Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Steve Armstrong
Puncher & Wattmann
ISBN: 9781922571984, $27, Paperback, 64 pages, Nov 23
Steve Armstrong’s latest collection, One River, has a zen quality, full of contemplation and observation. The work is centred around the Hunter River Estuary in Newcastle, NSW, where Armstrong walks regularly, and the writing follows the gentle rambling of the river catchment and the rhythm of human perambulation – walking purely for the pleasure of it rather than to get somewhere. Haibun is the perfect form for these reflections, combining prose and poetry to create a work that is both descriptive/educational and deeply intimate. Armstrong has replaced the traditional Haiku of Haibun with the Korean Sijo which allows for double the line length and extra syllables, with a focus on the rich nature of the spaces he’s inhabiting. The result is quite beautiful, inviting the reader to join in both the descriptive amble and the poetic pauses of the Sijo creating a space for connection:
I go to the island for the birds, and to borrow—for a while—the fluidity that’s the mind of trees, and of water. I go for the breadth of being, and to breathe, rather than gasp.
The she-oaks by the river
are slow dancing; all the brides
Of a briny nor-easter.
angels—laugh at gravity;
what fidelity to faithless air. (“Ash Island”)
The connections extend from the literal, such as the narrow bridge linking the island to the mainland, the shallow root system of the mangroves, and the symbiosis between the trees and water, to the metaphorical like reader and writer, or the human and nonhuman world: flora, fauna, river and earth. The project is meditative, moving into a stillness rooted in place, or what Armstrong calls ‘analogue’, embodied and alive, away from the ‘cyborg selves’ we’ve developed into through overuse of technology, mobile phones, and social media.
The prose is no less rich than the poetry, though the prose has a kind of innate motion to it distinctive to Armstrong’s work and indicative of his subject matter, while the poetry effects moments of stillness. The work moves through the different aspects of the Hunter River: Ash Island, the Upper Chichester, the Upper Allyn, and the Williams, some of which are repeated in different times, so that the sounds, scents, light and the company are always unique, the time of day shifting, the animals that move through the landscape, the weather or the scent never the same, creating a sense of sacredness:
At the end of the race, the stream’s rushing dilates in a still sparkling, almond-eyed pool. There’s a vigour with which the river is quiet here, a trace of the ineffable which draws me into the nested shade of trees arching out from the bank.
Frogs croak low down like hinges
on a crooked door. A fantail takes
it higher, while the river’s
lyric is of nothing if not
contentedness. A pair
of wood ducks rifle by on purpose. (“Rivers of the Mind”)
Though the work is mindful and rooted in the present, woven through the present are recollections of the past, which take on the feel of a memoir. Occasionally the subject moves from the natural space to an accompanying lover (“the tender light from her green eyes, a distant nebula.”) or a friend (“Perhaps the nature of a good friendship is that we allow each other room to come and go, to fall, and then find our way again.”). These shifts from solitude to companionship are handled so smoothly that they conflate the human and the natural, reminding us that there is also companionship in the birds, the trees, the river and even the stones. Suddenly it seems as though these pieces, which felt quiet and minimal become abundant with detail, an inflation like something coming into being. This magic is enhanced by a metapoesis that engages with the poetic process. This happens through engagement with other poets like Matsuo Bashō, the most famous writer of Haibun and perhaps Chŏng Mongju’s whose Sijo has a similar structure to Armstrong’s as well as poets as varied as Naruda, Jan Zwicky and The work is well referenced and its scholarship explores the nature of writing, on walking and poetry. , from Pablo Neruda to Jan Zwicky and Gregory Orr, whose words weave very lightly through the prose, reminding us that One River is not only about observation but also about creation:
For some years I’ve imagined poetry’s beginnings as a river—the stream of books I read, and the currents running beneath the lines I make. More than a metaphor, this sense of poetry as a river is a matter of trusting the whole-of-being sense that prefigures thought, a felt sense for those numinous threads of knowing that poets hope they might translate for the page. (“A River Within Reach”)
Throughout the book there is a strong ecological thread that combines both a sadness at the legacy of colonialisation and human growth/greed and industry, but also a sense of responsibility to bear witness and appreciate the continuing beauty of what we still have:
It troubles me to weigh how humans degrade the land and its creatures. I’m reluctant to attend, in a clear-eyed way, to all that asks for recognition, to all that’s been lost and damaged. When I do, I know what’s being asked of me; perhaps that’s why I drink. (“Wanderings”)
It is love of the natural world that charges One River with such tenderness. One River is not a long book, and it is so tightly crafted, with such deep intelligence that it is very easy and relatively quick to read. The book’s setting is indeed one river, but in this microcosm, there is a sense that this one river is all rivers, and that any moment of contemplation contains a distillation of all moments. It is difficult not to be changed by such a work:
Like the psilocybin in magic mushrooms, which takes full effect without warning, all of what’s manifest here insists upon itself as a single organism, and in the space between each velvety trunk and the next is a portal on stillness. For a short time, I know myself as a being with roots, in the thrall of the collectedness of mind that forests are. (“Dreaming Above Carrowbrook”)