For a Modest God: New and Selected Poems

Eric Ormsby, Author Grove Press $20 (139p) ISBN 978-0-8021-1607-9
It's not that Ormsby lacks a unique, poetic voice; it's that he chooses not to stick with any one of his many literary personalities. In this collection of new and recent material, there seems to be an entire colony of poets being channeled through a single hand. At his most arch, Ormsby draws from a gratuitously large vocabulary to talk to the animals: ""My quarrel with your quorum, Monsignor/ Flamingo, is that you scant the rubicund/ in favor of a fatal petal tint."" Then, by way of overcompensation, he will turn to plain vanilla: ""This is our history./ The place is empty now where we began."" There are cameo appearances of Ormsby the workmanlike formalist and Ormsby the Arabic scholar. When he switches into confessional mode, however, he finds transcendence in childhood memories. But he is at his best in a scattering of poems that exhibit his startling ability to render detail richly and in the language of decay. A short series finds Lazarus coping with his plight, dressed in ""delicate ruffles of fungus."" And there's a haunting shrine of Christ where ""Pustules of malachite surround each eye."" Ultimately, it is Ormsby's eye for rot--as when he peers into skunk cabbage and discovers ""the foul magenta of its gorgeous heart""--that gives this volume its life and allure. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 03/24/1997
Release date: 03/01/1997
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