Sinking Lessons by Philip Armstrong

Sinking Lessons. Philip Armstrong (Dunedin, Otago University Press, 2020). ISBN 9781988592411. RRP $27.50. 54pp.

Reviewed by Molly Crighton


The cover of Sinking Lessons by Philip Armstrong is a blue-hued photograph of a small concrete figure — looking out over the base of a stark, stony ocean — while white light flickers above. This image perfectly captures the subterranean ennui that permeates Armstrong’s collection. The reader feels as though they are sinking, and the poems are words distorted by water:

            An hourglass waist through which the grist

            of magnetite and silica and brine
            churns seaweed till the tide rotates its wrist.
            (“Song of the Orpheus”)

Armstrong doesn’t just weave words — he works into his poems the many eddies of different cultural sources — Greek myths, biblical stories, well-loved novels. This is poetry by someone who sees awe just under the skin of life’s every moment, be it a boy fishing with his father, or Frankenstein waking from his long Arctic sleep:

            …the seasons sickened and the summer
            like a sunstruck scientist on burning feet
            came slouching north with blackened hands
            to peel back the sheets.
            (“Creature effects”)

Even the dissolving of earwax is immortalised: ‘She tilts my head as if I need to hear a low note on the other side’ (“A Note upon the Mystic Writing Pad”). 

Bodies of water, memory, a scalpel-sharp way of dissecting a scene, and an omniscient lack of judgement crop up again and again in this collection. “In the Infinity Pool” is a particular standout, juxtaposing the past with the present as though the two were made to stand next to one another:

            Dry-haired guests line up, chest-deep,
            elbows on the horizon,
            holding their devices out on sticks

            the way Hans Holbein might
            have held his brush out squinting
            as he stood before the king.

Each stanza holds itself like water in cupped hands, silently offering the reader an image. The poetry is surgically perfect, with certain lines that breathe out with life: ‘Either the boat turns slowly around its anchor or the sky does’ (“Rising Sign”).

One unusual but beautiful facet of this collection is the attention paid to ordinary animals –- the pet dog, the gull, the fish speared by the line’s hook. No creature, great or small, is overlooked by the poem’s scope. Armstrong opens up ordinary things, ordinary moments, like lifting off the mind’s lid and letting in the stars.

Originally from Wiltshire, Molly Crighton has lived in Dunedin for over a decade. She currently studies English at the University of Otago.

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