In most dictionaries, Araby is defined as a "poetic" word for Arabia, but poetry-lovers old enough to remember James Elroy Flecker and the golden journey to Samarcand, who might expect camel-caravans moving languorously into a romantic sunset, will be in for a surprise. The title is, in fact, one of Eric Ormsby's subtle jokes. His book is made up of a series of interconnecting poems that involve two Arab characters, a poet named Jaham and a religious fanatic named Adham¨but both are auto-mechanics! This is a world in which the traditional and the contemporary exist, startlingly but exhilaratingly, side by side: a world of muezzins and minarets but also one of crankshafts and spark plugs. Jaham, for example, possesses a camel, but is more accustomed to cars; he shares his landscape with scorpions, baboons, and jackals, but shops at the Desert's Edge Convenience Store. Arabia being Arabia, this is a man's world, but we get intriguing glimpses of "Mrs. Jaham" with her earth-smelling breasts, and Adham's whooping and ululating "Black Mary." "Scent of cardamom" mingles with "dense gasolines / ambrosial with oxygen." A seemingly grotesque, unfamiliar world¨and yet, when one thinks about it, oddly compatible with our own.
This ambivalent subject-matter is reflected in the vocabulary and texture of the verse. Jaham the poet, as poets are accustomed to do, has a vision, but the poem devoted to this subject is called "The Junkyard Vision of Jaham," and it begins: "In paradise the smell of engine oil / will undercut the roses." He may resort to his hubble-bubble on Fridays, but it is stuffed with "hashish smuggled in / beneath the floorboards of a Lebanese / watermelon trucker named Fu'ad." His "sidekick" Adham saw "the infidel in every wing/nut and sprocket" and spat "dreadful imprecations as he overhauled/ staggered transmissions and sprained modulator valves." Traditional rhythms (and, not infrequently, even rhymes) effortlessly encompass the jargon of industrialism and technology.
As may be seen from the lines already quoted, Ormsby is the kind of poet who loves to use words with fastidious precision but also to roll them luxuriantly around his tongue. He is decidedly not a poet of postmodern self-consciousness or politically-correct axioms. His Arabian material (he is a professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University) engages him for its own sake and for the verbal pyrotechnics he can weave around it. Ignore the solemn ones who will doubtless complain that he doesn't pontificate about the dangers of Muslim fundamentalism or the AIDS crisis. Like all genuine poets, his first loyalty is to words: their engaging sounds, flexible rhythms, accurate meanings¨even their sheer unpredictable oddity.
The name of Eric Ormsby, though reasonably well-known among his contemporary fellow-poets, is not, I suspect, familiar to general readers, so it will be worthwhile here to set Araby in context. He was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and spent much of his childhood in Florida, the setting of a number of early poems; but he has now lived in Canada for many years, and his first two volumes of verse, Bavarian Shrine (1990) and Coastlines (1992), were originally published by ECW Press. These were remarkable for their meticulous, eye-on-the-object clarity. Ormsby was intent on recording as accurately as possible what he called in one poem the "hues of all negligible things." His favourite subjects then were birds, plants, marine organisms, rocks and metals, even human physical features (a mini-sequence in Bavarian Shrine includes "Fingernails," "Ears," "Wrinkles," "Upper Lip," "Nose"). The most characteristic poems in these books are almost clinically descriptive; yet this "scientific" accuracy is achieved by an exquisite, essentially imaginative and creative determination to find the only word in the dictionary that will yield exactly the right effect in terms of rhythm, sound, and meaning. For instance, the noises made by a boat-billed grackle are rendered as "an acrid cackle, / a cacophony of slick and klaxon cries, / with tinsel whispers like a breathy flute."
In Araby, the linguistic precision is as conspicuous as ever, yet Ormsby not only broadens his interest in human subjects, but does so with an increased linguistic vigour and exuberance. Here, by way of illustration, is a quatrain reproducing the eating habits of an Egyptian vulture (I choose another bird-poem in the interests of fair comparison):
The stomach contents of some ripe giraffe
pleasure him more than freshly slivered truffles.
He stuffs his whole head in and you hear him laugh
as he snacks on gassy guts and belly ruffles.
This represents an audaciousness of language, a revelling in the bizarre effects made possible by a wide-ranging vocabulary, that has not been heard in any sustained way in Canadian poetry since the time of E. J. Pratt and A. M. Klein. It is a poetry which, in the words of a poem from To a Modest God (1997), Ormsby's third volume published by Grove Press in the United States, "discovers a covert love-affair between / obstreperous syllables."
It has been fashionable for almost a century now to proclaim the triumph of "free verse" and the abandonment of earlier technical constraints such as rhyme, regular metres, and intricate stanza-patterns. When discussing a poet like Ormsby, it is important to insist that most of these proclamations have been asserted by the "free-verse" party. In fact, most of the major twentieth-century poets in English¨Yeats, Eliot, Frost, Graves, Auden, Stevens¨used free verse sparingly, if at all, and this is true of other significant voices including Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Richard Wilbur, and Edward and R. S. Thomas. The same could be said of Canadian poets¨Pratt, Klein, Johnston, Page, Macpherson, and much of Birney and Layton. And the same is true today. Despite the influence and example of Purdy and Atwood, there is an impressive roster of poets¨Ormsby himself, but also Richard Outram and David Solway, among others¨who, while claiming the liberty of free verse when appropriate, draw upon the full resources of poetic language, from alliteration and assonance, through internal-, end-, and half-rhyme, to complex forms like villanelles and sestinas.
Ormsby, for the most part, is content with a fairly regular iambic metric eked out with rhyme and near-rhyme. But he is unrepentant in sending his readers scurrying to dictionaries and thesauri (an Ormsby word I fully expect to appear in his next collection). To respond fully to Ormsby, you need to be the kind of person who likes being confronted with a line like "I saw its virgule sassiness embrangle earth," who likes encountering words like "cantillation," "psychopomp," "callipygian," "synaptic," "clavicles," "cacomistle," "coronate," used as if they were part of everyday experience (and even some, like "glozening" and "yapperies," that defeat all my reference-books). Why not? A poet is supposed to be a master of words, and Ormsby is here in full command of his materials. Anyone interested in the skilful manipulation of words should welcome with enthusiasm this joyous celebration of the exuberance of language that is Araby. ˛