Philip Armstrong


Driving Lesson

Let me bare my teeth into the gale
until my gums dry and my canines ache.
You might be best to hang on to my tail.

Wind down the window so I can inhale
the rushing world that peels my lips and makes
me grin and bare my teeth into the gale.

I’ll dig into the armrest with my nails
and lean into each corner that we take.
I still need you to hang on to my tail.

My nose crams with olfactory airmail.
Each gust combs out my hackles like a rake.
I bare ferocious teeth into the gale.

Let’s drive this thing right up the Beaufort scale;
put your foot down and forget the brake.
Don’t worry! Just hold tightly to my tail.

Asphalt, metal, petrol, unfurl smells
like rhymes repeating in a villanelle.
I can’t help bare my teeth into the gale.
You can’t do much but hold on to my tail.


General Relativity

This wrought-iron gate hangs on its hinges
           heavily. The bottom half’s
nine upright bars, the upper is four letters S,
           two backwards. On the top
a pair of whale-shaped curlicues.

As a child you crouched behind these lichened figures,
           made out your world through them.
Your father digging spuds and acting startled
           every time a clod chucked from your hiding place
burst on his back. Your mother
           and a neighbour on the drive,
weaving and unravelling cares like fabric.
           All gone now, of course: those spuds, that driveway
and those neighbours. Mother, father too.

           But not that gate. We brought it
several hundred kilometres north to be re-hung
           on timber posts. Today,
from here, between the bars you see
           descending concrete steps. The plurals frame
two apple trees, bent under Old Man’s Beard,
           and further down the hill a Norfolk Pine points upward
from a church that earthquakes split in two.
           Within the curling finials, whales or waves,
the wharves, the harbour, Quail Island,
           which housed lepers once, and in the background
hills we call the Seven Sleepers.
           Misleadingly, as it turns out.

Some lichens are the oldest living things
           on earth. This patch, though in its infancy, 
is older than we are. It’s spent its life
           stuck to the place it chose,
a metal strut, although that place
           has moved three whole degrees of latitude
and casts a different-angled shadow
           onto different ground.



Philip Armstrong teaches at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in Snorkel #14 and #17, and in Sport, Landfall and JAAM. His latest nonfiction book is Sheep (Reaktion 2016,