Published by Wake Forest University Press, May 2015 | 192 pages
We plot our personal histories against significant places, the loci – we imagine – of essential scenes. What to do when we return to such sites, but find them, and ourselves, incontrovertibly changed? Thus the thrust of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” The poet recalls a previous visit, made five years prior, which left sensory impressions so intense and immediate that they required no “remoter charm, / By thought supplied, nor any interest / Unborrowed from the eye.” Their fruits were “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures.” In the poem’s present tense, Nature works differently, and more intricately: to contemplate it is to provoke “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused.” A spiritual guide for all mankind, this Nature can “lead / From joy to joy,” “inform / The mind that is within us,” and “feed / With lofty thoughts.” Its surfaces – “all that we behold / From this green earth” – are now for sublimating into “The anchor of my purest thoughts,” the “soul / Of all my moral being.” Wordsworth’s poem does not lament a lost way of being in the world – it exhilarates in its discoveries, the grandest of which is a maturely sensitive Self.
In its title, “Tintern Abbey” refers to a dilapidated church in southeast Wales, long derelict by the time Wordsworth ever saw it. It’s striking that he offers few precise details of the spot – but fitting, too, for this poet is most interested in the possibility that a finely-wrought sensibility might transcend its immediate surroundings. The better part of two centuries later, a very different sort of sensibility, and of ruin-poem, appeared in Frank Ormsby’s 1977 debut, A Store of Candles. In “Stone,” our speaker is only remotely a self:
This rough stone the horses scratch againstdid service in a bell-tower on a hillbefore the church toppled.
A farmer picked it from the ruins, deafto superstition. In his eye it lodgedalready in a strong building
below in the yard. Perhaps he rolled it,years and years ago, perhaps an oxhauled it down to the house
by the spent quarry where it was hewn.May stones from all ruined churches survive thus,whitewashed, in stable walls.
“Stone” is characteristic Ormsby in at least two ways. First, it evinces a mighty but understated intensity of focus, an intention to observe the energies of unremarkable persons and things, to detect the world in humble wonders. In these poems, meaning often emanates not from persons but from nonhuman animals, and even inanimate stuff. Second, “Stone” is uttered by a singularly, and to some extent mystifyingly, unprepossessing voice, not so much austere as circumspectly impersonal. The speakers of Ormsby’s poems register impressions, but never volubly, as if to do so would be to risk dispersing their auras. His achievement is most vivid when his poems are spoken as if from off stage – when their subjectivities seem as much of place, and of incident, as of person. Poetry, here, is not so much about seeking, let alone subliming, as it is about serving for a medium.
Goat’s Milk, a new and noble sampling of this service, makes judicious selections from the poet’s four books, and presents almost fifty new compositions. Ormsby comes from Fermanagh, a county in Northern Ireland famous for picturesque lakes, and for fishing. For over thirty years, he was Head of English at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, or “Inst.,” as the poems would have it. All Northern Irish writers must chafe under their audience’s impulse – not to say compulsion – to approach their work with sectarian violence uppermost, if not exclusively, in mind. (Some who do not chafe, wallow. The Belfastian poet Michael Longley, in an essay introducing Goat’s Milk, contrasts his subject’s mode with a style Longley dismisses, memorably, as “Troubles trash.”) Some of the poems in Goat’s Milk do indeed refract the conflict: sometimes obliquely, in their various treatments of war, and sometimes more explicitly, as in recent pieces like “Captain Richard Outram Hermon” and “The Shoot,” where militarism and genteel privilege haunt Fermanagh’s soil. But this volume, and the life’s work it sketches, mostly, and often marvelously, defy such expectations, and variegate our view of Northern Ireland, its land, its peoples, its poetry.
Home, for Ormsby, is not only a mire, but a nexus of unexpected connections, and a mode of imaginative conveyance. Consider the long and riveting title sequence from A Northern Spring (1986). These are World War II poems, the spring referring to a season American troops spent quartered in the North before flying off to the continent to fight. In one piece, G.I.s with names like Milburn, Pedersen, and Weiss row out to Devenish Island, in Lower Lough (Lake) Erne, in northern Fermanagh. They smoke and play catch, flicking “ash into the saint’s stone bed” and tossing their “baseball through the perfect arch / of a church window’s crumbling Romanesque.” If this seems gently irreverent, it isn’t obviously impious – “On Devenish Island” isn’t a poem about Midwestern philistinism, or American insouciance. Rather, it admires the atmosphere generated by an incongruous scene, but does so quietly, and without pretensions to symbolic grandiosity. Even as Ormsby expands meaning, he marks its limits: “we meant no harm,” his poet recalls, “the past completed there / was not affected.”
