We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and imagination, but we can’t do it without you. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Scrupulous poets, Eric Ormsby has suggested, maintain "a fidelity, almost Linnaen in intensity, to the entire character of words–individual words and words acting in concert." With For a Modest God (which appends to new poems ample selections from two earlier, Canadian volumes), Ormsby reaffirms his fealty to not only the best words, but also, often, the most luxurious and exquisite ones. Elevating this rich diction above pure ornament is the emotional precision with which he renders his various subjects, hieratic or homey, from the Parisian Salle des Martyrs to the sharp-billed anhinga.
Set as prologue, "Quark Fog" asserts language's elemental agency from the outset:
If merest fable drops into the fog,
articulated stars assert
eclosion of the gold-sewn chrysalids.
Early nouns bob in blunt fens.
Verbs browse electrically in mist
particles gnarl the stems of bulrush copulae.
In a pristine caldera of consonants,
vowel-magma brims and
virginal horizons spike
cordilleras of speech.
The poem, with its bequiling wordplay, attests to Ormsby's own control over the full character of English. Through their origins, in puns, and in metaphors, words pull double and triple duty. "Gold-sewn," for example, slyly rekindles the etymological fire in "chrysalids" (chrys = gold), while a hidden sense of "browse" (young leaves and shoots) obliquely forecasts "stems" in the following line. "Particles" achieves, with a word, a quiddity of the poem's mixture of language and matter.
One of Ormsby's most appealing linguistic moves involves nouns bracketing the word of, as above in "caldera of consonants" and "cordilleras of speech." Such phrases take their force from metaphor, from a union of disparate elements–and often, for Ormsby, the more disparate the better. So evocative are Ormsby's "of" constructions, so deft the correspondences and so plentiful, that they can function almost as a prosodic devise. In "Statues and Mannequins" alone, we get "labyrinth of the fingerprint," "sepals of nobility," "isinglass of hurt," "encumbrances of November," "verdigris of disenchantment," and "stigmata of rust." Elsewhere, Ormsby includes such verbal arabesques as a "stridulence of beetles," "superfluities of sight," and the ominously exorbitant "limestone ziggurats of bane."
A Stevensian fecundity distinguishes these poems throughout, as does a fearlessness for pushing things to their seed-heavy, fertile limit. For Ormsby, words lead back to their beginnings, and, in one striking case, even to the poet's own originals:
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
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 . . .
If here the dead are curiously forthcoming with their words, in "Gravediggers' April" (also from the section of new work) the speaker has a few things to say in return:
In winter we comfort our dead with talk.
We entertain them with our idle gossip.
We whisper the news while our breath freezes.
We line up at the storage shed where their bodies lie
awaiting the great thaws of uncertain spring.
The gentle tone and melancholy strangeness suggest a folktale at once uncanny and intimate. The townspeople, in passing on the latest gossip to their dead, comfort themselves as well. Through his story-book setting, Ormsby elaborates with arresting clarity the very real process of confronting loss. Only when the gravediggers return in the spring, "staggering, soused to the gills, on overtime," and the dead are borne out "into the flowering cemetery," can the citizenry begin to mourn.
In a similar vein, Ormsby's earlier collections constitute in part a dialogue with his own ancestors in poems such as "My First Beach," "Remembrance," "My Mother in Old Age," "A Florida Childhood," "Childhood House," and "Adages of a Grandmother." The Grandmother Poem must, by now, constitute a minor tradition in American poetry, though one with few accomplished instances. Illustrative of the difficulties inherent in the genre, "Getting Ready for the Night" has the family matriarch asking her grandchild, "Won't you clip my toenails for me now?" The poem describes shearing off the brown horns of nail from the elderly woman's feet. So jarring is the image that it invites nervous laughter, jostling the poem's quite poignant conclusion. It's scabrous enough writing about the frailties of the body without the body in question belonging to one's grandmother. Yet the poem achieves a disarming intimacy, a quality with which Ormsby can imbue even the most ostensibly mundane subjects.
