"Why is it that so much Canadian poetry has to sound like a Via Rail announcement?" asked Bruce Meyer, one of our contributing editors, of the chopped-up prose that passes for poetry at monotone readings. It was an important question, and it deserved a clinical answer.
How could Bruce Meyer-a poet without medical training-know that there is a neurological condition that compromises the vital centres of affect and prosody? Perhaps it had afflicted the nation's poets first-they are sensitive, the antennae of the race, they pick up things the rest of us don't-and perhaps it had spread at a chilly outdoor reading by the waterfront, leaving them debilitated, and speaking in metreless, rhymeless syllables about the most ordinary things. Whoever discovered the cure for the speaking sickness would surely deserve to win a double Nobel Prize-in medicine and literature-to be shared with co-investigator Meyer, who first recognized the condition, of course.
Not a single poem of Eric Ormsby's had I read when his selected poems showed up at the Books in Canada office, though he had written some fine essays for us-essays that showed an exquisite sensitivity to what poetry is: the economical use of musical language and image to describe what matters. My ignorance of his work was hardly noticeable: it is an ignorance widely shared, and too easily justified by the fact that so much that comes into the office calling itself poetry ain't.
Not long ago, one thought of most great poets as intellectuals, and intellectuals all read poets. A poet's fame spread among the intellectuals, not simply among poets or poetry lovers. Nobody could imagine themselves well-read if they hadn't tried to read Eliot or Pound, for better or for worse. Eliot mastered the existing forms and then helped liberate poetry from them, inventing new forms. But his free verse, like Freud's free association, wasn't as free as it looked, nor was it meant to be. It was always verse, always paid incredible attention to metre and music. As forms became more and more free, poetic licence and poetic licentiousness became harder and harder to distinguish. Sadly, one day, North American poetry all but lost its music. When it lost its music and forms, it lost its tension; it relaxed into the ordinary. Even its content was increasingly the poetry of everyday life. People lost interest. Today few intellectuals read poetry; few, except poets, read poetry. If a great poet comes along, he or she has to overcome three obstacles: intellectuals won't read him; prosy poets won't dig him; poetry lovers won't hear about him.
Eric Ormsby's background is intriguing. He's a professor of Near Eastern studies, one of the most interesting subjects there is. During the end of the first millennium the configuration of the planets was such that, for brief moments, religion, science, politics, poetry, and classical philosophy all stood up and, like gyroscopes spinning in the same direction, managed to sustain themselves without bumping into each other too much. Before their final dips and swoons they had drilled the foundation for the Renaissance-not in Europe, but in the sandy Middle East from Cordova to Fustat.
Ormsby studied at Princeton, which was and is an intellectual powerhouse for Islamic and Mediaeval Near Eastern studies. Bernard Lewis and a host of other major figures have moved in and out of there, building a wonderful library, with fine collections (Ormsby was Near East Curator for a while), while Princeton University Press produced fascinating monographs. Ormsby has written in the area, and edited a volume of essays on the life and times of Moses Maimonides that covers philosophical and historical issues with wonderful essays that bring the world and its concerns alive, though nothing of Ormsby's own work appears in that volume. His first book is on the problem of theodicy in the philosophy of Al-Ghazali, the mediaeval Islamic philosopher and physician, an update of his Ph.D. thesis (Theodicy in Islamic Thought: The Dispute of Al-Ghazali's "Best of All Possible Worlds", Princeton University Press, 1984).
The problem of theodicy has many subtle facets, including how to reconcile divine power and possibility, divine will and necessity, and divine justice and obligation; but it is usually described in simpler terms. Theodicy is the problem of reconciling God's power and his justice in a world where evil is undeniable. If God is just and all-powerful, and not malicious, why does he permit there to be evil in the world? It is the problem that comes to the fore in the Book of Job, but can be seen even when Abraham questions God's justice at Sodom. The word "theodicy" was originally introduced by the philosopher Leibniz, and derives from the Greek words for "god" and "justice". For those who believe, and who have eyes to see, it is arguably the most agonizing of problems created by the religious way of thinking; it is the problem of "When Bad Things Happen to Nice People" in metaphysical terms, from the perspective of the pious. I would add that it is not merely a religious problem; a close reading of Plato shows that it is a problem that can subtly afflict even atheists who "believe" in justice as though it too were a god.