The voices – the poets – of “A Northern Spring” are many and various, but they share an estranging, ghostly aloofness. Many are, in fact, the utterances of dead men. Their stories come across, weirdly and memorably, as if from terse, clear-eyed oracles, delivering mysteries in straight speech. One poet is a soldier who “died in a country lane in Argentan,” in Normandy. Another is an African-American private who confronts his audience, grotesquely and defiantly, with the spectacle of his racialized body, mangled and made visible by war. Blown to “bits” by “a small landmine,” he imagines having
laughed the day
the committee for white heroes honoured me,
and honoured too the mangled testicles
of Leroy Earl Johnson.
Elsewhere, an ex-convict-turned-soldier raises hell in Belfast before blasting his way “to a medal and a commendation (posthumous), / a credit at last to my parents, whoever they were.” In “The Flamethrower,” a private watches his compatriot, “Smokey,” make “a melting waste / of real and human trees.” The cynicism that makes these voices so discomfiting also makes them paradoxically compelling retellers. Their causticity seems at once to alienate them from us, and to bring them close.
Ormsby’s speakers and symbols decline to be fully determined by, or translated into, our understanding. In “From the German,” the past doesn’t so much exhibit itself for one’s benefit as arrive, unobtrusively but undeniably, in ways one can never quite predict. Perusing a “book of reminiscences / ‘translated from the German,’” an aged veteran feels he achieves a spectral encounter with enemies he may have exploded with a grenade, decades past:
elusively they rise
to baffle grief with an inviolable presence,
some treacherous gift of innocence restored
I cannot believe in and would not refuse.
The old man seesaws between sentiment and perplexity. History is always unfamiliar, but it’s always powerfully present, too.
Goat’s Milk’s excellences derive from observation, and from anticipation. Scenes provoke attention, which commonly develops into mild, but profound, awe. Tempered by humor, and by a speaker whose position often can’t be pinned down, the poems conduce to a sincere but unstable sort of intimacy. This is especially, and unforgettably, true of Orsmby’s numerous considerations of pregnancy and childbirth. In “You: The Movie,” the poet glimpses
of the unborn –
a silent classic,
a chiaroscuro pan
through ghostly footage
primitive as dawn.
Ultrasonograms must be some of the strangest, most beautiful, and most intimate images one is likely ever to see. Thankfully, poems like this one almost never tend toward maudlin sentimentality. In a recent interview, Ormsby described himself as having “the kind of temperament that sets considerable store by jokes and what you call whimsy.” And we do often wind up giggling, as at “Smiling Foetus”:
Already he can do
shit-faced and village idiot and Mr Magoo,
or hang from his ears that helpless hammock-mouth
brought on by women.
But Ormsby can be reverent, too, and when his impulses achieve a wonky equilibrium, he is brilliant.
It is a happy fact that some of the best poems in Goat’s Milk are also among the newest. “The Hour-glass” addresses whomever will, when the time arrives, “collect me from the crematorium / in a functional jar.” Its directives drift from mordant humor to poignant tenderness to some new kind of union.
I want you to sift a handful or two with care
into the top-half of an hour-glass
and set me to pass the days on our bedside table.
From time to time,
tumble me upside-down for a posthumous work-out,
a punctual trickle and fall.
If I must be ‘the remains’, let me be so
as a soft grain in your living.
You can look to me daily for an hour
of silent company,
or tell at a glance you’re running late again.
Our trajectory is twisted. The poet imagines himself dead, his person reduced – or is it refined? – to a collection of ashes. The hourglass conceit is a commonplace: we might recall George Herbert’s “Church Monuments,” published 1633, where the poet’s “flesh is but the glass which holds the dust / That measures all our time, which also shall / Be crumbled into dust.” Ormsby is risking cliché, but evades the hazard in the sprightly, faintly comical alliteration of the lines that follow. Encroaching mawkishness is vaporized by uneasy silliness. The poet, dead, behaves like one of the figures from “A Northern Spring”: simultaneously object and subject, acquaintance and alien. It is precisely because of this that the poem’s gem – that “soft grain in your living” – is so affectingly lovely. “The Hour-glass” is fabulous love poetry.
A lyric, claims the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, is “in the modern sense, any fairly short poem expressing the personal mood, feeling, or meditation of a single speaker.” Pressed to categorize them, we’d call these works lyrics, but most of Goat’s Milk, and practically all its best pieces, are not lyrical in the conventional sense of emotional expressiveness, or effusive subjectivity. They are evocative, unresolved meetings of speaker and scene, pervaded by some other element, indistinct but thickly felt:
Nothing had happened, yet the minute spoke
and the scene spoke and the silence,
and oppressed as air does, loading
for a storm’s release.
Ormsby isn’t going to tell us what the minute, scene, or silence say, at least not in any straightforward sense. There’s little sublimity on offer in Goat’s Milk, and we’re never en route to Wordsworthian epiphany. But so restrained, Ormsby’s artisanship is not the less exquisite. If humility does not preclude potency, then these poems are modesty’s triumphs, and equanimity’s trumpet-blasts.