Nationality: Irish. Born: Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, 30 October 1947. Education: Queen's University, Belfast, 1966–71, B.A. 1970, M.A. 1971. Career: Editor, Honest Ulsterman magazine, Belfast, 1969–89. Since 1971 Teacher of English, Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Awards: Eric Gregory award, 1974; Cultural Traditions award, 1992. Address: 70 Eglantine Avenue, Belfast BT9 6DY, Northern Ireland.
Ripe for Company. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1971.
Business As Usual. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1973.
A Store of Candles. London, Oxford University Press, 1977.
Being Walked by a Dog. Belfast, Ulsterman, 1978.
A Northern Spring. London, Secker and Warburg, 1986.
The Ghost Train. Oldcastle, Ireland, Gallery, 1995.
Editor, Poets from the North of Ireland. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1979.
Editor, Northern Windows: An Anthology of Ulster Autobiography. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1987.
Editor, The Long Embrace: Twentieth-Century Irish Love Poems. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1987; Boston, Faber, 1989.
Editor, Thine in Storm and Calm: An Amanda McKittrick Ros Reader. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1988.
Editor, The Collected Poems of John Hewitt. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1991.
Editor, A Rage for Order: Poetry of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1992.*
Critical Study: "The Permanent City: The Younger Irish Poets" by Gerald Dawe, in The Irish Writer and the City, edited by Maurice Harmon, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, Smythe, and Totowa, New Jersey, Barnes and Noble, 1984.* * *
Frank Ormsby, like several of his Northern Irish contemporaries, cultivates the seeing eye. One cannot help but admire the precision of phrase that defines a neighbor in terms of his childless yard, that finds delight in a circular flower bed made out of an old tire, or that, as in "The Barracks," sees the official garnishing of a police station in terms of an ordinary garden:
The woman tending flowers bends her head
At work on the lupins. Elsewhere the beds
Are weeded. Turned-up soil darkens the edge
Of lawn and plastered wall. The chipped hedge
at the rear might be suburban...
Ormsby is at work on the lupins and also on the massage parlor, the police museum, and the air raid shelter. He is industrious in his attempts to compose a landscape with figures and not only in the poem of that name:
What haunts me is a farmhouse among trees
Seen from a bus window, a girl
With a suitcase climbing a long hill
And a woman waiting...
At first it seems as though the poems exist for the things seen. Certainly Ormsby has a determined faithfulness to his subjects that almost entails a rejection of what used to be called "verbal magic." Individual poems yield up their attractions reluctantly. Nevertheless, a personality emerges from the composite, certainly dour and grimly honest, but refreshingly so.
At times Ormsby can be quite moving, as in "In Memoriam":
Father, I'm forgetting you. Mind struggles
With the smudge of ten years, that shadow loitering
Off focus. Squat as a tumulus, you've gone
Also moving are poems about his mother and about marriage, and the insight in these poems does much to mitigate what might otherwise seem an occasional gaucherie.
Ormsby certainly has the virtues of prose, especially clarity and particularity, but these also are qualities of poetry. The writer is his own best critic when he takes the title of his first collection, A Store of Candles, from a phrase in a poem called "Under the Stairs." Under the stairs he finds the usual jumble of a life's progress—the shaft of a broom, a tire, assorted nails. He also finds that which, however modestly, can illumine the jumble: "a store of candles for when the light fails."
Ormsby built upon this perceptiveness in his second collection, A Northern Spring. It is dominated by a sequence of soliloquies and lyrics feigned to be spoken by American soldiers in World War II. There are glimpses of the homeland left behind, of a death in a country lane near Argentan and of one in the "bocage," of a burial, of a padre with his big Norton pummeling the back roads, of maimed civilians on the road to Pont-l'Abbé and at Isigny, and of nearly losing the war:
Parachuting after dark, I almost drowned
in the Vire estuary.
Stumbled half the night
through woods, cornfields, clover, country lanes,
so far off course the maps were useless...
It is all precise, glum, low power, very much like the Ulster poems of the first book or, indeed, like this: "My careful life says: 'No surrender. / Not an inch." One wonders if Ormsby is capable of instilling that essential spark of drama, turning his soliloquies into dramatic monologues, for instance, with the implied activity of an interlocutor.
Ormsby is certainly a writer of more than ordinary competence. There are moving poems about his father in his third collection, The Ghost Train, and, with an unexpected tenderness in so habitually stern a poet, about his honeymoon in Paris: "Your face grows secret and lovely. It is a face / of many fathoms in this time and place." He should not be categorized as a lesser Derek Mahon or Michael Longley, his elder contemporaries from Northern Ireland. As the efficient editor of the Honest Ulsterman and of several anthologies, Ormsby has shown himself capable of sympathies more wide-ranging than would be suggested by his oeuvre. Nonetheless, he is the author of an impressive body of work.