Daybreak at the Straits and Other Poems

by Eric Ormsby
ISBN: 1932023143

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A Review of: Daybreak at the Straits and Other Poems
by Brian Bartlett

When Emerson writes-in one of his greatest essays, "Experience", from 1844-"I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment, and this is a fragment of me," he's talking in part about his own essay, his own art. "Like a bird which alights anywhere," he continues, trying out another metaphor, "but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one."
What Emerson says above might apply to the vast array of poets we can read from diverse times, nationalities, languages, and aesthetic directions. A "universal" poet could be an intriguing subject for a science-fiction novel, but isn't of this world. Even the poet most often called "god-like", born in Stratford-upon-Avon, has limitations. Even he doesn't offer many combinations of style and structure and many kinds of linguistic distinctness found in poets both before and after his time. That's one reason a shelf's worth of poets gives us more than any one poet can. If we love Milton's sonorousness and superbly dramatic enjambments but sooner or later crave something more conversational, we might pick up Frost. If we begin to find Frost evasive, how about Amichai? If our reading of Amichai in English eventually feels frustrated because we can't hear the original sounds of his Hebrew, we might from Dickinson's hymn-like stanzas, there are always the wide lines of Lorca's A Poet in New York. To quote again from Emerson: "It needs the whole society to give the symmetry we seek."
This isn't meant to suggest that we should curb our expectations of specific poets, simply appreciate whatever they give us, and stifle our thoughts about what's missing in their art. The hunger for largeness and genre-challenging poetics is healthy-unless we move too quickly, even with poets we admire, from understanding to judgment, and lightly, even begrudgingly, praise them before arguing how they might become a more comprehensive poet. When a reader wants a poet of one kind to be a poet of another kind, he or she can become like a child who, visiting a zoo, only wants to see the lions and tigers, and tugs impatiently at their parent's hand when they stand before zebras or gnus. The most valuable poets-or arguably, all good poets-are inimitable and irreplaceable, but there are other inimitable, irreplaceable poets, and every one is fenced in by the characteristics of their individuality. . .. .
For those of us who believe that Ormsby's For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems is one of the touchstones of the best English language poetry from the past decade, Daybreak at the Straits carries on the strengths and satisfactions of that book. Unlike his previous collection, Araby, a happy experiment welcome for the ways it opened Ormsby's oeuvre to new territory, Daybreak at the Straits is more like a further chapter of For a Modest God than like a trip into unexpected regions. The new book includes poems that should be ear-marked for inclusion in a second Ormsby Selected (I could list twice the number, but here's a start: "What the Snow Was Not", "A Fragrance of Time", "Two Views of My Grandfather's Courting Letters", "Little Auguries", the title poem, "Watchdog and Rooster", "Microcosm", "Against Memorials"). Ormsby's collection can easily be divided into categories such as nature poems, landscape poems, childhood and family poems, metaphysical poems, comic or light poems, narrative poems, and poems about time.
Another outstanding aspect of his poems is the diction. Anyone wondering why Ormsby employs such elaborate vocabulary need only read his memoir, "The Place of Shakespeare in the House of Pain", in his book of prose Facsimiles of Time. There he describes how in his Florida childhood he was drawn to the "august witchery of language" through the frequent quoting of Shakespeare by his grandmother and his aunt. >From the time he was compelled to memorize passages of Shakespeare at the age of seven, Ormsby has been someone for whom language is an incantatory, theatrical, tongue-pleasing, melodious force. That may be one source of the occasional distracting passages in his poems where I'm reminded of John Muir's stylistic recommendation to himself about "slaughtering gloriouses" (in a recent, largely laudatory essay in Canadian Notes & Queries, David O'Meara discusses a few such passages).
Delighting-in-all-the-nooks-and-crannies-of-English gusto, however, is also one source of Ormsby's uniqueness. Daybreak at the Straits is flavoured with the verbs "flack and deckle", "knicker and clip", and "psalmodizes", as well as (in the longstanding English tradition of turning nouns into verbs) "monuments", "labyrinths", and "Ixion". Ormsby also thankfully ignores the advice of those biased against adjectives to such a degree that I was tempted to say that in his poems adjectives are what metaphors are in Sinclair's (but he's also a tireless inventor of metaphors). In all strong poetry, we encounter word joinings we can't recall finding before, but such joinings are even more frequent in Ormsby's lines than in the lines of many other fine poets. Savour these: "sphagnum chasms", "zealous spoons", "citrine tincture", "burlesque / Doodlebug", "patina instants", "saxifrage / stubbornness", "tasseled rhetoric", or, moving on to compound adjectives, "grass-sprigged masonry", "winter-dociled bee", "wind-stunned fruit", and "sea-lathed skeleton". At times Ormsby's comedy erupts from his adjectival word-play: "paradisal mayonnaise", "cacklephilous concubines", "yap-infested bozo", "snort-eloquent". Just listing such phrases, like listing Sinclair's metaphors, unfortunately robs them of context and risks making them seem over-spectacular. So it's worth noting that in nearly every case the adjectives are not there for the sake of novelty but are accurate and revealing. Ormsby's diction is so intoxicating that it's understandable how sometimes readers might feel relieved by the plainer speech and quieter effects in his lines. Our happiness with swimming in the baroque waters of such poems depends in part upon whether we consider the term "rich" positive or pejorative. Some of us, too, may question whether there's now and then a forced excitement in Ormsby's extensive use of the apostrophe "O", even though the exclamation is often used jauntily or jestingly.
While some poets move from observation to metaphor-or to simultaneously observe and metaphorize-Ormsby often shows as much interest in surface, appearance and fact as in imaginative transformation. Though he's rarely far from metaphor, he spends more lines elaborating upon single images. Ormsby's "A Dachshund in Bohemia" keeps its eye on the dog until its last line, honouring its "unmerciful mouth", its "low-slung hammock belly", and its wagging "from muzzle to tail-tip". "Rowing into the Glades" spends nearly fifty lines recalling a childhood episode in the Everglades when a snapping turtle pulled a marsh hen to its underwater death. Another wide-ranging element of Ormsby's book is the great variety of its speakers: it has whole poems giving voice to the wife of Lazarus and an Emperor Penguin, along with passages spoken by a rooster, a worm, sofas and curtains, and a potato; needless to say, these are usually poems where comedy is ripe.
Ormsby's book ends disappointingly for me with the villanelle "Lines Written after Reading Thomas Kempis". The poem itself is a fine meditative piece; my qualm isn't with it, but with the structural choice to make it the conclusion of the book. Its final lines, "Take comfort from your nothingness. / Get pleasure from becoming less", are surely both too directive and too ascetic to serve as a reminder of the book's generosity of spirit and its curiosity about so many things. Other poems-the title poem, or "A Fragrance of Time", or "Our Spiders" (with its poetical spiders described as "theatrical", "musical", "convivial", and "rhapsodical")--would've felt more appropriate and rewarding as the collection's conclusion. Even the introductory poem, "The Jewel Box", would've made an ending faithful to the exuberance of the collection, its last lines reading:

Our ancestors are stronger than the taste
of some abandoned attar we still find
back of the jewel box where sweet shadows wind
remembrance out of fragrance until our tongues
burn like the first air breathed into newborn lungs.

The villanelle's "nothingness" and "becoming less" that end the book say less about Ormsby's poetry than "fragrance", "tongues / burn", and "newborn lungs".
We're fortunate to see the publication of Daybreak at the Straits. It helps to illustrate Emerson's statement in his essay "The Poet" that "the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze." When we read Ormsby, to go back again to Emerson's "The Poet", we may feel "like persons who come out of a cave or a cellar into the open air."

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