Repeat after me:
I wanted to go down to where the roots begin,
To find words nested in their almond skin,
The seed-curls of their birth, their sprigs of origin.
The iambs beat like a healthy heart. The buzz of r‘s on the tongue is pure pleasure, as is the echo of Yeats. Next stanza:
At night the dead set words upon my tongue,
Drew back their coverings, laid bare the long
Sheaths of their roots where the earth still clung.
Words are fecund, passed along by the past, by forebears poetic and otherwise. In tongue/long/clung we hear the solemn tolling of ancestors. Like plants, like teeth, words have roots, are rooted. Now pay attention:
I wanted to draw their words from the mouths of the dead,
I wanted to strip the coins from their heavy eyes,
I wanted the rosy breath to gladden their skins.
Poetry is acquiescent ventriloquism, borrowed voices. The words are already there. We need only listen to reanimate them, to raise the dead. And now the concluding lines:
All night the dead remembered their origins,
All night they nested in the curve of my eyes,
And I tasted the savour of their seed-bed.
The tongue, lips and palate savor words. Reading a poem is akin to eating and singing, urges that sustain us while giving pleasure. Something about the best poetry is primally human. Eric Ormsby titles his poem “Origins” and sets it like an epigraph, italicized, at the front of The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems, suggesting a disclaimer for what follows: “My poems are written to give pleasure,” he might be saying. “No trespassing for the tin-eared and ahedonic. ”In the essay “Poetry as Isotope: The Hidden Life of Words” (Facsimiles of Time, 2001), Ormsby makes clear his poetic assumptions:
In poetry the immediate pleasure is physical. Recurrence, repetition, pattern, design, account for much of the pleasure we receive from poetry; these returning patterns correspond to something in ourselves, to something in nature. They correspond to the rhythm of things. They echo the beat of our hearts, the pulse in our throats, the cadence of our breath. They reflect larger sequences of recurrence: the alternations of night and day, the succession of the seasons, the elemental speech of natural processes; the voices of rivers or of oceans; the various dialects of the winds; the articulated and recurrent cries of birds.
Such talk is heretical in today’s culture of colloquial poetry flatter than good prose. Ormsby is a multilingual voluptuary of sound. Born in Georgia in 1941 and raised in Florida, his career has been unusually scholarly and cosmopolitan, qualities that distinguish his verse yet never make it stuffy. He lived for decades in Montreal, serving as director of University Libraries and professor of Islamic thought at McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies. Now he is professor and chief librarian at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. His previous books include Theodicy in Islamic Thought and Moses Maimonides and His Time, and Ormsby has earned a reputation as a discerning critic and reviewer in England and North America. He shares the bookish bent of those other librarian-poets, Borges and Larkin.
The Baboons of Hada is a severe winnowing of Time’s Covenant: Selected Poems, published in 2007 by Biblioasis of Canada. At almost 300 pages, the earlier volume contains Ormsby’s previous five collections together with new and uncollected poems. It’s the volume to acquire if you find Ormsby’s work to your liking. Unusually, none of his poems is without merit, though some shine more brightly than others. His new book contains a stingy 68 poems in 118 pages, arranged in four sections without regard for chronology. It’s more a representative core sample than a career-documenting cornucopia.
Ormsby is a poet of celebration. He revels in the order and design of creation. He’s unapologetic about his abject love of the beautiful. In “Microcosm” he sounds like a fractal-minded Blake: “The smallest beings harbor a universe / Of telescoped similitudes.” But he’s neither nature mystic nor heir to the Transcendentalists, celebrating and singing himself while ostensibly celebrating Nature. Many of his poems, like Marianne Moore’s (perhaps the poet he most resembles, with a dash of Wallace Stevens), are devoted to animals, usually species of elegant design or capable of elegant creation—starfish, spiders, flamingos and anhinga. To fauna he adds flora, often the humble, homely sort still beautiful in design—milkweed, mullein, lichens and skunk cabbage. His sonnet to the last-named flower concludes with these lines:
It always seems so squat, dumpy and rank,
A noxious efflorescence of the swamp,
Until I got down low and looked at it.
Now I search out its blunt totemic shape
And bow when I see its outer stalks
Drawn aside, like the frilly curtains of the ark,
For the foul magenta of its gorgeous heart.
Ormsby is a poet of second and third looks, both curious and reverent, who bows before the world’s bounty to see it more closely and to pay his respects. His work is neither confessional nor rancorously political—the default modes of much contemporary verse. Even his overtly autobiographical poems, usually devoted to his Southern childhood, are never preciously self-regarding, building up to the portentous revelation so dear to the hearts of small poets. A poem titled “Childhood Home” would normally be cause for running away in dread. Ormsby turns it into a sad, clear-eyed meditation on memory and its duplicitous seductions:
Somehow I had assumed
That the past stood still, in perfected effigies of itself,
And that what we had once possessed remained our possession
Forever, and that at least the past, our past, our child-
Hood, waited, always available, at the touch of a nerve,
Did not deteriorate like the untended house of an
Ageing mother, but stood in pristine perfection, as in
Sometimes I fancy that poets and all writers can be distinguished as writing either for children or adults, and either as children or adults. So many are among the former. Their assumptions about the world are one-dimensional and without nuance. Of course, even a mature-minded poet can, on occasion, slip into childishness.
Ormsby has been dismissed by some critics as a finicky collector of bric-a-brac, a fuddy-duddy of pretty effects. Such assessments reflect a childish earnestness. In a review of Marianne Moore’s letters, Ormsby once referred to that great poet, so often patronized as a quaintly cute old lady, as “a tenacious, indeed obsessive writer who could be as cruel in her curiosity as she was exquisite in her perceptions.” In Ormsby we see a similar melding of the scientist’s ruthless eye and the singer’s sensitive tongue.
Patrick Kurp is a writer living in Houston, Texas, and the author of the literary blog Anecdotal Evidence.
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