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Sound, from Top to Toe

Carlo Gébler

Goat’s Milk: New and Selected Poems, Frank Ormsby, Bloodaxe Books, 192 pp, £12.00, ISBN: 978-1780371252

Fermanagh is a small inland county in west Ulster. It has two big lakes (Upper and Lower Lough Erne) and lots of little ones. In pre-medieval times it was a noted centre of Christian monastic practice. Towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth 1 the Tudor world began to exert influence and under the Stuarts who followed this process was deepened and consolidated by the injection of settlers, or colonists if you prefer, predominantly lowland Scots or English North Country people, most of whom were Anglicans rather than Presbyterians.

The newly arrived colonists had a pretty torrid time in 1641 – the men were mostly beheaded, the women stripped naked and set on the roads to walk to Dublin – but British authority was reasserted by Cromwell. In the Williamite war thirty years later, Enniskillen (Fermanagh’s main town and the centre of settler authority), aligned with the House of Orange, raised two regiments (some feat given Fermanagh’s size) and kept the Jacobite Irish out. By the end of the century the better land was largely in the hands of Williamites, though in the poorer upland areas some Catholics held on.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Fermanagh’s history followed the Irish line: first there was the Ascendancy, then there was the Famine, then there was mass emigration, then there were the land wars and then … well, then there was the twentieth century with all its weird dislocations. Fermanagh, or large swathes of the county at any rate, was predominantly Catholic: however, in the settlement of 1921 it became part of Northern Ireland rather than the Free State, which might have been the more natural fit (at least in the opinion of nationalists).

The next event of real importance was the Second World War. The county was used to warehouse a huge number of American troops before D-Day as well as being a base for the Catalina seaplanes used in the Battle of the Atlantic. Fermanagh was part of the allied war effort and because of the part it played it enjoyed the same rewards as the rest of the polity; it got the welfare state and it got the Butler Education Act and suddenly, those on the edge, like its disenfranchised and economically marginal Catholics, had access to services which had previously been denied them. As a result, their life chances were transformed.

The poet Frank Ormsby was born in 1947, the perfect historical moment for those who would benefit from these changes. His father, Patrick, had already been married, had had ten or twelve children, lost his wife and remarried, and Frank was the fruit of this second union. He was in his sixties when Frank was born and died when he was twelve.

The Ormsbys were rural, poor and Catholic, but Frank, because of the changes already noted, got a grammar school education in Enniskillen, followed by a university education in Belfast at Queen’s University: after graduation, like so many of his contemporaries but none of his forebears, he became a teacher, working at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution ‑ which as you can tell from its name has a rather different orientation from the milieu from which he sprung ‑ for the bulk of his adult life, eventually becoming head of English. In parallel to his teaching career he also edited The Honest Ulsterman for a couple of decades, the Poetry Ireland Review (numbers 53-56) as well as several notable anthologies, performed other ancillary literary duties, and, most importantly of all, wrote and published poetry notable for its quietness, its lucidity, its scrupulous particularity and specificity (much of his output was concerned with his own Fermanagh childhood, as well as his family’s and his county’s history), its modesty (there was no showing off – ever), its respect for the reader, and – hold onto your hats – its accessibility.

Frank Ormsby is now sixty-eight and retired: it is in order to speak of him as a grand old man of Northern Irish or, if you prefer, Irish letters. As befits his status, Bloodaxe has produced the work here under review, which contains material taken from his four previously published collections – A Store of Candles (1977), A Northern Spring (1986), The Ghost Train (1995), and Fireflies (2009) plus his New Poems (2015).I have read it (obviously) and I recommend it highly for two more or less objective reasons and for one wholly and hugely subjective and even partisan reason.

The reasons for the objective recommendations are these: one, this is good from top to toe. The work, regardless of the point in the poet’s life at which it was written, is always virtuous, precise, considered, lean and interesting. End off. Two, this gives you a sense of the poet’s trajectory, which has gone from local and personal, to things bigger, less Irish, more international, and then back to the local again. The pleasure of a New and Selected is that the journey is there between covers (rather than scattered through several books) and as a reader you follow the poet’s progress in one pass. And the journey, it hardly needs to be said, on which this book takes you as a reader is engaging and provoking throughout.

And what of the personal, wholly subjective reason for my recommendation? Gébler is not a Fermanagh name: I am not a Fermanagh person. I came here in 1989 for six months and, for complicated reasons beyond the ambit of this review, I never left. My children were all raised in Fermanagh and would regard themselves, I think, as belonging to this place, as do I after the quarter of a century (almost) I’ve lived here.

So I know this place, or I like to think I know it, and because of that I get a particular pleasure from Frank Ormsby’s work, the particular pleasure of recognition. It is partly that Frank Ormsby writes about things that are of here – the landscape, the light, the history, the people – and these things are in the poems and it is salutary to encounter them. But it isn’t only that he writes about what’s familiar to me externally. His is a sensibility that has been made and shaped by this place and its unusual climatic, economic and social ecology and when he writes he betrays his rearing, he betrays his quiet, unpretentious, modest Fermanagh aesthetic. As someone of this place I am delighted to see that aesthetic in print (which is quite a different thing from seeing this place in print, though that’s also lovely of course).

Obviously, but presumably also unsurprisingly, I think it is a good thing for Irish literature that streams from every part of Ireland (and not just her eastern seaboard) to be fed into her national literature – or, if you prefer, that streams from every part of the British Isles (and not just the southeast of England) to be fed into the literature of this archipelago and so I am delighted Mr Ormsby’s stream is there, flowing fast and feeding in. That is a good thing, like I said, a very good thing.

So praise to Mr Ormsby for his achievement but praise is also due, I think, to those planners and thinkers and parliamentarians of the middle of the last century who made the welfare state that reversed centuries of misery in the North. They reconfigured things and made it possible for the Frank Ormsbys of that world to lead lives unimaginable to their fathers and indirectly helped Frank Ormsby to become the poet he became.

Ah but, I hear you protest; he could have been another William Carleton. He could have made himself into a poet without any help from anyone by force of will. You don’t know.

Well, yes, he might. I don’t deny it, but the point remains: progressive political and social changes have unforeseen consequences that last generations, and in the early twenty-first century we would do well to meditate on that most unexpected and certainly unplanned consequence of the welfare state – the poetry of Frank Ormsby – and then ask: “In the new welfare-lite state we are creating is it more or less likely that another poet of his stature will arise?” My own feeling, given how we are going, is that it is less likely, though I hope I’m wrong.

1/6/2015

Carlo Gébler has just published Confessions of a Catastrophist (the Lagan Press), while his play about the 1689 Siege of Derry, Walking to the Ark, opened at the Playhouse, Derry, on Wednesday, May 25th.

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