Year of the Metal Rabbit by Tammy Armstrong
(Kentville, NS: Gaspareau Printers & Publishers, 2019, 107 pages, $21.95 CAD)
Tammy Armstrong’s fifth book of poetry, Year of the Metal Rabbit, comprises a series of deeply imagistic illuminations of the human encounter with the natural world and the animals that flit and ghost through it. As the author and her husband, American poet George Moore, reside in rural Nova Scotia, it is not surprising that the specific geographies of the Maritimes figure largely in these poems. Nonetheless, Armstrong’s bioregional focus is not solely limited to the Atlantic Canada; there are poems that travel through the unique ecological terrains of the Prairies, the American Southwest, the Louisiana wetlands.
Countering the current Can-Lit preoccupation with urban pop-culture, Armstrong shamelessly indulges a passion for richly layered natural description: “the bat orchid’s whiskery mouth/its vaulted keel petals, fat as a bottom lip.” While nature poetry has been dismissed as romantic sentimentality, in this moment of heightened ecological crisis our relationships with nature have acquired new importance and valence, as we’ve seen in the prescient work of Elise Partridge, Basma Kavanagh, and Don McKay. Without being overtly political, Armstrong’s ecopoetics probe the dimensions of this foundational and kinetic relationship with nature that “we hardly know.” In “Mole,” “myopic star men” press up against and undermine our urban constellations: “these squatters break ground/below our artless streets, our empty suburbs.”
In an interview with the honest ulsterman, Armstrong reveals her enthusiasm for “thinking animal-human couplings.” Not surprisingly, her verse erodes and makes porous the divide between animal and human. In “Dry Spell, Still,” people take on the attributes of wild fauna:
From the stoop, I watch the neighbour—
gone tooth and scruff sometime over the past year
a touch of the bird about him now
flocked on some upper bough of thought—
One would expect, from the long and storied tradition of lyric nature poetry, that the first-person speaker of Armstrong’s poems is driven into the confrontation with the wild in order to further define and delineate herself. Yet, Armstrong, as the collection’s blurb offers, “give[s] slip to the snares set by lyric and narrative convention” by refusing to adhere to the notion of a singular or knowable self, much less a self that could be unlocked through an encounter with nature. For instance, the poet-speaker in “Sea Break” others her former self as “that girl” of “another time.” Dividing self into the “twoness of she and I,” the speaker then takes this former self “out to where the sand gave way to the under-tow” and drowns her. In a similar vein, the poem “At Daniel’s Head” uses the encounter with “sharp-faced/sickle-winged/terns” to expose the speaker as “an unfinished otherwise, a shade and corner thing” who never sought identification with the flitting terns but sought instead “the unsettled scatter/the stacked thought…”
At a hundred and seven pages of densely descriptive poetry, this collection is no slight, starveling calf, but a finely muscled beast fully deserving of readers’ full attentiveness. Frankly, her work impresses, delights, and astonishes both with its sustained maximalism and its vatic revelation of how “we happen in the gaps/in the stranger places.”
D.S. Stymeist’s The Bone Weir (Frontenac 2016) was shortlisted for the Canadian Author’s Association award for Poetry. He has published widely in both academic and literary magazines. Alongside fending off Crohn’s disease, he teaches at Carleton University. For a number of years, he was president of VerseFest, Ottawa’s international poetry festival.