Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Animate Perceptions: a Review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant

by Monika Lee. From Canadian Literature.

Eric Ormsby’s Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems is a lengthy compilation (281 pages spanning from 1958 to 2006) of this remarkably cosmopolitan poet’s best writing. The lyrics, as great poems are apt to be, are so rich and complex as to defy summation. Simultaneously concrete and abstract, optimistic and pessimistic, prayerful and irreverent, truthful and deceiving, Ormsby’s creations are singular, layered, and exciting. His poet persona Jaham says, “I drive the syllables before me” and “The colts of my sinuous vowels tug against the leather of my consonants”; Ormsby’s identifications with Islam and his poetic negative capability have particular contemporary force in the post-9/11 world on which parts of this volume provide a courageous commentary. These poems are, above all, earthy, and they celebrate milkweed, moths, pigs, lichen, moss, a potato, spiders, shells, a big toe, skunk cabbage, a dachshund, and all the other wonders of the natural world through intensely metaphorical language revealing meaning in every specific detail. The sheer density of the language and imagery is sometimes reminiscent of Keats or Spenser, but the humour and the irony are thoroughly modern and postmodern. The imagistic force of many lines rivals Ezra Pound’s; there is an obvious painterly (and sculptural) pleasure in studies such as “Wood Fungus”: “Jawbone-shaped, inert as moons, neutral entablatures, they apron bark and pool rain.” The poetic voice is unsentimentally committed to a semantics of the terrestrial and the implicit personifications of nature are subliminal and latent. There is something of a Renaissance cosmology in Ormsby’s contemplative perspective on the relation between microcosm and macrocosm, but he inverts the traditional hierarchy by valorizing the microcosm: “I love everything that perishes. Everything that perishes entrances me.” Hence “Lazurus” poems open the volume with the beauty of the reduction we call death: “Death, here, / Means curling back into that / Simplicity of shape.” The book’s title poem “Time’s Covenant,” second from last, frames a community of fear in which Ormsby is a participant after 9/11. He wears a beaded muslim cap, symbolic of the Islamic traditions he weaves into poems, in order to keep his “brains together.” Time’s Covenant brings us into community with things with which we do not normally identify. Ormsby’s poems, “calligraphic patterns of decay,” witness the paradoxical liveliness of the inanimate as they work a tactile magic to animate the dead: “cessation itself is a fragrance of time.”

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