Guest Review: Woodward on Armstrong
Catherine Woodward reviews
by Tammy Armstrong
Tammy Armstrong is a well travelled poet; it was a month’s stint in Iceland, spent trekking through the country’s incredible landscape, which provoked her latest collection.
The Scare in the Crow, Armstrong’s fourth book of poetry, confronts human pain through the distilling lens of nature and vice versa. The landscape Armstrong covers is a blend of Iceland and North America. Her poems weave an evocative fabric, these places come in clear as a bell, the occasional line stinging in its exactitude: ‘the oxblood fields of blueberry and vetch’ (‘Canoe Lessons’) ‘toward the driftwood church/and the latching of bright salt’ (‘Here: Soft-footed’). The human trials to be distilled are many but predominantly the deaths of friends and relatives and the pain of failed relationships.
I was surprised and impressed by the delicacy with which Armstrong handles this confrontation. Armstrong’s humans and animals are not stark counterpoints; her two worlds are integral for discovering one another and for appeasing a kind of inner turmoil within both. Humans and animals are players in each other’s dramas; throughout the collection they are integrated until they can be properly brought to bear upon each other. In fact nature barely figures in some of the poems. The discovery taking place in The Scare in the Crow is patient and quiet; suffering is evident on both sides, with a constancy of tone which makes Armstrong’s poems personal and deeply cutting. This equal treatment of man and nature is pleasingly unconventional.
Crows (and ravens – the two birds seem to be symbolically equal here) appear at the tensest confrontations between man and his world, between the known and the unknown, they are the mascots of animality, that unknown so particularly imposing to man. Armstrong has taken on a challenge by making the crow the patron bird of her collection; the crow is of course cumbered with mythical/historical/symbolic weight and only gets heavier which each new literary appearance. Armstrong, however, has handled her burden well. The crow, post-Hughes, is a ‘bubble of anti matter’, out of time and reality, the fulcrum point between something that might be and something that is. Armstrong’s poems reflect this notion of almosts and not-quites; she uses the crow sparingly, among other mysterious natural elements, like the borderlands of water and the middle ground between life and death, to renegotiate the human/animal relation in a dark, illusionary way.
As enjoyable as it is to read this process of discovery, there are elements of Armstrong’s style which hamper this enjoyment. While reading The Scare in the Crow I spent a lot of time trying to assess whether the foibles of Armstrong’s voice were detriments or assets to the book and in the end I couldn’t decide. Armstrong’s voice is strong throughout; everything eventually gives way to it. It would be unjustified to call Armstrong’s voice non-malleable, but it tends to vary only along its own axis. At infrequent points the artifice in this voice is too evident (and the florid title font only cements this impression). I mean artifices such as non-standard punctuation which confer upon the poems an aural but not semantic music, thus drawing attention to the fallacy of the music; phonetically beautiful but cryptic and vaguely referential language which guards the poems as if they were secrets, rather than illuminating the poem by using the difficulty of the language; at times the poems are too firmly linear, guiding the reader to a meaning the way a fable to a moral (examples of the last foible are actually quite rare and many of the linear poems show no sign of evident artifice). These made me too aware of the poet’s manipulating role, but the more I dwelt on them the more these obvious artifices seemed to fit with nature and the human heart: being fickle, jealous, secretive and overabundant to name a few. Nature was making herself known. Non standard punctuation initially peeved me but made me consider the possibilities of new functions for dashes and colons. What initially seemed like oversight or affectation became awareness and sly intelligence. Whether or not this is the case, such intelligence had the effect of drawing me out of Armstrong’s otherwise engrossing country.
Inclusive of these minor, niggling contentions I still found this to be a moving and stylistically intriguing collection. The Scare in the Crow is at its best when Armstrong breaks from linear style and lets narratives or sensations unfold from parts and imaginative connections. ‘Speak Softly, Low One’, Armstrong’s twelve part exploration on death in the family is sincere, effortless and extremely touching, capturing a universal experience in simple terms, which are the best terms. Likewise, the ten part ‘Beauty to the Alligator’s Beast’, which is about the decimation of Florida’s bird population at the hands of the plume trade, captures the guilt of a developing environmentalist in a fascinating transformative voice. This poem dices with hypocrisy, guilt-tripping and human nature, making it highly readable.
The Scare in the Crow is another fine addition to contemporary Canadian poetry, self aware in symbol and voice. The self awareness in the latter is perhaps up for discussion, but I would certainly look forward to such a debate.
Catherine Woodward is a young British poet.