The poetry of Eric Ormsby is a rare and dying species. When reading Eric Ormsby, I believe in the ancient proverb nascitur poeta—that a poet cannot be made, but rather must be born. If ever there was a poet born in the last century who can comfortably claim this noble birth in the house of Poet, it is Ormsby. Of course, there are many factors that allow one to rise to poethood, factors that are improved upon if one happens to be born into an affluent and cultured household. Nonetheless, it is refreshing when one comes across a book of poems that are brilliant, metrically sound and written by a poet who does not have a degree in creative writing. It is enough to make one feel like a lepidopterist happening upon a rare and dying species.
“The days are gone by,” writes John Stuart Mill in Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties, “when every raw youth, whose borrowed phantasies have set themselves to a borrowed tune, mistaking, as Coleridge says, an ardent desire of poetic reputation for poetic genius, while unable to disguise from himself that he had taken no means whereby he might become a poet, could fancy himself a born one.” Our era seems to have returned to those days that Mill cites as passing; we have many more poets-in-training than we have poets.
Ormsby seems not only to have been born a poet, but his poems give evidence that he has also taken the correct means by which to become one. In Daybreak at the Straits, Ormsby shows how thoughts can still reside in poetry, returning to us the following:
1. Poetry can still exist as a formal art.
Ormsby’s poems demonstrate not only his flawless prosody, as evidenced by his perfectly scannable metre, but also his mastery of forms, rhyme, and his range of subject matter—all of which appear to be either forsaken or unachievable by the majority of contemporary poets. In collections today, strict poetic forms come across as being little more than exercises, malformed and stippled with overtly embarrassing marks of struggle, such as poor or non-existent metre and tired rhymes. Ormsby, however, not only rectifies formal verse, but his poems emerge from their formal shells as splendid and flawless creatures, sparkling with language that is both embellished and quotidian.
2. Poetry can still be concerned with words.
Ormsby not only returns poetry to our era, he also reminds us that poetry is made of words. In “Dicie Fletcher,” he writes, “Only language stood against / the unimaginable savagery / of gods unable to imagine pain.” He says membrum virile in one poem, and “dong,” “lollipop” and “dick” in others. You will want to keep your OED nearby when reading Ormsby, and you will learn new words. If you haven’t studied Greek or Latin, you will want to. You will believe again in the beauty of words, in the aesthetics of the sight and sound of them, in all the wondrous poetic creation that is inhibited for want of knowing them.
3. Poetry can still offer the pleasures of infinite variety, even when adhering to formal restrictions.
The poet who writes, “His rectum itched and tingled like a sore” also writes in the same poem:
Mortality was frisky in the lines
of telephones where drowsy mourning doves
felt final conversations in their claws
transmitted in designer valentines.
O deliquescence of our quartz-like loves!
His heartbeat hovered in two grimy paws.
A survey of the titles in this collection reveals an array of topics: “Ant-Lion,” “Cremains,” “Little Auguries,” “Cradle-Song of the Emperor Penguins,” “Episode with a Potato,” “Time as Escargot” and “My Grandfather’s Pocket Watch.”
4. Description is not dead.
Ormsby’s descriptions are frightening; they are too perfect. In “My Grandfather’s Pocket Watch,” he writes that “The dark dials mutter like two summer bees / Imprisoned in petals.” In “Six Sonnets on Sex and Death,” pencils are “cylindrical and golden as a happiness, / solar-yellow, tallow-fluted, saffron-bold.” You will want to hold what the poet holds, and Ormsby’s descriptive talents allow you to feel as if you are doing so. In “Domestic Questions,” the speaker, describing his wife, asks,
Why should she huddle like a wing-clipped bird,
some lorikeet, some hyacinthine thing,
budgerigar puffed up on cuttlebone
bunching blue after-feathers against the frost?
Even his similes work flawlessly: “His dong was gorged with all their ambergris / and slithered like a walrus into bliss.”
5. Dramatic monologues are still a viable poetic form.
In “Soliloquy at Nightfall in the Mayflower Hotel,” Ormsby writes in the persona of a prostitute, who, when her daydream is interrupted by “Missus Huey,” imagines
Mrs. Huey bending over while behind her, unbeknownst
to her, some deep-sea creature crawls to ravish her.
A squid or a lobster. Yes, a giant spiny lobster
with an immense pink membrum virile . . .
6. Mythical allusions are still admissible in the contemporary era.
Ormsby’s book makes constant allusion to mythical occurrences, weaving them into the ordinary. In “Dicie Fletcher,” Ormsby writes of a dentist who wants desperately to have carnal relations with his patient Dicie, on whom he is performing an extraction. The poem demonstrates how a tooth extraction, like other mundane matters in life, can be mythic in its proportions. Dicie refuses nepenthe, and Ormsby reminds us that Homer, for all of his poetic sensibilities, wrote, “‘Patroclus drove the spear between the teeth / —odonton—of Thestor.’”
Daybreak at the Straits is one of the most invigorating and promising books of poetry published in the past few years, a living demonstration that poetry can still flourish in the contemporary era. It is imaginative and selfless, a rare combination of humour and seriousness. Ormsby is not afraid to butcher worms or potatoes in his poems, but he will never butcher a line or forsake a microcosm. What he writes of a character in one of his poems could easily be applied to himself: “He knew death / in every snippet of his metered breath.”
Jenny Boully is a renowned young poet and critic based in New York. Moveable Type appears every other Sunday.