Any man who devotes a good part of his prime to the study of such a problem, who undergoes the rigours of learning Arabic and the details of mediaeval Islamic philosophy, and the prerequisite study of classical Greek philosophy, who lives in a such an ordered world, is likely to be a man who, even if he rejects that world, is not given to superficial remedies, and is probably interesting.
Ormsby was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1941, and, I gather from the poems, spent much of his childhood in Florida. He studied at various universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and Rutgers, and did his Ph.D. at Princeton; he is also a library director, and has worked in Germany and Morocco among other places. McGill University nabbed him in the mid-1980s and sometime along the way he took up Canadian citizenship. It's nice to know a man might still get tenure for having ruminated about big E Evil in his wonder years.
We are told that poets often peak in their early twenties, and novelists much later. But Ormsby's first two books of poems, Bavarian Shrine & Other Poems (ECW, 1990) and Coastlines (ECW, 1992), show him to be an exception. I presume the interest in philosophy and Near Eastern studies was percolating while he mastered his craft. He would have been around forty-nine when he published his first volume. But what a volume.
The title of his new book, For a Modest God, sounds much like the title of this year's Booker-Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things. On first glance, Ormsby appears to be a poet of nature and a poet of small things-not exactly a poet of theodicy. Many of his poems that appeared in The New Yorker (he is one of the few poets who have placed one poem after another in there)-"The Ant Lion", "Conch Shell", "Garter Snake", and "Rain in Childhood"-seem to confirm the impression that he is a nature poet; but perhaps those are the types of poems The New Yorker wants; The New Yorker seems to cater to a quaint metropolitan taste that insists a poem must be about nature, or childhood at the cottage, something out-of-town, in a Rousseauian sense, leaving the rest of town life for the tart cartoon. Scanning the table of contents of For a Modest God and finding "Starfish", "Spider", "Lichen", and "Skunk Cabbage", I began to wonder about the relationship between the Ormsby of Near Eastern Studies, of philosophy, and the poet of potentially small things, hoping he would be an exception to the tendency to make poetry smaller and smaller, the tendency to throw overboard anything that seemed abundant.
He is the exception. The Ormsby of the theodicy problem is a background presence throughout much of the collection, even though much of it focuses on small things. For poems of small things to work, the precious sense of their smallness must be preserved; the mind must be able, when finding beauty or truth in a small thing, to keep a sense of the greatness of the universe that contains and observes it, even if that greatness is a great chaos and the small thing is a fleeting moment of order within it.
I suspect, but cannot be sure, that this is hinted at in the title of the collection, For a Modest God. A modest God is a humble, unpretentious deity, but a God nonetheless. The title is drawn from one of the poems that is a funny prayer, a laundry list of what one might pray for from a "small dull god, ignorant of thunder" who protects forks and knives and crockery. The requests are amusing, and made in, at times, a quasi-religious language that prays, "that our sauces thicken on the day of fasts." The whole exercise is a lesson in lowered expectations. But these expectations are so low that they themselves seem aware they have been "lowered"; the effect of the poem is not to blaspheme, but to remind us that we long for higher things. I am inclined to believe that Ormsby is signalling that these poems are situated in a moment in history where a wish to behave religiously, to pray, and to bless persists, despite an awareness that there is something quite irreligious about the period. Whether this applies to Ormsby's own spiritual development I have no idea.
Now to the poems themselves. Ormsby has mastered an extraordinary array of voices and influences. Most of his observations have a meditative component. The abiding grand theme in his poetry is our non-abidingness, a typical, classical poetic theme. One of the new poems, "Amber", is a radiant love poem. He examines a dead insect in amber, frozen in time (note the ironic, "paused in its dance"-that's a pretty long pause) and reflects upon love and mortality. I quote it in full:
Prismed by amber, the insect's wing
curves outward in a resinous nonchalance.
Casual fatality has paused in its dance.
I am tenderest when I touch this glozened thing.
Time's imagination stumbles me,
the way time tastes the roof beam's future ruin
or calibrates the hovering, faint tune
in the siskin's wingbeat, with its brief veracity.
The stillness of surviving objects pleases
our reveries. The inarticulate
obduracy of a tigrine chip of agate
spilled from a misplaced cuff link seizes
our attention, so mere things appear
stationary, resistant, and impervious.
