Year of the Metal Rabbit
The poems in Tammy Armstrong’s fifth collection of poetry, Year of the Metal Rabbit, come from a place nestled deep in the forest. Other times, they appear sunlit by the seaside. The collection holds a reverence for nature, many of the poems observing bursts of activity from flora and fauna alike and our human interactions with them. Armstrong’s home in southeastern Nova Scotia is the setting of many of these salient and sumptuously rich descriptions.
In “Dry Spell, Still,” the poet writes of a period of drought:
They say the sparrow and geese are a rain call boiling over with prognostication above the English walnut and the sky’s chipped teeth
In “Woolly Bear,” we lean in to appreciate a caterpillar:
This little banded em-dash, Turk’s head knot, two stroke engine signs across my palm
Even an afternoon tea harkens seaside creatures:
the tea bags hovering through boil and steam like the rusted hems of jellyfish
At times, these poems give way to how nature and humans interact, often devastatingly for nature. From “Blue Willoware”:
And there, along the old highway a raccoon’s small ghost disappears inside a storm-drain’s dark keep, and coyotes snagged in car grills hurdle down the Trans-Canada until resource officers in thick gloves can pry them loose—speed sick and lost
Another poem, “The Vestas: Pubnico Point Wind Farm,” speaks to the lure of a nearby wind farm where:
Seventeen giantesses speak in tongues… as wrecked weather coaxes, crooks, collects, collects to nameplate capacity. While storm-stayed birds, drawn by force by dissected skies and the props’ salutations navigate the whirring narrows between then the blades
Sometimes, it’s nature holding one over the humans. “Blessing the Boats” serves as a reminder of the perils faced at sea:
The ember-coloured boats vee’ing home the moon owing nothing safe passage
This poem is every Atlantic Canadian fishing outport with its lost-at-sea memorial; the anxious wait ashore listening to Environment Canada weather reports, while others bless the boats at the church up over the hill. But have you ever heard it this vividly described?
December double-glazed in salt and squall. The gulls’ hour jammed with a broken hinge. The plovers’ minute on the lighthouse tip hovering over sea-bone, the stopped tide, the iced bay
As you read Armstrong’s work, you gather she’s a purposeful wanderer—a naturalist who hovers, takes stock, registers the world around her in a way that most passersby have forgotten or have no time for, in our preoccupied, smart-phone-reliant lives. Her poems take the reader beyond a learned place of familiarity – the poet’s back stoop in Atlantic Canada – to as far north as Nunavut and south as the Mexican border.
Many of her poems begin with an excerpt from works of other poets or references to other sources. These excerpts serve as helpful cues for the reader as to what’s to come, while acknowledging where the poet drew her inspiration. Like in the poem, “Seabed,” she quotes a CBC news story, which reports hunters in a remote part of Nunavut are concerned about a “pinging” sound coming from the sea floor.
The mystery cleverly inspires the poem that follows. It begins:
Something lopes across Fury and Hecla Strait bounds over drift nets, calved glaciers festering mountain ruck beaten into bird cliffs and broad shields to travel on and out and on through boat hulls and corrugated coastlines double humming against the clavicle
More than halfway through the collection, in “Epithalamium,” we’re (somewhat unexpectedly) transported to a ghost ranch in New Mexico:
we happen between javelina, collared-dove out-of-place oryx free-roaming the Chihuahua Desert. Jimson weed. White flower. Big sky. Cumulous bloom. Threadbare radials
Then, a mile from the Mexican border, we spot a witch [who I gather is a taxidermist] who “knows how to trap a man with hummingbirds.”
In “Black Market Love Charm,” the poet vividly, yet delicately, describes the taxidermy birds as “twice-stitched, through eye and throat with scarlet thread to tether its gemmy soul to its imagined work.” Armstrong, intrigued by what she sees, offers this universal takeaway:
Before you judge remember you may find yourself one day with your something indecent inside your love for the wrong things
There are similar lessons throughout the collection. Most, unlike this example, are implicit.
The heart and soul of the book is its rural Nova Scotia landscapes and seascapes. There’s plenty hidden in the margins, between the stanzas and the words themselves.
This is a poetry collection of discovery. Read it once and marvel. Read it twice and find what you’ve surely missed the first time around. I’m still re-reading “Year of the Metal Rabbit,” for which the collection gets its name.
Tammy Armstrong is a gifted poet, also having published two novels. Her latest poetry collection is divided into four (unnamed) sections. With its textured lilac paper cover and inside cover featuring rows of sea stars lined against a black backdrop, the book feels precious, but its real gems are the poems inside.