Tammy Armstrong wastes no time in dispelling expectations of nature poetry in Year of the Metal Rabbit. In her the opening poem “We Spent the Summer on Islands,” she signals to readers that this collection will go beyond the call of nature: “We pushed off our boats and stayed awake counting stars / conjuring mythologies of black rabbits and hard chalk castles / weather patterns and qualities of light.” Here, Armstrong signals to her readers that Year of the Metal Rabbit will go beyond the call of nature. Her poems tirelessly traverse domestic and public spaces, and personal and historical narratives, in an endless, hungry search, not for anything specific, but out of a sheer desire to remain aware and present, to keep the first-person “I”—of the speaker and the reader—constantly in flux, because “something childish still / wants to stay in animal time” (“The Varying Hare”).
Year of the Metal Rabbit is a form of poetic grounding, not in tradition or style, but in one’s own body. Reading it feels a bit like watching an almanac being written in reverse. It is not the exterior world that is enacting its force upon us, but our own presence within it, our moods and desires, that causes us to constantly tailor our surroundings for our convenience, like in “Of Blood and Wine, Blue Came Late”:
And when we found no words to unblue
how the rain lolloped
up and down the eastern seaboard on four strong legs
we tried beryl, bice, saxe, and zeffre.
Reading Year of the Metal Rabbit, I couldn’t help but feel like Alice every time I encountered a rabbit in one of Armstrong’s poems, encounters that often have a dream-like quality to them. Yet beyond the mesmerizing beauty of poems like “Blue Willowware,” in which the speaker tells us “It’s there I was the woman, the man / the rabbit’s wild sister,” there is also a sense of looking at the self differently, a disruption of our tendency to classify and categorize things around us the way biologists might trace the evolution of a species.
I felt a similar excitement reading the cluster of poems, which I would categorize as “poetic inventories”—“Advice for the Novice Medieval Illuminator: On Marginalia,” “Troves,” and “Other Milogros”—because of the smooth transitions Armstrong gives to the otherwise jagged nature of the list-like poem. Armstrong’s interest in details differs from that of poets like Mary Oliver, who slow down the flow of everyday life through the act of breaking it down into individual units worthy of marvel. For Armstrong, the process of breaking down is a way of looking anew at the familiar, as it proves secondary to the act of then reshuffling these very details. The result is a version of reality that feels less similar and slightly more wondrous.
In a way, Armstrong’s poems recall the experience of looking at abstract art—there is a constant negotiation between interiority (one’s body) and the unknown that lies immediately beyond it, the mimetic and the abstract affection we experience when gazing outward at the world. It is in this state that readers should be prepared to receive Year of the Metal Rabbit, a collection that is daring specifically because of how willing it is to open its eyes wider, and then some.
Margaryta Golovchenko is a poet, reviewer, and author of two chapbooks. Currently completing an MA in art history at York University, she can be found on Twitter @Margaryta505.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.