The opera glasses, pearl-lensed, that will outlive us
accord a terrible pleasure of mortality. We're
cruelly honored in our transience,
evanescent instances of some unique
reticulation. I hear you speak
close to my ear. I feel your diffidence
as you slip your clothes and then your jewelry
and press against me till our nakedness
warms us with momentous gentleness
and we lie hidden in that clarity.
This is poetry of great intelligence-the extended metaphor of hard translucent materials that permit observation but only at a distance, are opposed to soft, light-absorbing, available flesh which can be embracing in the present. How soft the flesh felt after the succession of hard images and sounds! There is a wonderful integration of metre and rhyme in the third stanza (pleases, seizes) which pulls one forward in expectation; the suddenly ending words such as "chip of agate" are like little chips themselves.
It is followed by another new poem, "History", that has the haunting power of some of Auden's best lyrics. Though it evokes Auden in its use of colloquial speech, plaintive repetition of sound, overall economy and irony, and the use of a great hook, it succeeds in finding its own voice:
This is our history.
The place is empty now where we began.
The rooms are full of sunlight, and the sea
effaces all the traces where we ran.
I dreamt about the world before I was,
that darkened curve of shore, the stark
clarity of coral undersea. Does
broken coastline demarcate the dark
of unbeginning daylight? Now I see
the twining light with all the dark I can.
This is our history:
The place is empty now where we began.
In the third stanza I do not understand in what way the light is "twining". But the music is so wonderful, and the sense of disappearance so aptly conveyed that I will gladly sit with it. This difficulty of understanding is an exception, and most of Ormsby's poems show a strong desire to communicate clearly, typical of those who really have something to say. Readers who are fond of that poem will also like "Origins", which is similarly Audenesque, a mysterious incantation.
Look at how much fun he can have, in a new poem, "Rooster", which conveys a totally different mood:
I like the way the rooster lifts his feet,
so jauntily exact,
then droops one springy yellow claw aloft
just like a tailor gathering up a pleat;
and then there are those small, surprising lilts,
both rollicking and staid,
that grace his bishop's gait,
like a Walter on a pair of supple stilts
or a Russian on parade.
I like the way he swivels and then slants
his red, demented eye
to tipsy calibrations of his comb
and ogles the barnyard with a shopkeeper's stance.
Sometimes his glossy wattles shudder and bulge
as he bends his feathered ear
and listens, fixed in trance.
When drowsy grubs below the ground indulge
and then stretch up for air,
how promptly he administers his peck,
brisk and executive...
The ornithophilic Ormsby does a great "Flamingo":
I find flamingos beautiful Tartuffes
who entice as they distance me.
When they display their billiarding
adolescent sprawl of knees I
remember the parochial-
school girls in pink cashmeres, their rosy
kneecaps polished by novenas.
Flamingos have the silhouettes
of parking meters. They have no epaulettes
and yet seem always in uniform-
little, stilted caudillos! They swarm
in unruffled ripples of defiling pink.
They mimic ballerinas and yet stink.
"Fingernails" is an ingenious, systematic description of its keratinous subjects from their archaic evolutionary origin to the beauty parlour:
...The manicurist lovingly rebukes
the creeping cuticle so that the faint
crescents, like the clouds along horizons,
reappear. The fingernails are suffused
with the blood's sweet light,
though the nails of the newly dead
possess a terrible hailstone
opacity. The fingernails palisade
the unruly ranks of our willful fingers,
and whenever we clasp our hands
a brief convivial darkness sheathes our nails.
That ending-the capturing of the "brief convivial darkness"-is the kind of fleeting observation that few of us could capture. "Conch Shell" gives a hypnotic picture of entering a world; an excuse to document an essence and to describe how the poet is assimilated in the act of observation:
...Shells are paradoxical the way they draw
the eye, and then the fingertips, inside.
When we peek inside the conch shell,
there is a sloping balustrade of faint
pink before the darkness, almost like a bare
shoulder glimpsed briefly in a window frame.
When we look within, the final light
dissolves in shadow, just as once we peered
upward to where the staircase of our childhood
spiraled into dark....
