The Good News About Armageddon, by Steve McOrmond
Reviewed by Lorne Daniel
Steve McOrmond’s new collection of poems begins with a caution. In the style of TV content warnings, “Advisory” lists potential disturbing content to come: “themes which could threaten the viewer’s sense of security,” “Evidence of fatalism and irreligion,” and the typical forewarnings about sexuality, violence and “language.” Here McOrmond displays the dual cautionary and playful perspectives that interact throughout the book, switching from warnings about a drowning and an animal attack to the line, “The following program may contain scenes not suitable for language.”
The poem raises the expected questions about what we censor and screen in popular media. What is considered objectionable, and why? Placed at the start of a collection whose title references Armageddon, “Advisory” leads the reader to expect a certain discomfort.
With that warning, the book moves to the title poem, which (a few lines in) drives me to the dictionary with its use of “hymenopterous” (meaning, in case you wondered, ‘pertaining to insects with membranous wings’). This in a line about angels.
As it turns out, hymenopterous is atypical of the poet’s use of language. If anything, in its early pages, The Good News About Armageddon seems to reach too obviously for contemporary references and witticism:
“My bad. I should learn to chill out
with a mochaccino, rightsize my rage.”
“Any similarity to actual persons,
living or dead, is purely statistical.”
We have Gore-Tex and “double-double” and Taliban references and questions like “Are Paris Hilton’s 15 minutes over yet?” The problem with trying to build poetry on such pop culture observations is that the culture today is too quick. Unless the observations are particularly striking and unique, bloggers and Twitterers have long since beat the poet to the punch.
Over the course of its 35 pages, though, the poem builds credibility and power. The poet / narrator grapples with the challenges of how to respond to, and live in, our contemporary world. Far from being an activist, the narrator takes the role of “the conscientious bystander.”
“The esteemed poet nods coolly, picks his teeth.
We are better people on the page.”
How true. Are we not all “better people on the page”? We feel overwhelmed at our inability to construct more significant responses to our world. As Robert Kroetsch wrote in Completed Field Notes, “. . . the eloquence of failure may be the only eloquence left in this our time.”
“Who will man-up and take responsibility / for this moment, its casualties? Anyone? Anyone?” McOrmond asks. He points the finger as much at himself as at society. “Let the record show the accused can’t recall / the last time he did a good deed.”
The poem concludes by asking “What keeps me here?” and answering “Only the simplest things.”
McOrmond’s perspective can truly startle, as in “The Tooth Fairy’s Lament,” where the voice of a tooth fairy who is “not good / with children” successfully creates a new take on a well-worn cultural meme. Who would associate the tooth fairy with worry, loss, covetousness, and fright? This is delightful in a Brothers Grimm kind of way.
And McOrmond is brave enough to take on touchy literary tradition in “The Poet,” where he worries about how to dispose of a signed copy of a book of bad poems, “purchased / from the author in a moment of weakness?” Been there, wondered that.
There are times in the collection when the content seems better suited to prose, as in “Straight Crossing.” Here, the language and line breaks don’t to my eye add significant power to the telling of a stormy ferry crossing.
Poetry, of course, evokes highly personal and subjective responses. In my own case, “The Anorexic’s Love Song” struck me as strangely familiar, evoking (likely only to me) a poem of my own, “Bone Dance.” McOrmond’s poem rings authentic notes with its images of flint, steel, a gourd, armour, and bones — the anorexic hardening to the world while simultaneously “floating away, filled with helium.”
The final section of the book includes a number of strong and poignant pieces. “The Fortune Teller” opens with an apparent dismissal of the fortune teller’s role but quickly shifts to challenge:
“Here, it’s mostly giggly girls and soccer moms
out for a lark. Up the creaky stairs they come
in twos or little packs. Go ahead and laugh,
soon we’ll be knee-deep in your fears.”
The poem is packed with phrases that move its story along but also could stand alone as commentary on our insights, or lack of insights, into our lives:
let’s pull back the curtain, shall we?”
“The desperate ones always show up late and alone.
I brace myself for the weight of withholding.
Nobody wants a bad fortune.”
“The Fortune Teller” wraps with a perceptive twist: “Sometimes, despite myself, I do see.”
That is the essence of McOrmond’s voice in this collection. He sees the predicaments we have placed ourselves in. He acknowledges and respects the challenges of life in the face of an indistinct Armageddon. He explores our weaknesses and strengths with wit and, ultimately, wisdom.
The Good News About Armageddon is a substantive and nuanced collection by a skilled poet.