We Spent the Summer on Islands by Tammy Armstrong

Third place in the 2018 Waltham Forest Poetry Competition


Meaning we traced ring roads and foot paths
named for fictitious ginger orphans and Acadian heroines
mucking through bald cypress swamps
and the Atchafalaya basin.

We pushed off our boats and stayed awake counting stars
conjuring mythologies for black rabbits and hard chalk castles
weather patterns and qualities of light
meaning we sketched the phantom outlines
with weedy cartography and words that showed their bones.

And when, on a green-dipped morning,
storm petrels full of morning things
chatter-nagged above pignuts and brine pits
some, feeling the first loss of signs and spires,
fretted into the coastline’s soft hidden places
while the rest of us ached with cold, flew open with heat
and asked our changeable prayers for more.

More tales of species that survive
in the hunt song and melted track
more mixed forests humid with glitter and flex
with toothy nettle alive with greeny purrs
with miles between the sun and tarnished ocean
the humpback’s song
and the lamp sealed safe within its smooth folded brain.

But still, some of us burned our boats never to return
while others sought out interpreters for the placards and signs
anchored to the marram dunes:
This feminized ocean before you
cups her deep, deep secrets in the dark whelk of her ear.

Gaze south to glimpse the tweed wolf’s thick-padded patrol
the sea gulls’ scaly contralto.
Gaze west to learn the parables of migration
carried on the backs of crustaceans.

So the animals came too.

A ceremony of black bears with their big thumb heads
swimming out
to where the causeway would eventually be built
and the people would come   and the people would come

because water so very clear and very cool
was willing to cup and island each one of us.

Come forward, you beloved lost, and drink.


Tammy Armstrong is the author of two novels and four books of poetry. Her work has been published in journals in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. Bogman’s Music (Anvil Press 2002), her first poetry collection, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. Some of her newer poems have won several awards, including the iYeats International Poetry Prize (Ireland), the Café Writers Poetry Competition (England), and Prairie Fire’s Banff Centre Bliss Carman Poetry Award. She lives in a lobster fishing village on the south shore of Nova Scotia with her husband, the writer George Moore.


Some years ago, my husband and I actually spent a summer exploring various islands around Atlantic Canada. From this, I wanted to bring in the magic and mythology of place that might reflect how hauntingly beautiful such spaces can be. Like staring into fire, there is something about looking out from an island toward the horizon that always makes me feel that we have been doing just that for a very, very long time.