two novels and four collections of poetry. Her first collection of poetry, Bogman’s Music, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award. Recent work has won the iYeats International Poetry Prize, and Prairie Fire’s Bliss Carman Poetry Prize. In 2018, she was a finalist for the National Magazine Awards. She lives in southwestern Nova Scotia.
- Publisher: Gaspereau Press (2019)
- Language: English
- Paperback: 109 pages
- ISBN-13: 9781554472031
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Brian Bartlett, a New Brunswicker by birth, has been in Halifax/K'jipuktuk since 1990. He has published many collections and chapbooks of poetry, including The Watchmaker's Table, The Afterlife of Trees and Wanting the Day: Selected Poems, as well as a selection of his prose on poetry. His two previous books of nature writing will be followed by a third, Daystart Songflight: A Morning Journal, from Pottersfield Press in the fall. He has also edited selections of many poets, including Don Domanski, Robert Gibbs, William Bauer and Dorothy Roberts, and Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan.