Finishing Line Press
October 13, 2023
Many of us who dwell in cities have forgotten or have never known what it is like to live on land with clear horizons, free-ranging wildlife, and moments of stillness and silence so deep you can hear your blood pulsing through your body.
Shelley Armitage's latest book, A Habit of Landscape, draws its sharp, engrossing poems from the unpredictable interplays of events, emotions, memories, surprises, and controversies that humans can experience in nature, whether in open country or their own front yard.
Paying closer attention to the natural world around us is a key theme in her recent writings. In 2016's Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place, for example, she makes a thirty-mile trek from her family farm in Vega to the Canadian River, following the Llano Estacado's meandering Middle Alamosa Creek. Along the way, she reflects on her experiences, her family's history, recent changes to the nearby landscape, and the connections that can arise between memory, spirit, and place.
In her newest work, A Habit of Landscape, she looks deeper into human connections with land and nature. In her poem "Blue Heron," for instance, the narrator expresses the desire to at least see the shadow of a great blue heron, if not the bird itself. A great blue heron is a large bird with a six-foot wingspan, and it holds special meanings in some Native American cultures. Seeing one can be a sign of good luck, patience, self-awareness, or other positive qualities—including the ability to adapt to a changing environment. In a part of the "Blue Heron" poem, Armitage writes:
To address animals
in the 21st century
is to ignore
the reality of cyberspace,
the virtual penumbra
But still I come looking for you
and more: a habit of landscape
which says continuity,
which countenances the four-wheeler ruts
and your silence,
your disappearing act.
Poetry seldom is intended to be read quickly, and this holds true in Armitage's new work. While some of her poems use conventional structures, others rely not only on the flow of words in each line but also on variable word placements, extra indentations, and unexpected line breaks. This approach can slow the eyes down and give the brain more time to assemble and focus on emerging images.
Much of the love and value we attach to a particular segment of land may actually center around a relative's or friend's house and the items they left behind when they died. Armitage's poem "In Aunt Alice's Root Cellar" addresses this possibility.
Down here, down under
I admit to allusions.
Like a too-large grave
this cellar has an appetite
for bones, mine included.
Later in the poem, she notes the inherited items she will keep. Then she reflects on how her widowed aunt's passing has also left her with an understanding that goes beyond memories.
Out on these dry plains there was a vision of paradise.
Taking these steps one more time, in this scarab of self,
I realize death is making one light enough to leave.
It’s not the weight of spirit that encumbers us
but the load of our unshed skins.
Armitage, an author, poet, naturalist, and conservationist, has extensive environmental connections in Texas and New Mexico. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan desert, but also manages family grasslands in Vega, Texas, and is a professor emerita of the University of Texas at El Paso and member of the Texas Institute of Letters. She has written eight award-winning books, and Armitage's work has been featured on NPR, and her honors include: a Wurlitzer Foundation fellowship; a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Literature in Warsaw, Poland; Fulbright awards in Finland and Portugal; a National Endowment for the Arts grant; three National Endowment for the Humanities fellowships; and a Rockefeller grant.