Nov '02 [Home]

Reviews

RoadKill by RD Armstrong

12 Gauge Press, 2002
64 pages, paper, $9.99
P.O. Box 6011, San Clemente, CA 92674

Traveling with Heart and Soul
by Laura Stamps


. .

RD Armstrong is a popular West Coast poet, and the "honorary" Poet Laureate of L.A. Harbor. He is also the publisher of the Lummox Journal and the Little Red Book series of chapbooks. RoadKill is Armstrong's latest book and an outstanding accomplishment:  one long poem chronicling a sixteen-day road trip, covering 3247 miles from California to Washington State and back again. It was composed from notes scribbled in Armstrong's road journal, but this poem is so much more than just the average travelogue. Because there are no periods or commas in the poem, it speeds along at about 55 miles per hour, rich in landscape, personal and emotional detail, coaxing the reader to feel like Armstrong's passenger and confidant—a highly enjoyable experience.

Armstrong began this journey on September 5, 2001. Surprisingly, the first lines of the poem are ones of apprehension, as if he could almost sense the impending attack on the World Trade Towers the following week.

The desire to get off to a good start
Is the root of all superstition
Yet here I am having second thoughts
Every other second about this trip

Nevertheless, Armstrong is a poet on a mission.

So I packed my car with
All the accoutrements
Of a traveling poetry road show:
Books catalogs flyers
Clothes sleeping bag
Food water music cameras
Maps tools new tires
Loaded for bear or whatever
And headed to the 'jump-off'
A reading on Tuesday night in
Beautiful cracktown
Tujunga CA at the public library

A week later, Armstrong is in Port Angeles when the terrorist attacks occur, and his reaction mirrors the shock of the country at that moment:

what no it's true check the TV and
There it is an endless loop of smoke towers
The arcing jet fire collapse mushroom cloud
In reverse dirty dust cloud exhaling death
Tickertape parade of sorrow that old sinking
Feeling that comes with any bad news

Even though this ominous event casts a somber note on the trip, it is still the tale of a poet on the road, visiting friends, selling poetry books, discovering more about himself and the people in his life than he could have foreseen. For example, there are relationships with family to rekindle, like a visit with his brother in San Rafael.

It's good to see him again even if all we
Do is watch ESPN for three or four hours
It's what we brothers do each visit
Our Zazen a sitting meditation our koan
Having to do with the line fault next morning

There are also rendezvous with some of the West Coast's most popular poets, among them, Tim Scannell, A.D. Winans, and Brain Morrisey. Even Peter Frawley, a poet from Massachusetts vacationing in California, makes an appearance in the poem, and his visit with Armstrong is typical of the time spent with other poets.

And we talk
And talk
And talk of the poem
The Smithing of it
The hammering out and repeated
Forging of it in the fire
The dipping into water
Hard work this crafting of words
Into something that's intelligent even
If only to the wordsmith
All the while the pink moon
Sails overhead and
Is well on its downward glide
When my head finally lands
On my pillow

Much of this poem is peppered with the realization that people grow and change with time, and many grow away from us:  "so many / Strangers who seem like friends / So many friends who have become / Strangers." There is also the pressure to revive old friendships within a matter of hours or days. Several of these people, Armstrong hasn't seen for many years:

a visit as it turns
Out that is more telling about things past than
Things present as if the present is nothing more
Than a fašade made up of the events of the past
As if I cannot escape my past because it's all that
I am and I suppose for my friends that I haven't
Seen in years it may be true since they have
Only their last memory of me to go by but even
My understanding of this limitation of their vision
Doesn't help to ease the frustration I feel since
I am so much more than I was at last sighting

All too soon, it's time to drop off books at one last bookstore, and head home:

by the time I
Hit San Simeon the road has stretched
Out into a long low throw down the
Coast past Harmony Cayucos Morro
Bay and back onto the well lit here
Comes the sun highway one-oh-one
And before you know it I'm back home
Again shooting the breeze with my
Mates at Portfolio back among the
Company of people I know no longer
Racing from point A to point B ah
Home at last

This book, attractively bound in a two-part cover designed by Armstrong, is one sure to delight poets from beginning to end. Several of Armstrong's photos from the road illustrate his sparse prose, which rolls as rhythmically as a dependable tire. I must admit I enjoyed this fabulous book more than Kerouac, and feel it is destined to become a classic for our generation. The tale of a soulful journey that began with the moon: "Dark road lit by / Pink moon / Pink Floyd / Wish You Were Here." And ends with the sincere heart of a poet: "All these images are punched into my / Head and ratcheted down tightly / Around my soul and there they remain."

(Laura Stamps's poems and book reviews have appeared in The Louisiana Review, Open Cut, Bellowing Ark, Poetry Motel, Maelstrom, American Writing, Concrete Wolf and elsewhere. She is the author of more than twenty books of prose and poetry; the most recent, Restore My Soul (2002, Kittyfeather Press), is a poetry collection. Stamps grew up in the mountains of north Georgia and was educated at Dalton College and the College of Charleston.)