04 January 2013

a review of luke armstrong’s how we are human

How We Are Human, poems by Luke
Maguire Armstrong (CreateSpace, 2012)
How We Are Human
Poetry by Luke Maguire Armstrong
CreateSpace, October 2012
ISBN: 978-1-48005-586-5
Paperback: 114 pages; $9.99

We all have those people in our lives who love to say one of two things to the frequent vexation of poets: “I don’t read poetry” or, worse, “I hate poetry.” For many of us, the tendency or desire is simply to ignore such statements, or at the extreme end drop those people from our lives like bad habits. But in his [second?] collection of poetry, writer Luke Armstrong offers a new option: write poems those self-professed poetry haters can’t help but enjoy.

Armstrong is not what you’d call a “traditional poet.” (In fact, in an interview to appear later this month on Our Lost Jungle he outright says he’s hesitant about the moniker of “poet.”) But that’s really no surprise as he is, by all appearances, not exactly a traditional person, either. He is a world traveler, having spent time studying in Chile and working in Guatemala, among other places. And just as Armstrong has worked to make the world accessible to himself—and, in so doing, also make the world’s resources available to those the world often forgets—he works in How We Are Human to make poetry accessible to the world.

In his introduction, Armstrong is not afraid to talk blatantly and openly about both others’ and his own experiences with poetry. He admits that he dislikes “quite a bit of [poetry],” calling out poetry that “complains, seeks pity, is annoying or makes me search for the point like deriving ‘x’ in algebra.” And yet, poetry is something our modern age of busy people should be able to latch on to. It might take you a week or a month to read a book; it can take mere minutes to read a poem.

How We Are Human opens with a poem of questions titled “My Generation, Whatever.” “Who,” Armstrong writes by way of ushering readers into the collection, “will be the one among us to speak to everyone?” It is a question, and indeed a poem, that seems to scream directly at a twenty-something generation, often known as the Millennials but just as frequently labeled, appropriately for the suggested question it invokes, “Generation Y.”  Yet Armstrong does more than simply question – he also seeks to discover, understand, and share answers to some of life’s most burning, pressing issues in a way that a wider landscape of readers can equally digest.

While the work is often infused with humor and dry wit, there is also a tone suggesting something darker, a wrongness with the world that Armstrong seeks to redress, or at the very least expose. Take for instance, the poem “Tonight,” which delves into the lives of bar patrons. People are drawn together and wedged apart, a concept urged by the severe breaks of slashes throughout the first part of the poem. And when, by the poem’s end, two people actually have come together, the division moves from slant to horizontal, almost reminiscent of a timeline, reflecting the perilous path Armstrong writes for these people who have “walked into other’s lives and hearts and made a mess and gotten along and had fights and both could remember and count the times they’d walked toward what they mistook as the future.” This, Armstrong suggests, is the type of future awaiting if we don’t open our eyes. And there is, within this and other poems, a hint that this is not just “Tonight” … this is every night, and everywhere.

There are moments in this collection when Armstrong dives so deeply into apparently personal reflection or themes that the reader almost feels intrusive stepping onto those grounds. In “i can end my life anyway i  want,” for example, we are midway through the poem before an impersonal “victim” becomes a personalized “you” for a personalized “I.” The poem ends:

this is not a poem
this is not for publication
this is the worst way to bring you back.

And yet this is a poem—it is written as such—and it has been published, and through such gestures Armstrong abruptly forces us into that sphere of discomfort, those things we don’t—but probably should—talk about. We may be trespassing, but it’s out now, and it’s about time we did something about it.

With such a roller coaster of senses, themes, emotions, and more, How We Are Human is not what you would call an “easy read.” It is relatable. It is accessible. But it is both in the harshest of ways. Through it, Armstrong calls us out of our selves, out of a self-centered view of ourselves as “humans” alone, and calls us—reminds us—to be humans together. This, his poems argue, is how we are human: all or nothing, together or none. It is for all of us. And even if you enter it skeptical about the merits of poetry, you cannot help but leave it with a sense of responsibility, and share that hope that “we give each other the chance / To live and live and live and feel and break and heal …”


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  1. Nice review, and I'm digging the snippets that you posted. Might have to add this to my list of poetry-books-to-find.

    1. Thank you, Joseph. Be sure to stop back by the Jungle on the 18th for the interview with Luke. He has some interesting things to say about poetry that contributed a lot to my reading of his text!


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