Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Books in Canada Review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant

A wonderful review of Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant: Selected Poems in Books in Canada this past month.

Books in Canada
Last spring, This Is Not A Reading Series-the popular Toronto reading series in which writers are encouraged to do anything but read their own work-hosted a discussion on poetry and the environment. Towards the end of the evening, the moderator read a poem to a panel of poets from Gaspereau Press. It wasn’t his, and it went like this:

The stately ripple of the garter snake
In sinuous procession through the grass
Compelled my eye. It stopped and held its head
High above the lawn, and the delicate curve
Of its slender body formed a letter S-
For “serpent,” I assume, as though
Diminutive majesty obliged embodiment.

The garter snake reminded me of those
Cartouches where the figure of a snake
Seems to suggest the presence of a god
Until, more flickering than any god,
The small snake gathered glidingly and slid,
But with such cadence to its rapt advance
That when it stopped once more to raise its head,
It was stiller than the stillest mineral
And when it moved again, it moved the way
A curl of water slips along a stone
Or like the ardent progress of a tear
Till, deeper still, it gave the rubbled grass
And the dull hollows where its ripple ran
Lithe scintillas of exuberance,
Moving the way a chance felicity
Silvers the whole attention of the mind.

The poem is called “Garter Snake” by ex-Montreal poet Eric Ormsby. After his reading, the moderator asked the panel of Gaspereau poets if “Garter Snake” could be considered an “environmental poem.” It was a neat move, an attempt to right a discussion (that had been veering more and more into trendy politics) by reminding the panel that a poem’s prime responsibility is to be excellent. At least, I thought it was a neat move. I didn’t anticipate George Elliott Clarke’s swift, showman’s quip a well-timed beat later. “Garter Snake” he said, is about the poet’s penis.
Give credit where it’s due: Clarke’s crack was funny. It drew its laugh from the audience, myself included. But there was a slightly knowing, even self-righteous note to the laughter. The audience laughed because it knew (as Clarke, a good comedian, gambled it would) that Ormsby had committed a laughable faux pas, at least for a male poet: he had written a sincere, reverential poem about a phallic-shaped reptile, minding its own business in nature. Apparently no one had told Ormsby that it’s no longer de rigeur for a male poet to exercise his “othering gaze”, his “patriarchal power”, his “coloniser’s language”-there’s an M.A.’s worth of clichés to choose from here-on a poor, defenceless garter snake. Even my earlier use of the word “captured” inadvertently characterises Ormsby as swaggering hunter-poet.
We’ve reached an odd moment when a poem as exquisite as “Garter Snake” can be so crassly, but craftily, dismissed. It’s into this moment that Biblioasis has delivered the gorgeous Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems, which compiles Ormsby’s first five collections, plus the usual uncollected rarities, and a new sequence, “Time’s Covenant” for the completists (I like to pretend Ormsby has a rabid cult following; he certainly deserves one).
But before turning to the first poem in Time’s Covenant, newcomers should check the date of Ormsby’s first collection, Bavarian Shrine and other poems, (1990) against his date of birth (1941). Ormsby has taken his time as a poet; he has, instead, had a busy career as a noted Islamic scholar and contributor of expert opinion to periodicals. At a time when poets publish early and often (with what David Solway has gauged as “CV-driven velocity”), Ormsby moves at the kind of unhurried, understated, underwater pace that would have suited Elizabeth Bishop-or one of the sea creatures an Ormsby poem frequently nets with well-knit words.
I write “nets” because Ormsby is not an environmentally friendly poet. That is, his poems don’t trouble with the “relationship” between interloper-human and interlopee-nature. In the typical Ormsby poem, the players and props enjoy fairly fixed positions: the speaker (usually an “I”) looks, while some object (usually an animal, or bit of bric-a-brac, or hunk of Florida real-estate) gets good-and-looked-at. Ormsby, clearly, is one of our most voyeuristic poets. And in our more moralistic moments, we might be troubled by the way the speaker in an Ormsby poem seems to blame his gaze on his chosen object, as if the object was just asking to be objectified. Indeed, like good environmentalists we might not agree with the Ormsby speaker who claims that “mannequins / Sport . . . alluring alcoves of thigh” and conch-shells “draw / The eye, and then the fingertips, inside.” We might even (reasonably) balk at the recurring adjective “virginal”, or one speaker’s insistence that an old woman’s “Old / Velvets insisted on being felt.” With a little theory under our belts, it would take little effort to diagram the way an Ormsby speaker first appropriates and then composts nature into convenient truths. For example, in “Grackle”, an oblivious grackle does its thing, but the speaker thinks the grackle’s “repertoire seems meant to flatter / Us by mimicry and so exonerate / Our grosser faults.” Elsewhere, a similarly oblivious scorpion “made [the speaker] dream of voyages,” while another poem asks, “Is gazing a favour that gazed waves bestow?” And there’s that garter snake, which, Clarke suggests, exists to celebrate the size of something else. Again and again, the natural world seems to provide Ormsby with an opportunity to celebrate his own capacity for seeing and, by extension, his self. If properly primed by an angry professor, some of us might feel inclined to heave that cinderblock of a word, “humanist”, at Ormsby (not too long ago the cinderblock would have been “bourgeois”).
But to flail Ormsby to the row-in-unison beat of the latest, already out-of-date theory is to not only ignore an inconvenient truth (good writing is good voyeurism) but to ignore the fact that Ormsby is an activist-an activist for what he calls “all negligible things.” The speaker in an Ormsby poem can usually be found peering into cracks, crevices, corners, and alcoves; or loafing about abandoned foundries, neglected gardens, and the less touristy stretches of the beach. While the poetry of an Adrienne Rich frequently campaigns for the sort of marginalised groups that have mandates, Ormsby’s poetry sets up camp on actual, physical margins-the edges and baseboards to which skin follicles of all colours are eventually swept. Like the weed mullein, his poetry “domesticates / Small desolations and . . . pinches place / From peripheries where places cannot be . . .” He then populates these “peripheries” with “negligible things” like combs, pebbles, nails pried “[o]ut of a powdery corner,” and just about anything that can stick to the sole of a shoe. (Had Ormsby been the hapless motorist stranded between highways in J.G. Ballard’s cult novel, Concrete Island, I suspect he would have been perfectly happy amid the debris.)
He collects animals, too, but he’s poetry’s most liberal zookeeper since Marianne Moore. Like Moore, he’s not after big game; his poetry consistently sides with the underdogs and squatters that occupy all of those aforementioned cracks, crevices, corners, and alcoves: garter snakes, moths, spiders-critters few hunters would want to bag and stuff. Ormsby, of course, is no hunter; he’s a packrat and his body of work is a richly musty fleamarket of poetic curios and near-obsolete words, lovingly collected. “The refrain in his poems is not ‘I am,’ observes Amanda Jernigan, but “‘I like.’ He is a verbal spendthrift, a connoisseur of the actual, the mortal world’s not-so-secret admirer.”
Some of us might prefer a more explicitly outraged poem that exposes, say, the squalid environmental conditions in a sweatshop. Ormsby prefers to consider how perfume bottles “showed their clumsy seams /-mere factory casts!-running up their backs / Like a wind-stunned thread of tears.” That’s exquisite. In fact, such spot-on lines posit a principal reason for reading Ormsby: to witness extraordinary feats of verbal description. If Auden was right, and poetry is basically just “memorable speech,” then Ormsby has given us much to remember. As a “verbal spendthrift,” he may sometimes send us to the dictionary, but the trip is usually worth it. Like the cellar in his poem “Cellar”, Ormsby “gives / Reluctant nobility to . . . disowned things” in language that deserves to be memorized:

