What’s Left by Steve Armstrong, Flying Island Press 2020 was launched by Dimitra Harvey at The Shop Gallery in Glebe on 21 February 2021
In a way, the title of the collection is a question of loss, as much as it’s concerned with what remains. We live at a strange juncture in the history of our species — an era characterised by loss, and loss of our own making. More than at any other time, the dominant nations of the planet live in ways which are absurdly disconnected from the wider, more-than-human world.
In his essay, ‘A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology’, the Scottish poet John Burnside offers a humble means of resistance to this systemic disconnection from the earth — walking. He writes: “…Walking is a political act… At ground level, at walking pace, out in the open, I participate in the world as it is… I get warm, or wet. I smell the wind…the terrain is real, it has its own identity and energy, it is a living thing. The song of the earth is not a metaphor, but an actual sound…that can be listened to…The work of attuning one’s art to the song of the earth…[for] the contemporary poet in a consumer culture [involves stepping]…away from the narrowly human realm…and connecting with something larger and wider… Part of the [poet’s] work is to remind us that human beings belong to the earth, in the most fundamental way… walking upon the earth is what we evolved to do. (In Crawford, 102 – 105).
To my mind, in so many ways, this is the imperative at the heart of What’s Left. We find the speaker of the collection frequently on foot, moving through bushland, but also urban spaces and edge-lands — and always, the senses are open, listening to what the living trees are saying, to what birds are saying, to what mountains say…
It’s particularly evident in poems such as, ‘Call Yourself Home’, where the speaker, referencing Roethke, entreats the reader to:
…………………………………………….wake to walk
and take your walking slow
and assures us that
……………………..…..the miles you travel do not
what is significant is that, out in the living world, exposed to all its elements, we will
the bones of [our] being.
Throughout the collection, the speaker encounters other-than-human lives with humility, and that humility has potency. The natural world is not only “landscape” — not only backdrop to, or metaphor for human emotion and experience. It’s a living sphere in its own right, brimming with presences and agencies. From the poem, ‘On the Williams’, where an eel stares the speaker down, putting them in their place, to the avocado tree in ‘In the Presence of a Poem’, whose fruit laden branch, is not only a metaphor for the poetic line, but a work of poetry in it’s own right — the tree, a master crafter, who has ‘long been making lines better’ than the poet-speaker.
And we find that humans do not have the monopoly on grief; grief is felt across species, albeit in different ways. In ‘No Cure for Climate Gloom’, a
Perhaps the poinciana on the corner,
…………….points the way — pouring out its longing
as the speaker
…..blame[s] the fat-bellied trains,
the snaking line of coal from the valley’s open-cuts.
This is an extract from the poem, ‘Lizards’:
The fetor strikes me first,
and then I find them, a pair of shingle-backs
with armoured scales of polished brown…
The smaller of the two is dead.
Mobbing flies and his sinking, say to me,
they’ve spent some time like this.
…Maybe she’ll go
when he’s lost all resemblance to the one she knew,
or when hunger foreshadows her own decease.
I can imagine a crow might drive her off…
………………They’d live alone much of the year,
then each season, still enchanted — imprints held
in memory — they’d meet up again.
How will she live with what was and is no longer?
I stand by them and the last of the evening
light falls into bed,
………………true as the lake flats.
How will she live with what was and is no longer? This poignant, and in a way radical question, dares to ask, ‘What is a lizard’s grief?’
How will we live with what was, and is no longer? is a central question of the collection. It reverberates in other poems that consider the aftermath of loss, the aftermath of violence and damage.
We feel it pulse through poems like ‘To Remember’, where ‘memory’s unbidden trawling, its daily catch’ haunts the speaker.
We feel it pulse in poems such as, ‘Finchley Track After The Fires’ (29-30), where the speaker observes,
…it feels wrong to write of beauty…
green takes on a new meaning when you climb
out of the black and find it…
As I turn for home, I wonder,
will the roads I know get me there.
It reverberates keenly in the remarkable poem ‘Thirteen Ways To Know My Grandfather’, which examines the complex intergenerational consequences of post traumatic stress.
It’s important to note that while the collection considers loss and grief deeply, the answers and alternatives it offers are firmly rooted in wonderment of the natural world.
The more-than-human realm is reprieve from grief and heart’s ease, as in the poem ‘This Morning’, where the cries of black cockatoos are
……………………….....hinge for a heart —
…………………………………….whose sentence is long,
and allow the speaker to
wing with the birds,
………..and dwell in the hills a while.
The flowers, in ‘Meeting with the Morning Walking’, declare
“Behold our colours, they’re more beautiful
than you can bear…”
and the speaker, unable to resist them, falls
…through the eye of a bloom.
Nature’s beauty and mystery is a wellspring of joy, spiritual sustenance, connection, and belonging.
What’s Left is not only a question of loss and what we’re left with, but of what is left to us, what we inherit. What our forebears, ancient and more immediate, leave us — inside our blood, in our muscle memory; and the way they shape our minds and experience of the world.
Especially intriguing, is the way the collection considers what is passed from father to son, what men leave other men, how masculinity is defined and constructed — its relationship to making and craftsmanship, as well as to violence and the destruction of nature.
We find the poems of What’s Left are concerned with embodied experience, the senses, the visceral, what the speaker of the poem, ‘Mind the Axe’, describes as the ‘sinewed dimension’.
In the poem ‘Reservoir’, even ‘love…has weight, is well muscled’ .
In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abrams describes language as,
a sensuous, bodily activity born of reciprocity and participation… [of] the interplay between the body and world’ (p56).
The poems of What’s Left enact this dynamic interplay in their rich, textural music.
For example, in the poem, ‘Falling for the River’s Course’, line construction generates aqueous rhythms of flow and momentum. Curving enjambment, and short sentences followed by suddenly wider ones, slowing and then quickening the pace, river the page.
The gritty, gravelly t and k plosives in
…………………..… – a wreckage of rocks…
The bed of the river conducts:
…………………………….stone by stone, each one
a heightened moment; the broken ankle that might
enact the rocks themselves, jutting from the river.
The commas separating out staccato segments of sentence, play out the quick, precarious, slippery rhythms of human leaping between them.
There is so much to say about this beautiful collection, and it is far more intricate and nuanced than I’ve been able to articulate.
For me, Steve’s poetry attends to what Burnside describes as ‘a new science of belonging’ — one that, in his words, puts us ‘back in the open’, seeks ‘to make us both vulnerable and wondrous again — to reconnect us’ with the earth (105). What’s Left is charged with that ecological imperative to dwell in and with the rest of the world in a new way.
Burnside, John. ‘A Science of Belonging: Poetry as Ecology’. Ed. Crawford, Robert. Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2006. 102 – 105.
Abrams, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage Books. 1996. 56.
– Dimitra Harvey
Dimitra Harvey was born in Sydney to a Greek mother and grew up on Wangal country. Her chapbook length collection of poetry, A Fistful of Hail, was published by Vagabond Press in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in Meanjin, Southerly, Cordite, and Mascara Literary Review, as well as anthologies such as The Best Australian Poems 2017, and The Stars Like Sand: Australian Speculative Poetry. She won third place in the 2019 Newcastle Poetry Prize; and in 2012, was awarded The Australian Society of Authors Ray Koppe Young Writers Residency.
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