canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Shirtless Tattoo
by Anthony Armstrong
Your Scrivener Press, 1999

Reviewed by Dan Reve

Featured in the anthology, Northern Prospects, Anthony Armstrong has published his first book with Your Scrivener Press. Shirtless Tattoo is a collection of confessional free verse with two dominant themes: erotic love and religious faith. Armstrong's motifs often create ironic parallels and contrasts between these themes, though at times one wonders if the issues and implications are clear to the poet.

Most of us, in the erotic and spiritual realms, tend to either bow in reverence to the godhead in question (the beloved's body or the divine being) or feel compelled to possess it; we submit or we conquer. So too, part of poetry's dynamism arises from tension in the implicit attempts to reconcile, a humble, conservative force, on the one hand, with a selfish, experimental one, on the other: the universal and the unique.

That ecstasy is an image associated with both erotic and divine love, is obvious and traditional (a conservative trope); the point is not that a poet needs a new idea, but he or she does, at least, need to explore the analogy in original images in order for the concept to be liberating and dynamic: in order for us to care or be surprised, to think and feel our essential contradictions again. The poem from which the title of the volume is drawn is a good example of the technical achievement and thematic concerns of Armstrong's verse

I hang on the cross of your beauty
I am pinned by my longing for you
my heart is a bird with no legs
my heart is a shirtless tattoo

That the beloved is the lover's cross, that the lover is sacrificed for eros, is the conventional religious-erotic trope.

However, the final two lines move toward the grotesque and obscure as opposed to any convincing transcendence through original, intelligent metaphor. (I do not mean, here, that the grotesque is not a poetic subject; just that surely it was not intended to be in this poem). Presumably the final line means one's scars and allegiances should be bared to the world, one's love exposed. But no one sees/reads "tattoo" without assuming a naked chest (or other pound of flesh).

While the charming simplicity of the metre and rhyme in the quatrain promises much, it corrupts semantics, generating redundant adjectives. Armstrong's habitual form in Shirtless Tatoo is free verse of extremely short lines. Here is "The Awful Rowing Toward Anne Sexton", for example:

I broke
the prison
of the highway

where the sun's
just bright
to show
the rain

and the road
took on
the colours
of that sky

till poetry
was the purpose
of my pain

Do not "rain" and "pain" WANT to rhyme in this poem? Is there any purpose to breaking up the lines and rhythms that the poem itself wants? Wouldn't a heroic couplet clarify both the aesthetic and semantic aspects of the poem? Indeed, wouldn't the momentum of that couplet demand more of the poet and more of a poem? Just as dominant, conventional motifs and their implications seem unconscious in the collection, traditional rhythms unconsiously assert themselves, revealing a certain lack of control of the verse. Ironically, in the above example of free verse, it is the rhyme that makes the poem seem like it is saying more than it is: the sound smooths over the obscurity in the sense.

Generally, in Shirtless Tattoo, the metaphors are simple and transparent, and the diction and tone is colloquial, secular - aggressively so at times. Many poems, like the one just quoted, are built around an image but that image does not always lead the reader to the same epiphany the poet presumably had in mind. In the above poem that image is, I think, grey light: ironic indeed as a justification (or metaphor?) for poetry.

If some of Armstrong's poems require more listening on the poet's part, others, built on an image or idea, want further thinking or feeling. Still, some metaphors in Shirtless Tattoo are arresting and tantalizing (a leaky faucet, "taps like a Flamenco dancer", repeatedly seducing an errant lover), and a reader does feel a presence, hearing a single, singular voice - a first criterion of poetry - speaking honestly, questing to create a richer harmony from a disparate world and vision. The book is, as "The Awful Rowing Toward Anne Sexton" states, a personal achievement for Armstrong, whom we congratulate.

Dan Reve was once a lumberjack, but he ain't no more. He's still okay.







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