Frank Ormsby

Martin Mooney discusses the work of Enniskillen's Frank Ormsby

Though highly influential as an editor and anthologist (he was a long-serving editor of the Honest Ulsterman magazine in the 1970s and 80s) Frank Ormsby is primarily a poet of the local and familiar (in both senses of the word) who nevertheless knows that the wider world sets the context for the small happenings of ordinary lives.

Even in the ‘Lower Infants’ pre-Copernican’ classroom, charts depict the ‘cosmic marbles’ of the solar system, and

Signals drift to you from another world
beyond the big curtain where letters join
and the language is different.

(‘Geography’)

In the second section of the same poem, from Ormsby’s third and most recent collection The Ghost Train (1995) the speaker tunes into the conversations between amateur radio enthusiasts in Ireland and an orbiting cosmonaut, ‘half-homeless’ as the former Soviet Union falls apart:

                               ...I hear
Hiberno-English from West of the Bann
across the crackle of the universe. Manus is on the air,
Manus McClafferty, somewhere in Donegal,
to Sergei Krikalyov: ‘How’s she cuttin’, boy?’
(Or did I imagine that?) and Sergei replies:
‘It’s a hard oul’ station, Manus, but what can you do?’

In its tongue-in-cheek way that exchange knits together a number of Frank Ormsby’s recurrent themes. The affectionate nod to ‘Hiberno-English from West of the Bann’ reflects the poet’s own origins (he was born in 1947, in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh) while the stoical melancholy of the orbiting exile sounds a note heard at one pitch or another throughout Ormsby’s work.

Here it is in ‘Landscape with Figures’, the first poem in his first collection (A Store of Candles, 1977):

Sadness of dim places, obscure lives,
Ends and beginnings,
Such extremities.

We also hear it in the voices of the war weary GIs of ‘A Northern Spring’, and in the elegies for the poet’s father that open The Ghost Train.

These last-mentioned poems view the relationship of father and son through the lens of a shared fascination for horseracing – the boy cycling to place bets for his father, the disabled father still urgently following the progress of the horse he has backed:

                        Speechless since his stroke
suddenly he trails a rein of saliva.
If his legs would take the strain
he’d be skelping his buttocks the length of the home straight.

(‘One Saturday’)

The second section of this three-part poem releases something darker that lies behind the gentle melancholy or poignancy of Ormsby’s work, the violent mortal force of disease, violence and death:

And a beast, some humped blackness, heaves its head,
the ox in Uttoxeter finding form at last
in troubled light on a Saturday afternoon.

The critic Eve Patten has said that ‘if Ormsby’s own writing has tended for the most part towards restraint, this is because he, like [John] Hewitt, sees the poet as a civil commentator who speaks from the sidelines, and whose response to events must be consciously mediated by time and perspective.’ But if this is so, Ormsby’s ‘restrained’ poems also restrain forces and beings like the ‘humped blackness’ intuited above.

In ‘A Northern Spring’, the title sequence of his second collection, Ormsby borrows the loose architecture of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology to imagine the fates of the American troops who were stationed in his native Fermanagh in the months before the Normandy landings of 1944, and their (posthumous) dramatic monologues leave no room for any evasion of the realities of human mortality:

If dead men laughed, I would have laughed the day
the committee for white heroes honoured me,
and honoured too the mangled testicles
of Leroy Earl Johnson.

(‘I Stepped on a Small Landmine’)

The poems in A Northern Spring, both those focused on WWII and the freestanding pieces that bookend the title sequence, show that Ormsby’s work, while it addresses the world in its local and familiar incarnations, does not shirk engagement with atrocity.

If the poems approach such matter from an obtuse angle, perhaps they do so only because poets – at least the poets with whom Ormsby most closely identifies – must, like war photographers, work

...with one eye closed or heads buried
under their drapes, [as] they focus to preserve
the drowned shell-hole, the salient’s rubble of dead,
the bleached bones of sepoys torn from the earth.

(‘The War Photographers’)

In his introduction to his anthology of the poetry of the Troubles, A Rage for Order (1992), Ormsby writes that his selection seeks to demonstrate the ‘vitalities and humane perspectives of... poetry, its cumulative counterblasts to the reductive, lethal simplicities of the propagandist, its embodiment of “semantic scruples” in a province where language is often a dangerous, sometimes a fatal, weapon.’

Ormsby’s own scrupulous language, his unshowy technique and his gift for incisive understatement, can peel away layers of habituation to reveal both quiet joy and chilling unease:

The alarm is set,
the papers that we closed
an hour ago

on grim-lipped faces,
lines of murderous eyes,
have settled in their folds

across a sideboard.
Its drawers are lined with pages from a year
we’ve long forgotten,

its edges cut the wallpaper to bare
a dulled newsprint
under the flowered skin.

(‘Dailies’)

A Store of Candles takes its title from its closing poem ‘Under the Stairs’, which is in many ways the purest example of an Ormsby lyric.

The domestic setting is that of many – possibly a majority – of his published work, but this short piece forcefully suggests that our houses secrete (in both senses) what’s worst and best in us.

In ‘the dark alcove under the stairs’ is kept not only ‘rat poison in a jar’, but also ‘a store of candles for when the light fails.’ And in a much later ‘homely’ lyric, from The Ghost Train, a couple find that moving into an old house signals the achievement of domestic happiness in maturity, and the viability of second chances:

No longer haunted, easy with the past,
Lived in before and needing renovation.

This is not the easy resolution it may seem at first reading. Even when not ‘haunted’, the homes of Frank Ormsby’s poetry are inhabited by those for whom the past is a living thing, and it might be said that ‘renovation’ is the aim and the technique of the poetry itself.

To retrieve, restore, make new, make fit for human occupation: such are the priorities for a Northern Irish poet whose work deserves to be more widely acknowledged.