from Poetry Ireland Review, Issue 119
The opening lines of 'Some Older American Poets', from Frank Ormsby's Goat's Milk: New and Selected Poems, offer a pithy summary of the three volumes under consideration here:
Tired of the accomplished young men
and the accomplished young women,
their neat cerebral arcs and sphinctral circles,
their impeccable chic, their sudden precocious
their claims to be named front-runner,
I have turned to the ageing poets—the marathon
the marathon women—the ones who breasted the tape
and simply ran on, establishing their own distance.
In an era when the latest arrivals seem to eclipse so much, it is refreshing to be reminded that excellence was not invented by a generation born in the 1980s.
Indeed, reading these three poets' latest volumes together reinforces a sense of indebtedness. Between them, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Gerard Smyth and Frank Ormsby have produced no fewer than eighteen volumes of poetry, have edited or co-edited some of the most influential outlets for poetry in Ireland as well as some of the most significant anthologies of the past four decades, and have contributed significantly to the critical canon of Irish literature. And somehow they have still found time to craft poetry of heart-stilling beauty.
In The Boys of Bluehill, Ní Chuilleanáin offers a series of dramatic tableaux in which a memory of some past event is reappraised in an effort to achieve some fresh sense of understanding of the present. She often presents the speaker pressed up against a window or at a portal of some kind, looking in at shadows of the past, as in the poem 'Stabat Mater', where 'you can only find out by pushing / forward in the crowd / until your body is pressed / flat against the glass'. The reward for that effort is the chance to experience once again 'the elation / of the strings, their long hopping', an almost Wordsworthian recapturing of an emotion long lost.
Ní Chuilleanáin offers no easy clues to the context of each meditation; the poems often feel like Renaissance paintings, where the mood is evoked through the precise details of the imagery and the clues they suggest. Things are in a protean state: indeed there are a number of references to Proteus in this collection. In 'Who Were Those Travellers', change is evoked thus:
Something has intervened, they are not
elemental as before, exile has changed them;
they are thin as air, as a leaf that has stayed
a century inside a book.
The just-so-ness of that leaf simile is utterly characteristic of her work, as is the sense of past resonances it evokes.
Personas are sometimes presented, yet they feel more archetypal than real, as for example in 'The Orchestra Again', where the dream-like opening image of 'a helmet floating / half sunk in the mountain pool' is followed by a line of speech: 'Could that have been his, she wondered.' Who the 'she' is, or how she relates to the speaker, is not explained. And though the second section of the poem presents us with an 'I' and a more direct address, we remain unclear about the relationships contained here, though utterly convinced by the sense of a connection that once was and that continues to be waited for.
Gerard Smyth's poetry feels less liminal, though his nocturnal wanderings in A Song of Elsewhere share a similar concern to reconnect with the past or to ensure that it is not lost. The landscapes moved through are more concrete: actual streetscapes of brick and mortar, treaded upon by the poet and the generations that both precede and come after him, as in 'The Starting-Place', where he walks through 'haunts / that remind me of who I was', or 'Summer Nocturne', where 'in random places we find last vestiges / of a filling station or a parish hall / / that used to be the destination of travelling-players'. The poet is constantly on the move in this collection, celebrating fellow travellers, lamenting those who are gone.
Both Ní Chuilleanáin and Smyth include elegies for artists and poets with the former's moving laments for Pearse Hutchinson and Eamonn O'Doherty complimented by Smyth's elegies for Seamus Heaney and Francis Harvey. Smyth's poem 'Bounty' is a vivid and tender capturing of his former Irish Times colleague, the late Caroline Walsh:
And here's a memory in different colours,
your laugh that showered its sparks on us,
red lipstick on the rim of a coffee cup
or your straw bag stuffed with pages
of revisions to the countless ways of telling a story ...
There is also the faintest echo of another fallen comrade; Smyth shares Dennis O'Driscoll's mordant humour, the scepticism that records our tendency to commodify history and airbrush out the darker aspects. In the poem 'Islandbridge' he offers the juxtaposition of picnic tables and a war memorial, while in 'Wings of Desire' he notes that 'Over the traces of Kristallnacht, / they have built the fashionable streets'.
Frank Ormsby's interest in history is of a more personal kind, though politics is never far away, as Goat's Milk, which includes selections from his first four collections, along with forty-six new poems, testifies. Throughout his career he returns poetically to the small farm in Fermanagh where he grew up and where he first experienced loss: his father's stroke and eventual death are a recurring subject. But Ormsby, like Kavanagh before him, sees the universal in the parochial, and produces carefully honed, unerringly accurate depictions, capturing, as Michael Longley puts it in his introduction to the book, 'something desolate and unsettling [that] shades this poet's vision'. Longley quotes Ormsby's own definition of the lyric poem as an illustration of his 'ars poetica', and it encapsulates well the techniques on display here: 'an insight distilled or crystallised, the essence of a mood or emotion caught with memorable concision, the verbal equivalent—linguistic, aphoristic, epigrammatic—of the brushstroke'.
The earliest poems suggest a debt to Kavanagh in their ability to evoke the rural world in concrete detail, where 'small ads give notice of a world / where little is wasted' (in 'The Practical Farms', from the first collection, A Store of Candles) and where nothing, not even milk churns and steel cans, is beneath the poet's notice because he is capturing the universal through the 'sadness of dim places, obscure lives', as he puts it in another early poem, 'Landscape with Figures'. But the characteristics of that first collection, the detailed and accurate portraits of local characters, the slanted take on sectarian divides (in poems such as 'Sheepman') and the painfully beautiful elegies in poems such as 'A Day in August'— 'And now the wheels are turning. They impress / tracks that will not outlast the winter's rain'—remain remarkably consistent throughout his career.
It is shape and form that undergo the greatest changes over the decades. The poems from The Ghost Train, his 1995 collection, feel more expansive and meditative, although the focus is still on the familial and the local. Here we get some rare experiments with formal poetry, though he appears less comfortable with the repetitive constraints that villanelles such as 'The Graveyard School' represent. This collection includes the marvellous 'Lullaby', which rivals Muldoon's 'Sonogram' in its tender depiction of an unborn child. The selection from the most recent collection, Fireflies (from 2009), features some American poems, including the one quoted at the start of this review, but though in a New World, he rarely loses sight of old concerns with mortality, as poems such as the extended 'Valhalla Journal' sequence demonstrate. The latest poems are shorter, more intense lyrics, some almost haiku-like in their brevity. But they retain Ormsby's eye for detail, his ability to see the numinous in the every day, as 'Bog Cotton' illustrates:
They have the look
of being born old.
Thinning elders among the heather,
trembling in every wind.
Ormsby's influence on Northern Irish poetry is considerable; indeed, so intense is the anxiety of influence experienced by younger Ulster poets in his regard that he has become the subject of no fewer than two fake Twitter accounts; no greater tribute could the current generation of 'accomplished young men / and the accomplished young women' pay to a senior poet.
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About the Author
Nessa O'Mahony has published four volumes of poetry, the most recent being Her Father's Daughter (Salmon Poetry, 2014). She is presenter on The Attic Sessions (www.theatticsessions.tv), and teaches creative writing at the Open University.
Poetry Ireland Review
Editor: Vona Groarke
Assistant Editors: Paul Lenehan, Sally Rooney