If the littler poems have all the attention to detail of Islamic miniatures, grander themes and poems are in this collection as well. "Gazing at Waves" is one such poem, and is very much a modern poem. The poem follows "Quark Fog" in the collection, so that when I first saw the word "waves", I thought of waves as science sees them, i.e., as in wave-particle theory-and not simply the waves of our natural, pre-scientific observation. For me, his gazing at the waves builds on, and resonates with, two great poems of wave-gazing, Stevens's "The Idea of Order at Key West" (where he writes of "meaningless plunges of water and wind") and Arnold's "Dover Beach" (which uses the sea as an opportunity to reflect upon our littleness). The sea in "Gazing at Waves" at first may give back "our littleness again" and restore our "privileged insignificance"-or it may not. Either way, the awareness of human littleness is evocative because there is some vision of largeness, or privilege, even if only remembered in the poem. The poem formally asks why people look so searchingly out into the sea-and then describes what they find:
At other times, more rarely now perhaps
some little shiver of acknowledgment
still finds us there
between the stately troughing and the
counterglides, the scattered plash
of droplets, with the keen gulls
mewing and the rocks
reflective of a light too old for us,
and this gives back our
littleness again, this restores
some sort of privileged insignificance
or will the wave always appear mere
sequent arrival without consequence?
The spectacle is sovereign, yet intimate.
How soon the waters enter our
attention, follow us in sleep,
accompany the cadence of our minds,
seem punctual and seriatim, curled
in all the beauty of futility....
As for the Theodicy problem, this poem seems to call the score at Chance: one; God's Justice and Power: nothing.
In "Coastlines", a similar mood is evoked. Here he uses nature as a way of talking movingly about the human condition as seen in a particular mood; the randomness and estrangement that is part of our human lot does not unite the couple, as the speaker in "Dover Beach" hopes, though the beautiful quiet music of the rhyming couplets soothes, and gives a sense of the coherence brought by the perception of truths, even if painful:
Coastlines are where our opposites ignite
and no one can say, After all, it's all right.
Coastlines are where your father and your mother
turn without a word forever from each other.
Coastlines are where the quick-footed sun
touches Ultima Thule and can no longer run.
Coastlines are where we learn the ocean's tragedy:
incessant endeavor, incessant panoply,
broken down to crumbs of nothingness
and yet we want to bless
each ragged repetition of the waves,
so inconsolable, so close to us.
(Ultima Thule is the name the ancients used for the most northerly reaches of Europe they had heard of.)
The line "and yet we want to bless" is an example of the religious impulse persisting, despite the incessant disappointment that the beautiful, but futile natural world provides us with.
"Florida Bay" is another powerful major poem of medium length, which deals with many themes, including aging and memory. He sets the mood with:
A flittering of breeze, so hesitant,
rustles my face before the sun is up,
so subtle that it seems the diffident
touch of my children's fingers on my cheek.
I sit there with a wobbly coffee cup
cocked on one drowsy knee. For over a week
this tender predawn breeze has signaled day.
It blows here from the south, from Florida Bay...
The poem then goes on two stanzas later, to raise personal questions:
I used to wonder why I felt so out,
not seeing that it was my mulish nature.
And now, at fifty, when I've just about
finished with childhood (though dissatisfied),
the child's desolation, his nomenclature
of loneliness, projected and identified
with the furniture of Sunday dining rooms
after the pot roast and the macaroons,
still so possesses me.
And though we leave
the darkness of their tears behind the door,
shut our ears to their cries, refuse to grieve
for those we hated with the force of love,
their desperation not to be forgotten or
forsaken follows us till we are victim of
every laceration of their breath
that will not leave us even in their death.
For me, the line "refuse to grieve/for those we hated with the force of love" and "that will not leave us even in their death" is great poetry: we mortals do not abide, but psychologically, the dead abide within us always. The poem rises from that lovely music, that learns from Yeats, Stevens, Eliot, and Auden, the modern masters, to an ending by the sea, where the poet observes Florida Bay,
where the peninsula, above the Keys,
opens onto an unimpeded view.
There once I saw the white birds from the rookeries
of bobbing islands clatter up and fly
and though I cling to memory, as if I knew
devotion were fiercer than that wing-divided sky,
I'll bow before them as they skim the ground:
outside ourselves is where our selves are found.
