Wednesday, July 01, 2015

`The Only Antidote Is in the Bite'

Eric Ormsby has sent me a signed copy of Araby, his poetry collection published in 2001 by Signal Editions, an imprint of Véhicule Press of Montreal. In addition to being a fine critic and one of our best poets, Ormsby for nine years was a professor and director of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University, and since 2006 has served as chief librarian at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. This recitation from his C.V. hints at Ormsby’s scholarly, bookish and polylingual gifts, but leaves out his ear, one of the most voluptuous in the business. Consider the opening lines of “Jaham and His Cat”:

“The pink melodious ratchet of her tongue
psalmodized as she hunched on Jaham’s chest.
Jaham admired her reverence of repose,
the prayerful alertness of her ears,
the pierced opacity of her green eyes
whose irises held aloof the more they shone,
her silken dignity, the way she made
a pedestal of paw to rest upon
behind a twitching balustrade of tail.”

Araby is a suite of related poems devoted to the lives of Jaham, “the Father of Clouds” (his name is the Arabic words for “clouds”), a poet and auto mechanic, and his sidekick Bald Adham, also a mechanic, “a sleek grease-monkey from Jizan,” a clownish fanatic. When Adham “hectored Jaham to join the Holy War,” Jaham “humored his friend. Theology, he thought, / was a tumor of reason caused by the Jinn. / He loathed transcendence as he loathed the clap.” Meet the Don and Sancho Panza (or Laurel and Hardy) reborn as Saudis. And here are the concluding lines of “Jaham and the Old Poet”:

“With unexpected vigor the old man
sank two sharp incisors into the boy
--into his sweet and nearly speechless mouth--
and chawed him like an elapid,
working the poison well into his skin,
gnawing at his mouth till the hot bite
brought blood. And then he said,

The only antidote is in the bite.

“Jaham went home writhingly and learned to write.”

Ormsby is never averse to savory, high-cholesterol words. As if by reflex, he avoids what Thom Gunn has called “the dull thunder of approximate words.” His language is at once lush and precise, never a purple gush. “Bite” means the obvious but also, the OED reminds us, “incisiveness, pungency; point or cogency of style, language.” “Elapid” refers to a venomous colubrid snake (most snakes are colubrids, but few colubrids are venomous). “Chaw” as a verb means to chew or champ, and hints at a plug of tobacco (Ormsby was born in Georgia and grew up in Florida). The OED reports the word can also mean “to ruminate upon, brood over.” In Ormsby’s hands, a word can never be reduced to a blunt, one-purpose tool. He hears echoes, connotations and harmonies, and isn’t shy about deploying them. But Araby cannot be reduced to filigree. Ormsby has stories to tell, lives to chronicle. First Adham, and then Jaham, are dead by the conclusion of the volume’s final poem, “Jaham’s Last Words,” and here are those words: “I love everything that perishes, / everything that perishes entrances me.”  Ormsby’s friend Marius Kociejowski, in “A Voyage Through Ormsby’s Araby” (The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose (Biblioasis, 2014), writes:

“A hunger for the exotic barely enters the equation, and, as anyone who has ever spent time in the Middle East will tell you, one of its perils is a powerful dose of taedium vitae. Something there puts one’s brain in a sling from time to time, and it’s all one can do just to rise from a rock-hard mattress and breathe the traffic fumes. It’s not all bejeweled navels, fancy turbans and aromatic spices. Was it ever? Anyway, Orientalism is not my concern here. That’s student’s fare. The figure of Jaham, it has to be said, is a dying breed within his own culture. There are few poets today who’d recognize the Pleiades. Ormsby’s Araby, which represents a remarkable interlude in an already remarkable poetic oeuvre, is a nod in the direction of all we stand to lose.”

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