Arts

Book reviews: Frank Ormsby's birthday collection and poems of an Irish soldier

Frank Ormsby's new collection The Darkness of Snow is published to coincide with his 70th birthday and confronts the subject of Parkinson's disease, from which he suffers

The Darkness of Snow, by Frank Orsmby, published by Bloodaxe Books

FRANK Ormsby has had a long and illustrious career in northern Irish letters (as the editor of various anthologies and periodicals, and an accomplished poet in his own right). With the publication of his latest '70th birthday' collection, The Darkness of Snow, it’s easy to see why: here is a book teeming with wisdom and good humour, a book that combines formal dexterity with verve and wit.

If the collection’s title might be understood as a nod towards Enniskillen native Ormsby’s poetic predecessors (Louis MacNeice’s Snow being, by this stage, deeply enshrined in the northern Irish poetic canon), it also enacts the subversion of a trope: how is snow dark, exactly? What have we missed? These poems frequently call on us to reconsider what is familiar, even cliché; the proverbial rug is pulled from under our feet, whether by a twist in narrative or an offhand quip.

The collection finds its way from innocence to experience, by way of personal and art histories. Earlier poems introduce us to the young poet-speaker “affect[ing]/ a bookish silence/ all winter under the Tilley” (recalling Derek Mahon’s “strange child with a taste for verse”). We then follow a life through its losses – Towards a Sketch of My Mother, My Father Again – and joys: For Ciaran Carson and Lunch in The Crown with Michael Longley are particularly touching portraits of Ormsby’s friendships with his fellow poets.

The third section offers a fascinating departure with a series of ekphrastic poems based on Irish paintings, while the fourth, The Parkinson’s Poems, is notable for its profound and often funny meditations on the nature of the condition, following Ormsby’s recent diagnosis.

Yet it’s the closing narrative poem, The Willow Forest, which might be the book’s masterstroke. Taking as its subject the aftermath of an unspecified war, it presents us with a cast of depersonalised characters (‘The Accussed’, ‘The Interpreter’, etc.) and leads us in an entirely unexpected direction, reminiscent of the work of Zbigniew Herbert.

We leave the trees “[hanging] their heads/ over a history that, now memorialised,/ could be forgotten.”

:: The Darkness of Snow will be launched tonight in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, with an introduction by Michael Longley. On Sunday November 5 Frank Ormsby and musician Anthony Toner will read and perform together in Armagh, as part of the John O'Connor Literary Arts Festival.

Tara McEvoy

 

Peacekeeper, by Michael J Whelan, published by Doire Press

GROWING up, a prized possession in our house was the blue beret, complete with UN badge, of a neighbour who had done several stints in ‘the Leb’. Even as kids we knew it was a tough gig, RTÉ carrying news reports of a vicious war that frequently featured Irish soldiers caught smack in the middle of the fighting.

Thirty thousand Irish soldiers served as United Nations peacekeepers in southern Lebanon in the buffer zone between the Israelis and their allies on one side, the PLO, then Hezbollah on the other, between the late 70s and 2001.

It was a dangerous time in what has been since time immemorial, as Co Dublin writer, historian and soldier Michael J Whelan reminds his readers, a dangerous place. At that particular point in history it was the South Lebanon Army et al that made it a ‘place of broken hearts’; but before them countless other armies sowed sorrow and destruction.

In his recently published debut collection of poems, Peacekeeper, Tallaght man Whelan, who served with the UN in Lebanon and Kosovo in that capacity, bears witness to what he saw and experienced with great eloquence.

Michael J Whelan's debut collection, Peacekeeper, stems from his time with the Irish army on UN missions in Lebanon and Kosovo. He is keeper of the Irish Air Corps Military Museum in Baldonnel, Dublin

Articulating how warfare – modern or ancient, it doesn’t much matter – effects people and landscape, and inevitably the witness himself, his words conjure images that are as arresting as the starkest war photography. His poems are thoughtful, compassionate and shocking; war poems that simultaneously encompass beauty and brutality.

Their power to convey something important about life itself, born of the writer’s singular insight, lies in the fact of his role as peacekeeper – along with his being a fine poet, of course. As such, he is someone with a purpose in being there, be it in a Balkan house whose occupants have been murdered by their neighbours or in Qana after the Israeli army shelled a UN compound, killing more than 100 civilians: namely to hold combatants in some way to account, to help and protect the innocent, and maybe even to preserve, like a standard in battle, the values of humanity amid the bloodletting.

This poetic record takes that a step further. Peacekeeper is a moving, wise, thoroughly readable and highly recommended collection of poems.

:: Peacekeeper is available in bookshops and from doirepress.com

Fergal Hallahan

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