Book Review

RD Armstrong's book E/Or: Living Amongst the Mangled opens with Robert Service's poem, "The Men Who Don't Fit In." The choice of a poet as conventional as Service for his inspiration and Armstrong's self-designation of himself as "a man who doesn't fit in" give some sense of what a reader can anticipate in this book, and while most poets of the academy eschew long introductions – or introductions at all, Armstrong's introduction was a good move on his part. It tells the reader that she is not to expect a Paul Muldoon or Mark Doty, but might hope for an Etheridge Knight.

Like Service, Armstrong's range of jobs is one that has let him see life at the street level – and frequently below. He has worked as a handyman, played in blues bands and done whatever he had to take make a living. Typical of his jobs is one he describes in the opening of "Quality Control":

My bar
That is to say my
Current favorite
Has hired me
To keep track of
Certain bartenders
To see if they're
Charging the correct
Price for drinks

This background gives Armstrong the possibility of a perspective not available to most poets in the academe, even those who venture out on Kerouac-style sorties. It also gives him material.

In "Bar Story #2," for example, he is able to let the reader eavesdrop into the world of barroom talk:

The guy on the stool
Three spots away
Is telling his new
Friends—a guy and
A gal—a story that
Sounds fishy to me.
He's a little drunk
And talking louder
Than necessary
Since the bar is
Quiet at 5 PM.
The story is about
How he knifed a
Guy for hitting
On his old lady
And dumped him
At Sardine Cove.
The gal says
You're kidding right?

Armstrong is at his best when he sticks to description, offering these scenes up for the for the reader without commentary. Unfortunately, this does not happen frequently enough. As a man who clearly does not like being told what to think, it's a bit ironic that he can't afford his readers that same courtesy, but many of his poems have difficulty resisting that temptation. Perhaps he can be forgiven somewhat inasmuch as one of his favorite poets is Whitman. In "Whitman on the Avenue" he says:

I thought I saw
Walt Whitman
Crossing the avenue…
Head held high
White beard
A banner in the wind
Poet of men
The common man

Whitman, too, was not shy in inserting his own opinion. And Armstrong emulates him in wanting to write of "the common man", but unlike Whitman's famously optimistic worldview, Armstrong's is distinctly jaded (as he says in the last lines of "Quality Control," "Now/ its payback time.") As a result he asks himself:

I sing the body
But for now
I wonder for whom?

It's a good question.

While Whitman could carry off the garrulous, rambling poems, Armstrong's poems work best when they are brief, understated and stick to the objective. The poem in E/OR that perhaps illustrates this best is unfortunately titled "Like Mother Like Son":

On hearing of the suicide
Of Ted Hughes' son
Nicholas I briefly
Contemplated putting
My head in the oven
Until I remembered
They shut off the gas
Last Friday

When he can hold himself to a role as a photographer of life, Armstrong's work create two kinds of interest. The first is that they are able to take a look at physical pain, an area in which writers with disabilities have been able to provide some real insight. In her recent essay, "Extending Conversations of Pain" the poet Liz Whiteacre asks how poetry can communicate the individuality of pain in a way that means something more than a Likert Scale. Armstrong, who has frequently not only experience pain himself, but who has had chances in various clinics to watch others in pain, takes a stab at it. In "Monday's Pain" he observes:

The guy on one
Side of me says
The best thing about pain
Is it tells you
You are still alive
While the woman
On the other side says
On a scale of one to ten
How is your pain today
I cannot think
There is a roaring fire
Consuming me
And I've lost
My ability to
Gauge the

While Whiteacre points out that even the non-poet seeks to convey how their pain feels in metaphors, Armstrong counters that as a patient:

I must
translate my pain from
metaphorical to numerical
to satisfy the nurse

What makes a poet is not just the ability to find a metaphor, but to find an image that is fresh. In poems such as "Handicapped Zone" Armstrong attempts this, the title itself taking on a double meaning as he does so.

The second major area of interest in the book, and perhaps its saving grace are the blogs that surround the poems about pain in the second section of the book, "Bad Moon Rising", by far the most rewarding portion of E/OR. Whereas the form of the poem seems to constrain Armstrong, the prose blogs allow him to give full play to his own vernacular which contributes greatly to recreating an atmosphere in which readers can feel they are participating from a safe distance. The prose format also allows him to indulge more naturally in his propensity for expletives which, while obligatory in rap, quickly become tiresome in poetry.

In a blog with the wonderful title "Pavarotti on the Ward" both illustrates the narrator's predicament and summons uncomfortable memories for those who have ever found themselves in comparable situations.

I found myself stripped of dignity, as well as my clothes, lying on a gurney being transported from one overcrowded hospital to another one rainy night in late November. It was just before Thanksgiving and I wondered if I'd have much to give thanks for this year – the admitting doctor had suggested that it was 50-50 on whether they'd let me keep my foot or take it in a to-go bag, a nice souvenir to put on the mantle.

The beauty of these blogs is that their expansiveness gives the reader a much greater insight into both the workings of the medical system from the point of view of those who can not afford private hospitals and into the poet's own personality which, while always a persona, seems to come across much more genuinely than in his more studied attempts to portray himself as a street philosopher in his poems. One only wishes that he had opened his book with these blogs, especially "You Have Two Choices," whose film noir overtones lend it at once a hint of irony and of the gritty reality of the emergency room it describes.

One of the things that Armstrong does not reveal is the source of his book's title: E/Or. The two references that immediately come to mind are Kierkegaard and Eeyore. Though miles apart in looks and temperament, both actually had a similar disposition, and it's a disposition that essentially characterizes the mood of the collection. On the other hand, it may just be a pun on ER, Perhaps the title is simply Armstrong's little joke on the reader. At least, it's encouraging to think so.

In one of his poems, Armstrong describes being mistaken for the poet Charles Bukowski. Though that is an honor not all poets would vie for, it is an apt description of what much of Armstrong's work aspires to. Readers who enjoy Bukowski's work should take a look at what Armstrong has done here. Who knows? The big guy just may have an heir apparent. E/Or: Living Amongst the Mangled is available from Lummox Press.