Primer on the Hereafter, Steve McOrmond
Reviewed by C. Durning Carroll.
Steve McOrmond opens his second collection Primer on the Hereafter with an epigraph from John Ashbery’s poem “Posture of Unease.” Ashbery says: “For all you I / Have neglected, ignored, / Left to stew in your own juices, / Not been like a friend that is approaching, / I ask forgiveness, a song like new rain. / Please sing it to me.” Ashbery has made a career out of unease, from the early psychic distances of poems like “The Instruction Manual,” to the reflective masterpiece “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” to the enigmatically titled “Your Name Here,” with its clever play on presence and absence, order and discontinuity. Though Ashbery has retained the status of éminence grise in American letters, his poetic legacy has been at best a mixed one. He has taught us a great deal about psychology and the unfettered thoughts of a moving mind, but has also, especially in recent years, surrendered logic and communication in favor of a hermetically opaque private language.
Fortunately, Mr. McOrmond does not do the same. Though McOrmond takes from Ashbery an interest in outsider status — they are both observers — McOrmond, unlike the Ashbery of recent years, prefers to observe others. If Ashbery is a psychologist, McOrmond could plausibly be called a journalist. Though the psychologist may look at others, he does so in an intimately private way — the confines of an office. The journalist, on the other hand, lives of necessity out in the world. She or he is forced to find a language that others can relate to; to use, as Wordsworth once declared, “a selection of language really used by men.” The promise of Primer on the Hereafter lies in the simple and unaffected narrative voice in which McOrmond recounts his best poems. In pulling away from himself into that posture of unease that characterizes so many good writers, McOrmond finds in this collection, ocassional moments of sublimity.
Poetry, like its sister arts of drama and the novel, is fundamentally about humanity: its sole interest, despite the frequent distraction of birds and flowers is an analysis of who and why we are. When McOrmond sticks to this simple aim the results can be striking, as in the quasi-historical poem “Lolly.” In this work about an imaginary survivor of an actual 1855 shipwreck off the coast of Nova-Scotia, McOrmond gathers the details and the mood of men made helpless by the elements. “Mr. Haszard had a little spaniel. / On the morning of the third day, / I held it down and Smith/slit its throat with my bone-handled knife. / We drank its blood, consumed / the flesh before it could freeze.” Though the line-breaks at moments display the carelessness of a prose writer, this same narrative impulse conveys the terse diction of a wounded man dictating a letter to a wife he loves. While McOrmond may not listen as closely as one might like to the music of the words, he still understands how the limits of the poetic line can be used to strong effect. McOrmond’s impassioned restraint gives “Lolly” a power to move that a looser narrative flow would have lost.
He accomplishes something similar in “Otzi,” a verse response to the exhibit of the prehistoric man found frozen in the Alps a dozen or so years ago. Instead of assuming the voice of a character, here McOrmond places himself in the position of a viewer watching yet also turning away from the act of being seen: “I would be your pallbearer, escort you / back to the glacier and bury you deeply / and properly under the ice. For now — / which is not so long — I’ll pay my respects / by not coming during visiting hours.” The final claim seems typical of McOrmond’s style, as it raises the obvious question: if not during visiting hours, then when? Will McOrmond sneak in after dark but look all the same? How is the poet’s language changed if his or her presence is not observed? McOrmond doesn’t address this question directly, but the best poems of Primer struggle with the idea of poetic presence and how that presence affects how poets as writers see the world. The question may seem merely academic, but it has an important effect on what and how poets write, and therefore what audiences are asked to read.
When McOrmond veers away, either from precise human observation or occasionally into the too-treacherous world of the prose poem, the results rarely reach the heights of what one might call his “unease” poems. Both forms seem to seduce McOrmond into abandoning two central tenets of the successful poem — the poetic line, and the logic of narrative. When McOrmond is anchored (nautical metaphors abound in this book) to a real human situation he writes beautifully. Unfortunately his freer and more naturalistic work is often incoherent. In the first stanza of a poem called “Flittermouse” McOrmond writes: “High frequency peeps and pops, / telemetry from the twilight zone, / and a soft thwup, thwup, thwup, / part pterodactyl, part Bela/Lugosi in a playful mood,/snapping a wet dishtowel.” Presumably this is supposed to describe a flittermouse, (an archaic term for a bat) and none of what McOrmond writes is factually wrong, but this description without narrative, without a concrete sense of motion or of recounted action prompts this poet into presenting a series of random images that are left for the reader to integrate.
The two examples of prose poems also show this tendency towards illogic. Here is the second stanza (paragraph?) from “Haulage”: “At times you feel like freight. Someone’s lost the waybill, you’re waiting to be delivered. Oh, there are drugs. A leather armchair that fits exactly the slouch of your spine. And there are The Goldberg Variations, succinct, austere, in the half-light. The hammer when it strikes the string is not in contact with anything touching the finger.” Aside from the comma-splice in the second sentence ( ! ) how is the reader to make sense of a paragraph that jumps from freight, to drugs, to The Goldberg Variations? Is it unfair to ask just what this moment of prose really means?
When McOrmond sticks to the telling details of narrative history, and his (and perhaps our culture’s) posture of unease he shows himself to be a poet of real and memorable ability. When he drops his refreshing tendency to look at the world askance, and concedes to what is fashionable, he merely rides with the masses. At such moments one wishes, that like so many others, he hadn’t fallen so far under the long shadow of Ashbery, whose status atop the pyramid of contemporary English-language poets has made his work largely immune to criticism. As McOrmond has shown clearly in Primer on the Hereafter he is quite able to shine by his own light.