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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Book Review: RD Armstrong Tracking the Rabbit. Lummox Press, San Pedro, 2016 (40 pages)

Tracking the Rabbit was written in memoriam for RD Armstrong’s late father, Thomas K. Armstrong (1927-2015). The book includes previously published blog narratives about his father’s struggle with Vascular Dementia and a series of poems which explore the central metaphor of the black rabbit which Armstrong strongly associates with the spirit of his father after his death. RD uses his writing in this collection to help him to try to articulate his grief, guilt and other conflicting emotions. Amongst the turmoil he finds solace in the realisation that his father is no longer suffering, and he is able to return once again to his journey of “going it alone.”

In the introductory section ‘About the Black Rabbit’ Armstrong explains to the reader the origins of his fascination with the concept of the black rabbit. In the week following his father’s death, he saw himself as a “bad son” because his grief was “slow to bubble to the surface”. RD wonders how he is “going to deal with this” and in the next day or so he finds himself in a dream and he is standing in his father’s backyard during a violent thunder and lightning storm:

“Suddenly, something was thrust into my arms: a medium sized furry thing as black as this night, unidentifiable except for its two white, buck teeth. Then I knew it was a black rabbit. I could feel its heart racing in fear (but also alive!) and pulled it closer. But just as suddenly as it had appeared it now leaped out of my arms and bolted into the dark! I was devastated, thinking that it had been a gift from my father, that I had not understood what it was until it was too late and now it was gone for good (like the old man)…but then, out of the darkness, the rabbit came bounding and leapt into my arms again!

He is quick to link this image of the black rabbit with his father’s departing spirit:

“I awoke from this wondering what in the world this meant. I knew enough about Native-American lore to realize that the black rabbit was my father’s spirit animal and that it would guide him through the death process; and this little bunny would serve as a talisman for me, as well.”

The collection is not sequenced in strict chronological order, instead we gradually learn more about RD and his relationship with his old man in the inter-weaving of texts. In the blog narrative ‘Blues for the Old Man’ (16 December 2014), RD writes that when he first heard about his father’s medical condition in 2008, he could only stay in touch with him by phone as his father lived about 500 miles away in the hills of Sierra Nevada above Sacramento.

Later in the post, he describes how he drove up to Grass Valley to visit his father and his third wife (in late 2014) and was shocked at how much he had deteriorated since he last saw him only 10 months before, even though he was 86 years old, “He had aged as if overnight. He had become a feeble old man! … He didn’t say much and he never seemed to notice that I was there…The old guy would mutter something, then cry a little, then my step-mother would tell him to quit but I wished she would leave him be.”

Before arriving to visit his dad, RD imagined his father staring out a window, glancing at his watch occasionally and quietly marking time. Now sitting with him during the last hour he wished he “had a big, fluffy pillow” to smother him. He is genuinely horrified and cannot find the words to describe what he is thinking,” I just wanted to go and put as many miles behind me as I could.”

In the blog narrative, “The Dreaded Phone-call” (17 January 2015), RD receives a phone call from his brother Chris who informs him their father has died. RD is still struggling within himself to reconcile the “hulking” image he has of his father with what he saw a month before, of a man with “dead eyes”, with “this caricature of a face, once familiar.” He was totally expecting his father to die at any time but he has great difficulty processing this news,” I told myself that this was a good thing; that his spirit was free to do whatever it was that spirits do. I didn’t really believe that, but I needed something ‘tangible’ to believe in, to hang my heart/hat on while I came to terms with this fact.”

The seven poems in the chapbook add layers of myth and metaphor to RD Armstrong’s musings about his late father. He consciously goes in search of the black rabbit to see if it can help him make sense of the traumatic situation. In ‘Tracking the Rabbit’ the persona follows the rabbit through the snow to try to uncover its secrets, only to have it disappear into thin air without a trace with “no sad farewells/ Or long goodbyes.” In ‘The Black Rabbit Makes an Appearance at a Poetry Reading’, RD is reading a poem by Tony Moffeit and the black rabbit somehow pops into his head. He explicitly describes it as “the mythical spirit guide/metaphor for my/ Dad guiding him from this world to the next” and partially explains its appearance as being the result of “emotion not dealt with”, including the memories he harbours of his mentally ill dad with “big sad eyes and quivering lower lip.” In “The Day Room” RD painfully describes his helpless father as “the soon to be black rabbit” and as “a frightened little/ bunny/ trapped in this/ slumping body// awaiting the shroud.”

