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Frank Ormsby: honest Ulsterman

The bucolic and the bomb have inspired the poet’s life’s work and a new collection soaked in experience

Frank Ormsby: Ireland Professor of Poetry 2019-2022. Photograph: Parkway Photography

The poet Frank Ormsby readily admits he is a man in a hurry. Now in the autumn of his life and grappling with the onset of Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, he is a man more focused and is on a mission to share his musings about the world in which he has lived and thrived as a writer.

Despite his personal setbacks on the health front – or perhaps because of them – Ormbsy has unleashed an explosion of creativity on paper, the words gushing forth like water from a downspout in a torrential downpour.

In his latest collection of poems, The Rain Barrel (Bloodaxe Books), Ormsby beautifully captures rural life in his beloved Northern Ireland, whether it be walking the cows home, reflecting on an evening on the farm in early winter, taking the measure of some zinc farmyard buckets, enjoying the speckled throat of the foxglove or the finer qualities of fuchsia, or wondering about when the last leaf in the garden fell to the ground.

“The whole season has come to this:

a holding on so that the letting go

might seem to us like chance.”

But it is his 18-part title poem, The Rain Barrel, that draws me in with its unabashed reverence for sense of place and just being – an elegy, if you will, to the passage of time.

Not many of us work or live off the land now, but if – like me – you are a keen gardener, chances are you own a rain barrel and have a new-found respect and appreciation for this humble yet stoic custodian of the outdoors. Ormbsy certainly does. For to him it is so much more. It bears witness to the changing seasons, his childhood growth, and the passing of his father.

“It was so much a family emblem…

the rain barrel soaked in experience, shaped elsewhere…

the barrel stands ready for its first shower...

The first drip from the spout

is a kind of baptism.

It is motionless,

but never inert...

It is snowing into the rain barrel’s

dark-watered maw. The barrel

feeds like a whale on plankton…

How long has the rain barrel been in the family?

…yet your childhood’s growth was measured

against the rusty iron hoops.

Two old warriors, the rain barrel and my father,

sit with their backs to the wall,

one receiving daily the gift of water,

the other struggling to accept the gifts of air...

In winter the full moon

takes a shine to the rain barrel,

offering its face for reflection.

the barrel keeps putting on weight

or so it seems

until the little droughts of summer

empty it again to the first hoop.

So strong does the rain barrel look

on the day of the funeral…

We stare into the space where our father’s chair

is no longer part of the prospect...”

But this volume in its bucolic setting is not without its dark turns and cruel twists of fate, a reminder that troubles – both personal and political – hover over the pastoral landscape and permeate several of the poems.

In There Will Be a Knock, a mother waits for her son to come home. Seems normal enough until the poem takes a sudden turn and you realize that he’s been gone not just for the day but for “nine years of birthday and Christmas gifts.” A sinking feeling comes over the reader. What happened to him, we don’t know, but we are left to wonder with dread and can only presume the worst. There is a quiet desperation and hopelessness in the mother’s grief-stricken vigil that brings her no closure.

In writing about these unwanted troubles that made unwelcome intrusions in the lives of his friends and neighbours, Ormsby has elevated the legacy of violence that once cast a pall over the land for so long, leaving devastation and broken lives in its wake. In the three decades of the Troubles, many people died, while others just disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. They never came home, leaving behind their bereft families who never found closure. The Disappeared is a recurring theme in this collection and is the title of one powerful four-line poem in the collection. Ormbsy wants us to never forget.

“There are lost graves on the mountain

but somebody knows where they are:

the man with the cleanest boots in town,

the man with the spotless car.”

In confronting Northern Ireland’s violent past amidst its seemingly idyllic setting, Ormbsy has successfully managed to convey not just the individual personal cost, but also the depth of the communal loss. Everyone was affected and scarred in some way, whether they were at the epicenter or on the periphery. No one went unscathed. The healing process, which remains a work in progress, must come from all of us. The scars run deep, but so too do the ties that bind us.

Thus, the genuine love and affection Ormsby has for beloved Fermanagh and Northern Ireland rings true for it is grounded in its own reality. It, like the rain barrel, is “soaked in experience”. The bucolic and the bomb have inspired his life’s work. The water possesses life-giving and healing powers.

“Give me the brisk soul-wash of the valley rains

when the spirit wants lifting.

Give me the rain from the hills, so that I am faced,

over and over, with its candid, questioning fall.”

This honest Ulsterman is not afraid to challenge us, but he also gives us comfort. He has not forgotten from where he came or those who helped him along the way and played a pivotal role in his own literary success, including the late Seamus Heaney. In 2013, when this close-knit community of poets lost one of its own, his loss was keenly felt the world over and especially among his fellow scribes. Ormsby acknowledges this passing of his friend and mentor with great affection and speaks for all of us who were touched by Heaney’s words and life.

“We stand in a shy courtesy of loss.

A friend has set out without us, as he must,

on a long journey. No forwarding address.”

But the journey that is life goes on. The world turns on its axis and the seasons change once more. The poet grows older, and as he does so, he must grapple with his own mortality in his own mind and in his musings on paper, writing everything down as it occurs to him, “the words sluicing like insulin” through his sick body.

“Take it or leave it, autumn is here again

to teach us about growing old gracefully.

Its smell is a special sap that is not a smell,

that’s not snow in the air,

or the promise of sunshine,

or the fresh overtures of spring.”

Emmanuel Touhey is a journalist. He lives and works in Washington, DC

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