REVIEW: BEN ARMSTRONG’S ‘PERENNIAL’
PERENNIAL BY BEN ARMSTRONG
KNIVES FORKS AND SPOONS PRESS
Reviewed by Stella Backhouse
“The whale king extends a flipper, walk with him”. To get the most from Ben Armstrong’s début collection, Perennial: Notes from a Weatherproof Journal, set aside your hesitations about the weirdness of this command, and go with it. You will be rewarded with a trip through an internal landscape that is spare, surreal and in places impenetrably strange; but which also retains enough that is recognisably human to be not only familiar but – even – oddly comforting.
Against a shoreline logic of sea traffic, marine ecology, winds, waves and saline songs, Armstrong patiently scrapes at the roots of our human urge to codify experience through use of language. Indeed, this is a poetry that at times seems so frustrated with the limitations of language that it resorts to mocking it with unpronouceable headings (borrowed from ambient musician Aphex Twin). Elsewhere, phenomimes invest every word with visually onomatopeic potential, narrowing the gap between written shape and graphic representation.
Delving deeper, Perennial explores the mysterious, language-defying alchemy of creative inspiration. Lines like cryptic crossword clues tantalise the reader with hopes of private eurekas: “later you appear to me/ mummified in a fry of eels”. “Fry of eels” > young eel > elver > reveal/leaver (anagrams of ‘a elver’). Am I even close? (Probably not.)
Formal rhyming is no help; its tyranny leaves the poet “out of my depth”. ‘Nick Cave ruined my life’, meanwhile, is a sulky lash at a world where originality has long-since been used up. Instead, consciousness is re-hashed from a random driftwood of influences (driftwood itself re-sculpted by the sea); prog rock rubs shoulders with ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Waste Land’, Greek myth and William Shakespeare.
There are hints that what Armstrong is describing, when he speaks of tides “that were higher now than this time/ last year – ”, the extinction of kingfishers and the atlas that “threw off the shawl of the antarctic” is a society wrestling with environmental catastrophe – a scenario so overwhelmingly fearful that we in our time can barely acknowledge it, let alone articulate it in words. We do not yet know what language we will have recourse to when it overtakes us.
Even so, and as the name of the collection perhaps suggests, human values still endure. Armstrong is not alone in the world: unnamed companions stand beside him, and are sources of consolation. There is tenderness – even worship – for nature and more specifically, for the marine environment. There is also a yearning, longing sense of place – although I was surprised to discover that Scheveningen, the acknowledged inspiration of many of the poems, is not, as I had imagined, a bracing, lonely wilderness of huge skies, roaring surf and raking shingle; but a bustling suburb of The Hague.
Bleached and strange as the driftwood it contemplates, Perennial: Notes from a Weatherproof Journal rides the tipping point where the wave crests and the tension between alinguistic impulse and language that is all we have must resolve itself. It’s a conundrum, perhaps, of flippers and hands: smooth and rounded, flippers retain a purity disdained by restless, probing fingers– but lacking opposable thumbs, how can they record what it was to be them? Perennial is a coded essay in decoding their imprint*: “the whale king extends a flipper, walk with him”.
*Or maybe it’s not at all. What do I know?