The last couplet of the poem is not only forceful and evocative, it is a fine description of the objective correlative. So is the image of loneliness projected and identified in the furniture two stanzas above. Interestingly, the psychoanalytic term "projective identification", introduced by Melanie Klein, describes the defence mechanism that most closely approximates Eliot's notion of the objective correlative. Either concept explains that Ormsby's use of nature is to find the human.
There is a wonderful historical sequence, in which Ormsby assumes the voice of Abu al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, "the greatest of classical Arabic poets", who moved from court to court and was murdered by robbers. These poems have the fresh directness, and self-reference seen in much mediaeval poetry; moderns think they invented self-reference (which is an understandably self-referential and modern thing to think), but the Islamic poets and the Jewish poets of mediaeval Spain (who probably gave rise to the troubadours in France), had it too. Ormsby captures the feel of such poets with images and metaphors that are simple and direct:
In alien courts I melodied for bread
but now the sordid business of verse
enjoins me to this dry, northern
kingdom where disaffected ostriches
snort at sundown and the prince
idles the hours away with paradigms
in ancient grammar books.
...My heart is fringed with arrows like the sun
or the chastened, wincing surface of a blade...
He moved from court to court earning his living as a panegyrist, and the first poem ends:
South of Aleppo, where the stony mesas gust
with desolation and the jackal bitch whimpers
and snuffles in an unloved earth, my longing
rang as hungry as the crows of winter.
The inkwell knows me, and the carven quill,
and the tense and crackling surfaces of parchment,
and swords and lances know me, and the strong
and the night will remember me, and all empty
He follows Mutanabbi through the court, in good times and bad. These are among the most pleasing poems in the collection.
Other major poems include "Bavarian Shrine", with its beautiful rhythms. In it he describes hogs being marched off to the abattoir. He starts off in stanza one, pointing out that at the shrine there is a model of Jesus, as a sacrifice:
The rusted feet of Christ in roadside shrines
where the eager nail had bled into the stone...
His agony is fossilized...
Then in stanzas two and three, he describes "swine" being butchered:
The pretty little hogs with specked sides,
their fernlike ears scrolled over clever eyes,
that pick a delicate path on trotting hooves
across the trash and mud of a weathered sty,
enthralled me as I knelt before the shrine.
(I share the German fondness for their swine.)
In autumn, when they come to butcher them, I
memorize their long, despairing squeals
that fill the Bauernhof. I smell their blood,
the stink of singeing bristle, and the smoke,
but feel the most for those who cannot cry
who wedge their frightened bodies to the fence
and shake with dumbstruck terror, paralyzed
and staring, or expel quick spurts of nervous dung
that stains their patterned haunches and stiff tails...
This poem may seem like another animal poem, somewhat like Layton's poignant "Bull Calf", which was also a study of the slaughter of an animal; as a study of the author's feeling of empathy for the slaughtered animals, it can stand and is a wonderful poem. And there is a comparison of Jesus' fate and the animals to reflect on. But I doubt I am the only reader who wondered whether the poem doesn't also resonate with the mass slaughter in the concentration camps; the word "swine" was the main way Jews were addressed in the camps. The powerful line, "I share the German fondness for their swine" is deeply ironic considering what the Germans are about to do to the swine, of course, and in terms of how they treated people.
There are many other excellent things in this collection. One of the little triumphs is a mock letter entitled "Baudelaire to Mme. Aupick at Honfleur (1867)". It reminds me of a series of similar imitation letters by nineteenth-century European writers that the American poet Richard Howard composed in his work Untitled Subjects; but I find Ormsby's poem beginning "Chère Madame" even more successful than those works. In this collection the reader will also experience Ormsby's love of words. The first poem alone contains "elands", "pongo", "copulae", "cladera", "cordilleras". And he is a poet who makes you laugh over and over; I especially like "Nose". I could go on and on.
I can think of no other Canadian who has published a recent volume that shows this level of sustained control of material, mastery of craft, with such an extraordinarily observant eye, and willingness to permit himself to be influenced by recent great poets and to suffer their power. He represents a long-overdue return to music. The result is that Ormsby is one of the most talented poets writing in the English language at this time-that is to say, not one of the hundreds of the fine poets writing, or one of the finest Canadian poets-but one of the handful of the best meditative poets writing in the English language.
Norman Doidge is Books in Canada's editor at large.