In ‘Bandilngan,’ we see this direct response to transcendental beauty:
Bare feet buried in the silt of the riverbank – all the selves I bring fall quiet. Play in the silken dirt, dance in clouds of dust and slanting light. I’m no longer possessed by a mind that tells me what I do and don’t deserve
And yet for a book of poems so enamoured of the natural world, the suburban quotidian has its own sacred place. Even the kitchen sink is an object worthy of glory in ‘Praise’:
Sometimes a thing is given its moment—water limber from my kitchen tap— almost the whole sumptuous sense of it.
And the car, especially the illicit car – be it speeding or crashed or stolen – is a recurring motif; included as an antithetical driving meditation in ‘The Art of Longing:’ ‘I don’t back off. It’s not because I’m rushing’ and as a hook in the confessional long poem, ‘One Thing That Matters’: ‘It happens without warning, a moment of complacency and the car / slips from my grip—rolls silently over the lip of the driveway.’ Perhaps the obsession with wheels is a product of a longing to be ‘heightened / by all that’s commonplace’ (‘A Cracked and Weathered Prayer’).
A few of the shorter poems of Broken Ground, like ‘Christmas Morning Walking Alone,’ ‘The Loire Valley’ or ‘Still Life,’ perhaps due to a sense of being too pared-down, too precise, don’t quite hold as much impact in this overall ‘well-weighted’ collection. Almost conversely in a collection that seems to praise the contained and the essential, Armstrong seems at his strongest in the long line, and in the more sprawling narrative. ‘One Thing that Matters,’ the narrative longpoem that makes up the entirety of middle section, stands out as one of the collection’s most compelling.
Broken Ground contains a haunted reflection on what it means to walk through landscape, bearing witness to contingent loss. The collection is haunted by the ghosts of the general and specific dead, yet also by the ghost of public and personal historical events: what has disappeared or is now disappearing from view. These are elegiac poems, poems of memory and sorrow, yet out of this fissure in the bedrock is born a small sapling of yearning. And this tiny hope, in turn, creates a further haunting: the poems of Broken Ground will linger in the gut long after the simple sacrament of reading has brought them deep inside.