Ormsby of Arabia

Facsimiles of Time: Essays on Poetry and Translation
Published on October 1, 2001

Facsimiles Of Time: Essays On Poetry And Translation
Eric Ormsby

The Porcupine’s Quill

Eric Ormsby is a poet, an Islamic scholar, and, as evinced by his latest book, a true man of letters with a range rarely paralleled in Canada.

Facsimiles of Time is the first real hint of the breadth of that range outside of his poems. Ormsby’s interests extend through modern Canadian, American, and European literature into the Islamic world and from there to classical Arabic poetry and literature. In each case he brings a precise critical sensibility to bear on his subjects, taking the time to discern what they attempt and how they attempt it before saying anything about how well they do it. This is more than criticism – it is a poet bringing his whole intelligence and command of literature to the text before him.

Thus Ormsby’s review of a Keats biography compares it to four other biographies he knows, while a new translation of Kafka’s The Castle suffers in comparison to two others he’s read, as well as references to the German source materials upon which they were based. The essay on Kafka is a lovely piece of work, as Ormsby includes vignettes from his own Kafkaesque experience in attempting to visit the place where the novel was first penned. The author acts as both critic and tour guide, and his insight into how Kafka’s stories connect with the land of their birth is really delightful.

Ormsby is excellent most of the time, but I like his work best when he is writing about poets and poetry. While some lines were laced with insight, others made me laugh out loud : “Borges” says Ormsby, “was probably too intelligent to become a ‘great’ poet, most of whom seem to have a certain saving stupidity in abundant supply.” And this from a poet!

Another essay characterizes the poet Marianne Moore with great precision:

…within the scaffolding of her public self, another, well-hidden, and altogether more dangerous creature dwelt : not the strong-willed, self-assured, morally and aesthetically commanding figure, who showed that a poet can be at once charmingly dotty and authoritative, but something entirely other : a shape-shifter, protean in plasticity, a sort of ageless and sexless, almost shamanistic being who through the alembic of language could become now a pangolin, now a wood-weasel, now an ostrich ‘that digestith harde yron.’

To my mind the previous passage is worth the price of the book, but Ormsby doesn’t stop there. He follows with this commentary on a new manuscript edition of the last poems of William Butler Yeats :

…In following Yeats as he afixes his rhymes, one is reminded of a spider spooling out a web, for the rhymes act as pegs on which the spun strands of the lines hang as they form. Once the rhymes appear, and Yeats refines them, the poem begins to tauten visibly. There is a sense of incipient music. A line or stanza will suddenly appear to lift, to take on a cadence of its own, as though by a process of tuning. You might even call it a sort of gradual incarnation, whereby the words grow ever more physically present, more palpable as the poem develops.

I can’t think of a better description of Yeats’ muse or the craft of poetry at work. The paragraph so fascinated me I shelled out the $90US that Cornell University press wanted for the edition of which he speaks. (Reviewing this book has been an expensive proposition. I have been forced through curiosity about the original sources to which these essays refer to buy books whose cost will far outweigh the reviewer’s fee I receive for these words.)

The only quibble I have is that Ormsby tends to lead with his chin. The first essay in the collection is completely forgettable. This is too bad, as the rest of the ride is so amazing. From the heights of a sand dune in the desert to the achievements of Hart Crane and the minutae of a letter by Marianne Moore, Ormsby presents us with a world that is always fresh, and continually fascinating. mRb

Ian Ferrier is a poet and musician well-known for literary performance. His current collaboration — entitled For Body and Light (forbodyandlight.org) received superlative reviews at the Kraine Theatre in New York this winter and is currently touring cities in Western Canada. His next book of poems is scheduled for publication in French in 2015.



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