Frank Ormsby, The Darkness of Snow (Bloodaxe, £9.95).
Frank Ormsby’s last book, Goat’s Milk, was a New and Selected giving a rich retrospective on a poet who was part of the flowering of poetry from Ulster that emerged in the shadows of The Troubles. That flowering gave us, firstly, Heaney, Longley and Mahon, and in its second efflorescence give us Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Tom Paulin. The received wisdom is that Ormsby’s output as a poet has perhaps been somewhat overshadowed by those other writers. In part, that overshadowing is due to the paucity of Ormsby’s production. Between 1977 and 2009, Ormsby produced only four books of poetry, although Goat’s Milk contained a substantial group of new poems. The distance between those early poems and this new collection does not always seem to be forty years. The first collection contained poems which described the world of his childhood, and so does the new book. Goat’s Milk contained the sequence ‘A Northern Spring’, which was a series of short, lyric monologues in the voice of those experiencing the Second World War. The Darkness of Snow contains two sequences: ‘Twenty-Six Irish Paintings’, which is as the title suggests, and ‘The Parkinson’s Poems’, which, again, is relatively self-explanatory.
In Goat’s Milk, too, there was an wide range of styles and approaches. Ormsby has shown himself adept at both formal poetry and looser, much freer, less intense writing at all periods of his writing. ‘The Parkinson’s Poems’, are a case in point. Physical illness has become a bit of a staple of some contemporary writing recently. However, Ormsby shows no inclination, in this book, to join the world of misery memoir. There is a lightness of touch in these poems which makes them more poignant. In the Parkinson’s poem, there is a small group of three poems entitled, ‘Hallucinations’; in the midst of which Ormsby notes, ‘these creatures who live in my head – / a troop of Ariels, or some nifty cirque du soleil/ acrobats and clowns’, then later, ‘I may never be rid of them, though/ leave taking seems to be their speciality. They zip away/ out of lamps, statues, vases, cushions, chairs/ but without the words or gestures.’ These quiet, unadorned descriptions make the experiences more real and more poignant than louder intricacy.
The third section of this generous book comprises ‘Twenty-Six Irish Paintings’, which the blurb tells us are based on ‘the work of Irish painters in Normandy, Brittany and Belgium at the end of the 19th century.’ These paintings provoke Ormsby into a range of approaches and styles, from the first-person monologue of ‘Stanley Royle: the Goose Girl’ and ‘Joseph Malachy Kavanagh: Pursuing his Gentle Calling’, to the gentle self-irony of ‘Norman Garstin: Madonna Lilies’, which begins ‘Madonna lilies, nuns among flowers,/ nuns of the middle air…’ and finishes, ‘Girls of the middle air,/ you have set me babbling,/ lovely girls, mistresses every one./ Sensuous blooms/ of the religio-erotic/ madonna lilies.’ And there is always Ormsby’s characteristic generosity, as when he adopts the persona of the viewer in Kavanagh’s ‘Pursuing his Gentle Calling’, ‘Next time I’ll spread the snows of Dublin,/ the snows of Brittany around his feet./ I’ll cure his limp and fill a pipe for him./ He will turn his back on me. He will walk away.’ Thus, if Ormsby feels an empathetic connection, he’s generous enough for that connection to be transient, where he feels able to offer what he can with no sense of required recompense. Ormsby’s generosity pervades this book not only in the sequences, but also in the other delicate, graceful, individual lyrics which fill the book with precision and insight.