More so than the family poems, Ormsby's persona poems and his various considerations of animals and objects strike the desired balance between artifice and emotion. Recalling Marianne Moore's strawberry "that's had a struggle" is "Lichens":
. . . The way they clasp
and cover the rocks seems to signify
inconspicuous courage and tenacity. But
at evening they gleam bleakly in exact
configurations, and their order is fiercer
than the sea's . . .
As with Moore, one gets the feeling that both flora and fauna are to be admired, not so much for their likeness to humans, but for their attributes that outshine our own, and to which we can only weakly aspire. A related species of poem, reminiscent of Moore's odes to the pangolin and jerboa, is "Anhinga":
The anhingas ogle the gorgeous sky
over Shark River and as they gaze
wings, meticulous and moist.
They hold their pose.
It is almost reverential for those,
like me, with worshipful proclivities
when these black birds spread out such wings.
A collector's eye for vocabulary captures these creatures in all their exotic detail, though such flourishes are never ends in themselves. Ormsby's worshipful proclivities discover in the habits of shore birds a hosanna for the glories of nature.
The musically minded Ormsby then shifts his baroque register from the Moore-ish to the Moorish, or rather to the Islamic courts of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, in his sequence of monologues in the voice of the great Arabic poet Mutanabbi. This passage from "Mutanabbi in Exile" sounds the lugubrious tones of an Othello infused with Ovidian nostalgia:
South of Aleppo, where the stony mesas gust
with desolation and the jackal bitch whimpers
and snuffles in an unloved earth, my longing
rang as hungry as the crows of winter.
The inkwell knows me, and the carven quill,
and the tense and crackling surfaces of parchment,
and swords and lances know me, and the strong horses,
and the night will remember me, and all empty places.
Ormsby's shadow-pentameters assert a rhythmic control over the poems' "crackling surfaces," constructing a cadence for Mutanabbi's plangent homesickness. Ormsby renders his "empty places" with redeeming warmth. Indeed, privation can occasion Ormsby's greatest eloquence, as in "Salle des Martyrs," in which "preconceived messages" fail to transmit a loss best expressed through the music of verse. The poem's meaning inheres as fully in its sonics as in its semantics:
No tableaux will commemorate our loss,
no delicate daubs of calligraphy our crown.
The prerecorded messages wind down.
Beyond the blood-flecked alb and chasuble
an eighteenth-century Christ, all ivory,
fissures upon His cross.
And outside, in the moist Parisian noon,
the rosebushes draw their redness from this
In their attention to melody, these poems seem to respond to Paul Valèry's criticism of language in the television age, where "all the changes that it undergoes in the interest of a more rapid transmission and easier diffusion, are contrary to its function as a poetic instrument." "The poet's exactitude is never merely factual," Ormsby has written. It "is lexical, but it is also emotional," as illustrated by his poem in the voice of Baudelaire. The poem laments the loss not of passion but of a time when emotion was clarified in contemplation:
If I imagine Eden or a paradise
where passion steeps its secret harmonies,
my memory is of those soft afternoons
when without speaking, or the need to speak,
the two of us admired the fading light.
Those were the last times that we had of such
order made passionate in lucidity,
of passionate innocence, passionate peace,
a love not governed by the torturers.
Such "order made passionate in lucidity" reminds us that, notwithstanding its more filigreed moments, the poetry remains in the service of deep feeling rather than arid wit. Yet emotion is conveyed here with all the nuance and lightness of wit, even in its sonorous registers. The modest god of Ormsby's title, the djin behind his companionable book, is "attuned to nothing somberer than the trills / when all our crockery trembles to the fault / of obscure, dimly rumorous calamities." Something of the generosity of these poems–in word and spirit–convinces us, while we are in their thrall, that such calamities are quite far off indeed.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.