A review of Broken Ground by Steve Armstrong

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Broken Ground
By Steve Armstrong
UWAP Publishing
ISBN-13: 978-1742589855, Paperback: 100 pages, July 20, 2018

Steve Armstrong’s Broken Ground walks a tight line between the personal and the ecological. Each of the five sections are situated differently in time and space. The first, “Substrate” sets the tone for the book as a whole, exploring memory and its distortion, the fissures of grief and the healing power of language and the natural world. The first poem “In Black and White” begins with a photograph that becomes a memory in the substrate of being, linked through the continuity of place. The poem moves along the Sydney north shore sandstone, the boulders, the redgums, the angophora:

My substrate is rocks and trees,
and there’s a prehensile ache at the sight of a branch
that leans across a cerulean Sydney sky.  Here is
the ground of a well-weighted line.

The work plays with the memoir genre, tracing a series of mini stories, not necessarily to reveal the specific things that happened, but rather to uncover the hidden meaning in these moments.  The work become an exploration of what endures in the face of continual loss:

and glimpse the glassy reach of the river, the vacant industrial lots,
the saw-tooth

geometry of factory sheds and begin to hope
in the way the salvaged silt below me must too, as it waits
for alchemy,
longs for the transmutation of loss.  (“Deadman”)

The poems engage in play between the shifting processes of the mind, the unreliability of memory, and the recreation of self as a part of a bigger ecosystem:

It’s possible to
imagine making a hearth; to patch this half-ruined
holy place, and revive a certain domesticity
in which one might untangle the worst of a modern
life. I’m becalmed, or perhaps I’ve returned like
the water returns to lie low in the body of the lake. (“Lake George and an Eastern Grey Kangaroo”)

Many of the poems in the collection play with the notion of daily ritual. The practice of walking and observing is ever-present, usually early in the morning in beautiful natural places. The walks recreate the rhythm of loss, addiction, separation, and even death, picking up a sadness that pervades the work like a sub-text, but in the present tense, pain becomes recontextualised into love:

A bream leaps.  Nothing else moves.  A pale wash of light
falls as though the sky were walled

with paper screens.  Soon
the sun will light the spare tops of the casurinas; for now
they’re women at the water’s edge. (“A Cracked and Weathered Prayer”)

Though many of the poems are quiet, built around the pleasure of close observation, there is always a shift, whether that be perspective, time, space, or full transformation. The ‘self’ takes many forms and inhabits a number of roles: boy, father, son, lover, surfer, a patient in the hospital, a friend offering support or in need. The many aspects of the self form a matrix where cells are always dying and remaking themselves: “forever branching/through the firmament of mind.” (“Apartment Window”).  The work is underpinned by a deep sense of humility and intimacy, drawing the reader into a confidence which is equal parts transgressive and redemptive.

There are several extended prose poems in the collection.  These read like autobiography and take on the semblance of a confessional narrative, but the line breaks, rhythms, alliteration and occasional parataxis create a fluid circularity, as the work shifts between different time periods and spaces in a way that becomes transformative:

Sixteen.  Sleeping beside T and searching for miraculous movement and light, in seams of black opal.  All day shoveling, fending off a dangerous emptiness at the end of unoccupied time; beyond the gravity in her green eyes. (“One Thing that Matters”).

Broken Ground is a wonderful collection, rooted in the natural world: in stone, eucalypt, “mounds of spinifex”, and above all, in an exploration of how life is created though language, recollection, in the precision of the natural world, and above all in the connections that we build over the short space of our lives:

…bare patches of hard-packed earth give off

a gritty warmth that draws me close again, and I love the broken
ground as a child loves it; awake to who I am and who I’m not. (“Up and Down a Dry Lake”)