The crowning achievement of the collection is perhaps “Poem for My Father” in which RD Armstrong uses elevated elegiac allusions to compare his father’s passing with that of a great and noble figure:

Poem for My Father

He was a tree
He’d be an oak
With gnarled branches
And many rings

If he was mythic
He’d be Odin
An ancient god
With many a tale to tell

If he was a sea
He’d be the Sargasso
A kelp filled pocket
Of unexplained

But he was a man
Bent with age
No longer plunging
Headlong into the darkness
Forging his own way

And as such his last days
Were spent lost in a
Chaotic storm filled night
Alone and frightened

He was at last
A black rabbit
Trembling in my arms
Waiting for Morpheus
To gather him up
And carry him from
The battlefield

(reprinted with the author’s permission)

We are given a further glimpse of the rabbit in ‘That Damn Rabbit’. The poem represents a significant turning point in Armstrong’s acceptance of his father’s passing. In the poem he has “another strange vision” of the rabbit sitting on his haunches “and staring at me from/ Across the river Styx”. He realises that the black rabbit is of his own creation, and therefore, can be shaped and controlled by him as he sees fit:

His beady eyes staring me down
Probing into my soul…I can
Feel them penetrating deep
Deep deeper until I find myself
Shouting as loud as I can

What are you doin’? What right
Do ya have to probe my soul
Ya bloody rabbit! Then I
Remember that the rabbit is of
My own creation…so it’s
Really me knockin’ on my
Own backdoor tryin’ to show
Me something in a different
Light or in a different way

In the final blog narrative ‘Letting Go’ (28 January 2015) RD comments that he was surprized by the notes of concern and condolences he has received following his father’s death. The last time he saw him alive “he was very much a vegetable, not my dad” and concedes “so death, was a release from the suffering of this life.”

Through each text we gradually become more aware of the larger picture, although RD’s relationship with his dad, particularly as a young adult is left murky, incomplete. Interestingly, we are only offered glimpses of what his father, Thomas Armstrong was like as RD grew up. The poems ‘You Me and the Dog’ and ‘The Talisman’ refer to a kind of idealised past of “happy times” when his dad and his first wife, RD’s mother, were “still in love.” In ‘You Me and the Dog’, RD cryptically wonders out loud directly to his dad as to whether things could have turned out differently for the family:

I wonder what would have happened
If your dream had remained small
Where would we have ended up

RD explained these lines to me yesterday, “When we moved to Calif. from Indiana, it was like it said in the poem, my dad, my mom and me. He was an electrical engineer in the beginnings of the aerospace era, we lived in a trailer off base and my dad’s idea of a wild night was to cruise on his Indian motorcycle w/pony skin upholstery. It was a simple life...I don't know whose Idea it was to move but after a while we moved and my dad got a bigger dream. 

“See my dad had three careers: Elec. Eng., then Attorney, finally as construction exec. In the end he was a glorified landlord, picking up checks. But by then he was showing signs of dementia. So he retired. A few years later he died. But he'd had three careers, three wives, two planes, three boats, four was a lot different than you me and mom." 

The family eventually drifted apart and RD embarked on his own path as a young man. In ‘Blues for the Old Man’, RD expresses gratitude that much later in life he was able to make some amends with his old man: “I’ve spent most of my life being a mystery to him and it wasn’t until recently that I was able to come to some sort of understanding with him, a negotiated peace of sorts. I guess I’m lucky to have gotten six years out of the deal.”

In his ‘Afterward’ Armstrong says that he has some regrets and implies that he wasn’t as close to his dad as he would have wanted to be but he is firm and unapologetic: “I wish I could have given him the things that a father would like, a wife, a family, a career that he could be proud of… but life had a different plan for me, one that took me out on another track. I regret these things that I couldn’t offer up to him myself. But I ended up going it alone. While I can’t say if this way was better than some other, I only know that this is the way I have gone.”

This is a deeply personal and inventive response to death from a son’s perspective. The work is richly layered and profoundly authentic. It is heartfelt, without being sentimental.

More about the book and where to purchase it:

Read selections from the book here:

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