The Scare in the Crow, by Tammy Armstrong
Reviewed by Jason “Ocean” Dennie
The title of Tammy Armstrong’s fourth collection of published poetry, from Goose Lane Editions certainly offers a hint as to what we can expect inside from this GG Award-nominee. From the opening pages of The Scare in the Crow, it is clear the reader will accompany the poet down some shadowy country roads. Morose and morbid are two apt adjectives that best characterize the tone in these poems. There is very little sunshine throughout her five chapters — a “grotesque menagerie” of dim skies, funerals, formaldehyde, zombies and goitres bleed forth from her pen instead.
The only chinks in her brooding Dickinsonian armour seem to appear in canoe trips up and down the river or when she is out slogging around with her dogs. The poem, “Canoe Lessons” is deftly peppered with well-crafted imagery such as the “corrugated river,” “knock-kneed docks,” and the “apologetic stillness of islands.” Natural settings like these are the backdrops that figure predominantly in the book, thought they aren’t situated in the deep wilderness but instead border “homes where nobody comes out — all the rooms beaming lilac television glow.” It is nature revealed along ski trails and shorelines and perhaps deep in big back yards that span acres. Credit is certainly due for attempting to pen a book of moody nature poems, for it isn’t a simple task, and the feel-good sentimentality typically associated with the genre is often ridiculed in the poetry world.
It’s a nearly impossible task to quantify the vagaries of the wilderness, so our dalliances with its outer limits must sometimes serve as a reasonable compromise. Armstrong recognizes this in her poem, “On Renaming Mountains” where her bull moose “offers no allegory.” This recognition of a poet’s limitations, however, finds her exacting very little solace from this half-world of hers. There is not much in the way of conjured emotions in the poems beyond a tranquilized indifference. A case in point is the final piece in the book, entitled “Where it Softened,” which recounts having fallen through thin river ice. One would think that such a traumatic event like this would leave a person with some emotional reaction — surrendering to the drama or some wistful insight into its wider significance. Instead, only a hint of this leaks out when she writes:
by the time we reached the road
wind spooled through the fir boughs foreign.
This, outside, stilled my complaining
A reviewer by the name of Jacqueline Turner once described Unravel (a previous collection by Armstrong) as “heavy with words”, and it’s easy to agree. Poets are naturally lovers of words — they have to be — but there are times poets cross into a perplexing verbosity that leaves readers frustrated and befuddled. Words that have a low frequency of usage need not always be the default literary choice. Say it and mean it, but don’t flaunt the fact you have a thick dictionary weighing down the corner of your desk. Most readers of poetry are not bumpkins, but words like glossolalia, octavalent and sobriquet run the risk of not winning people over to the poem. “He croups a threnody” was one of several severe head-scratchers encountered in the book. Perhaps in a self-conscious slip, she writes in “Here: Soft-footed” that “my words are never my own these days.”
How long readers will remain interested in this volume will depend on how long they choose to prolong their own discovery of the poet’s morbid curiosity with the dead, the ravaged. Her stellar ability, however, to tease poetry from seemingly mundane objects could be enough to satiate a majority of the readership. Particularly impressive are her ruminations upon unattractive considerations we may normally take for granted such as graffiti beneath a bridge, a motorcycle tarp, even fibreglass geese dangling from the ceiling of a downtown shopping centre.
Most of the poems in The Scare in the Crow require at least a second, if not third reading, in order to digest the full import of the message behind them. Few of them really grab you on the first go. A number of pieces are in fact entirely disorienting right from the start, as if the reader is cutting halfway into a conversation that the poet is having with someone else. Armstrong writes as if we are already familiar with the intimate contours of her world. Nevertheless, there are still several powerful pieces that do make this collection a worthy enterprise and a fulfilling read. “Hyla Amphibia” is a strong piece that recounts the rescue of wayward frogs from a construction site. The underdog analogies of “Porcupine” will also win readers over (“the one rejected with tisking tongues”), as well as “Girls with Sharp Scalpels”, another ‘amphibious’ poem that takes us back to high school biology dissections.
“Up-river a House Breaks from Its Foundation” is a brilliant poem, perhaps the best of the bunch. Its tantalizing imagery spurs the reader on to wanting more, disappointed the poem is only a page and a half long. As a derelict house floats down the river, Armstrong writes,
a bungalow drama.
half-sunk in turbined slew,
shambolic patio furniture
thistled with shadow,
new kitchen curtains waving queeny goodbyes:
some envy in that kind of leave-taking.
Gifted lines that pack a punch from other poems include some of the following:
your mind, once steadied before the rift, was an eroded vesper (“From Fundy Bank”)
doe-eared shadows henna the hunter moon (“And She is No Stranger Now”)
twitch light spindled swampland cottonwood (“Where They Don’t Belong”)
the fetishes of our extinct gods (“Beauty to the Alligator’s Beast”)
All in all, a worthy and admirable undertaking that deserves attention if one cares to spend time sitting with the crisp melancholy of Armstrong’s fantasia.