We saw the lightning lace the school’s façade
With instantaneous traceries and hairline fires,
Like a road map glimpsed by flashlight in a car.
(from “Rain in Childhood”)

The conch is the trumpet of solemn festivals
And its pinnacle-auger-threaded,
Spire-sleek, piquant as lance-
Tip or the brass casque of a khan-
Scalpels the roughened currents asunder.
But the russet life that hides inside,
Whose flesh tastes good in broths,
Flinches from the light.
(from “Conch-Shell”)

I thought of the kingdoms it had crept
Through under the ground, spud-
Smug, amid the dust of the bones of shahs
And eunuchs, those generations of the Flood,
The Colossi and the Accursed,
The Great Hunger and the hegiras,
Telemons and ostraca and, worst,
Immense anti-archives of dirt.
(from “Episode with a Potato”)

His toenails clicked their little castanets, His ankles and patella cadence-clacked,
His nipples pizzicattoed with a taut
Epidermal anthem of delight,
His piccolo of penis piped its glee,
And even his shy balls in their goathair sack
Blipped like muffled bugles when he walked.
(from “Love Among the Dunes”)

The rails that stretch away in parallel
Abraded brightnesses dismay, like those problems
In your old mathematics book at school…
(from “Railway Stanzas”)

But here, before the open waves, where beach
umbrellas bloomed in tulip rows…
(from “My First Beach”)

“[T]hese are just a few of the things I can’t bear not to quote,” Randall Jarrell once wrote, in an essay on Marianne Moore’s poetry. “I haven’t yet come to the things I want to quote-I may never get to them.” So, too, with Ormsby’s oeuvre, where brilliant image follows brilliant image with such frequency, the reader is quickly spoiled. At their worst, Ormsby’s poems can seem like mere catalogues of gorgeous description, with little in the way of narrative or argument to tie the riches together. Even Ormsby’s fine book Araby (2000)-devoted to the misadventures of Jaham and his sidekick Bald Adham-works less as a coherent, book-length narrative than a collection of individually excellent lyric poems that just happen to star the same cast.
At their best, however, Ormsby’s poems form a body of work that could easily double as a primer on poetic perception. There’s little in the way of typographical hijinx; the poems responsibly align themselves with a left margin that, in turn, confers on each line the dignity of a capital letter, and their matter-of-fact titles like “Nose”, “Grackle”, and “Rooster” can appear deceptively banal. Such titles, however, seem to constitute a self-imposed challenge, forcing Ormsby, time after time, to rise above banality and deliver the best poem we’ll ever read about a nose, a grackle, or a rooster. Elizabeth Bishop was great at this game. Nevermind that her mentor, Moore, wrote a fine poem called, “The Fish”; Bishop’s “The Fish” has the last word just as Ormsby’s poem, “Rooster”, has the nerve to take a shot at supplanting Bishop’s own “Roosters”. Certainly no poet, not even Bishop, has better recorded the rooster’s “dark, corroded croak / Like a grudging nail tugged out of stubborn wood . . . ”
Ormsby, then, may just be another poet’s poet, but that’s no label to sniff at. Although not much recognised in her lifetime, Bishop-famously described as a “poet’s poet’s poet”-has since eclipsed many of her contemporaries. And though we may laugh at the easy joke of one of Ormsby’s peers, it’s worth noting that “Garter Snake” originally appeared in The New Yorker. Ormsby’s poems, in other words, have reached beyond the boundaries that have consigned so much verbally hum-drum Canadian poetry to its narrow but deserved place, next to the vacuum cleaner. Poems like “Garter Snake”, “Grackle”, “Rooster”, “Song for an Ironing Board”, “The Song of the Whisk”, “Childhood House”, and a growing handful of others, are built to last-just in case we stop laughing long enough to recognise them for what they are: classics, daring us to supplant them with our own.
Jason Guriel (Books in Canada)

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