Armadillo Basket is a tender and often brutally honest assessment of a poet’s life and career. Its author, Helen Buckingham, has been published internationally in many small print publications and has been nominated for several awards, including an honourable mention at the 2011 Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival Haiku Award. Indeed, her particular passion for Eastern-style poetry (including haiku, tanka and haiburn) informs the greater part of this collection. Armadillo Basket is personal; it reads like an autobiography, filled with anecdotes, oddities and comments on life’s simple things. Yet, although this volume may sometimes swerve startlingly into dark places, it avoids being uncomfortable or obtrusive. Engaging with such intimacy work does not turn us into voyeurs, as one might feel with a more notorious collection such as Sylvia Plath’s Ariel,. Instead, we are treated like distant relatives, warmly invited to flick through the family album.
Armadillo Basket reads like a photo album in many respects, structured as it is into seasons – “Green Light”, “Summer Is a Hospital”, “Tea Dancing” and “Snowed In”. It may be clichéd to use the seasons to describe the stages of human life, but it is forgivable here, where it fits with the haiku theme and is not too overt. In fact, it works well; the structure brings order to an eclectic selection of poems. Common themes recur throughout, but never in the same way. For example, there are poems about physical insecurities and the fear of missing out on life, but they are taken to very different extremes. Consider the disturbing “Incidental Fx”:
Girl’s living on an island now –
she’s looking paler than she’s been;
we’ve given her a bell to ring
(fx: unclean, unclean)
Yet , even that does not compare with the sheer body-horror of, “Skin Deep”, “So she cut her skin – /slashed and burnt until it no longer hurt. Till she had nothing left to feel.”
These poems represent the elephant in the room of the collection and are deliberately juxtaposed with lighter moments. However, Buckingham captures the dark times just as sharply as the happy ones, and her skilful combination of the two is powerful.
The poet’s sense of humour also shines through. She has an admirable ability to reflect upon small moments in life and immortalise them. In “White Bull”, she examines her own confusion, drawing on both an ancient American folk hero, and the plot of the television series, The Prisoner.In “The Curse of the Saint” she explores the more delicate areas of domestic life,
It is the tenderest spot
in the month of a man
married to regular witch.
These snatches of humour provide relief from the copious Polaroid-picture images preserved in haiku form. While some readers might find haikus irritating, feeling that their deliberately withheld style can disfigure what a poet is saying, good haiku comes from not attempting to say too much. Buckingham has perfected her use of the form, selecting graceful images to convey little segments of life: small shots, full of inconsequential things, emerge. Consider these unnamed haiku:
the smell of men
sorting through the drill bits
in the armadillo basket.
Short poems may form the majority of the collection, but in no way are they there to “bulk it out”. They are the most important element of the collection, mimicking the experience of life. In Armadillo Basket Buckingham shares a portion of her life’s experience. Despite seemingly lacking a serious agenda, Buckingham’s verse is witty, truthful and refreshing, and readers will find their own history reflected somewhere in these pages. Buckingham’s very honesty makes Armadillo Basket a rewarding read.