The Rain Barrel by Frank Ormsby – review

‘Untroubled’, the first poem in The Rain Barrel, is a kind of brief resume of the whole volume, and also I think one of its best poems. It stands out both for the speed with which it makes the mind move and for the way that even as it does so it sustains a powerful sensation of stillness, of remembered domestic serenity suspended between a remote violent past and violence to come:


Caesar is flattening Gaul
by the light of our Tilley.
My father has slept
with his mouth open
since the beginning of the war.
My mother is on a cleaning campaign
in the furthest corners of her empire.
The frozen centre of the night
is a dog’s yowl released between hills.
I am translating from the Latin.
It is 1962, JFK smiles from our mantelpiece.
Before the decade is out
we will fear the unmarked car in the lay-by,
the live device thrown into the garden.
But on this quiet night
logs are burning out in the stove
and a dog in the hills
is fashioning a winter elegy.


The deep model for this poem seems to be Derek Mahon’s ‘The Snow Party’. Ormsby’s poem traces a similar arc but with a very different setting and atmosphere. Rapid changes of gear are obvious from the beginning, with the time-and-space jump between Caesar’s Gallic wars and the Ireland of 1962, where young Ormsby is doing his Latin homework: ‘Caesar is flattening Gaul / by the light of our Tilley’. Within those two short lines there’s a swirl of changing tones, not only moving forward but also reflecting back; the word ‘flattening’ becomes particularly apposite when we realise that we’re seeing things from the perspective of a boy. Then we settle to a more earthy comedy as the father’s open-mouthed sleep is presented as if it’s lasted all through the Gallic wars rather than just through the son’s homework time. With the jump forward to the Troubles, security and humour vanish altogether, until we return to 1962 in the last lines. Of course a poem whose tone is so volatile and whose meanings arise so much through juxtaposition, implication and imaginative suggestion may speak very differently to different readers, or to the same reader at different times, and that is its beauty and strength. The main elements are established with strong, clear strokes but can come together in the mind in many different ways. For me, the contrast with the Troubles intensifies the memory of peace. It becomes an island of calm framed by storms, earthed and saved from sentimentality by humour. However, I can imagine that for a different reader, knowledge of Irish history and of the old wounds that the Troubles reopened might undermine the supposed idyll. For such a reader, Caesar’s wars may evoke British imperial oppression, the reference to the mother’s cleaning campaign, which seems light hearted to me, may be poisoned by its suggestion of wars of suppression and ethnic cleansing, the father’s open-mouthed sleep may suggest dumb obliviousness to the underlying realities of the situation … and so on.

Different elements of this poem recur throughout the volume, the Troubles being recalled in a number of the poems about the lost graves of murder victims. Among them there’s ‘The Disappeared’, which I’ve seen greatly admired but which seems to me not nearly as good as ‘Untroubled’, if one reads it in isolation:


There are lost graves on the mountain
but somebody knows where they are:
the man with the cleanest boots in town,
the man with the spotless car.


In isolation, that does pack an immediate, powerful punch. However, once the reader’s taken the point of its single fierce thrust there’s nowhere else within the poem for the mind to go. In this way it’s quite unlike ‘Untroubled’, which keeps the mind in movement around the multiple and contradictory realities it presents. However, if one reads the volume through, there’s an effective shock in suddenly stumbling on ‘The Disappeared’ after the sweeter and more relaxed ones that come before it. Then, as one reads on, what comes next gets the mind moving again, like a river flowing round a rock it can’t flow through. There’s something of a paradox here. Ormsby has a fine sense of rhythm and form, so there’s pleasure in the shape of each individual poem and of the individual lines within it. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that The Rain Barrel is best read as a whole, or a number of poems at a time, because so much of its beauty arises from its constantly shifting angles on recurring topics, so that the poems meet each other in a fluid way, like the shifting surfaces of water on the sea or a wind-blown lake, rather than confronting each other as separate crystals or like sculptures dotted round a lawn. Of course many of them would make a powerful impact on their own, and no doubt have in magazines, but others that might not seem particularly memorable in isolation have loveliness and life as part of this shimmering between poles of celebratory bucolic recall, immediate positive experience and encounters with the wounds of the life. The fourth poem, ‘Fuchsia’, reflects this receptiveness to change in the way things are seen:


The earrings, the lanterns, the tassels
of the fuchsia change before our eyes.
Now they are bells, now frozen tears,
now blood-drops from the heart of summer.
The fuchsia hedge is redolent of old battles,
a peaceful tapestry in the annals of stone.


In a more extended way, a fine poem called ‘The Butterfly House’ flicks between pleasure in the voluptuous beauty of the butterflies in a simulated tropical environment and a shiver of repulsion at the thought of a snake in (presumably) another part of the zoo. The butterflies

                                    spend their days

being exquisite in a history without wars. We are able,
briefly, to forget the scaly intent,
the cold-skinned slither a hundred yards away
in the tropical ravine. Hold up your arm

and with luck you will emerge into the garden,
badged and sleeved with butterflies,
a thousand bright sails opening around you.


This poem would certainly be richly resonant and satisfying on its own but it too lives most fully in context. In context, for example, the description of the snake resonates with that of the ex-terrorist in ‘The Disappeared’, and the way the blessing of beauty makes visitors to the butterfly house ‘able, / briefly, to forget’ horror makes a poignant contrast with the inability of the loved ones of terror victims to forget their loss, in poems like ‘Today There Has Been Information’, ‘Winter Landscape with Searchers’, or ‘No Closure’.

The garden of ‘The Butterfly House’ is a kind of secular Eden with snakes in its background. As ‘with luck you will emerge into the garden’ suggests, Ormsby’s keen sensitivity to the world’s richness and beauty is animated by awareness of how precarious our enjoyment of these things is. That obviously relates to the wound of the Troubles.  There are poems on the sadness of age, too, and the inevitability of death. I’d particularly like to mention ‘The Wild Dog Rose’ in this connection. However, Ormsby’s willingness to admit grief and loss doesn’t have a depressing effect on the book as a whole. Its grief is the obverse of its joy, and there’s far more of the joy than the grief. It’s full of lyrical delight in small things, accepting life in its totality and in its constant movement between different kinds of feeling. Radiant lyricism is one expression of its joy. Another is laughter – sometimes just a smile or chuckle in the corners of the poem, sometimes a full-blown delighting in absurdity. There are a number of serious and quotable poems on the art of poetry – I particularly like the three graceful haiku elegies for Seamus Heaney – but I’ll finish my review with the beginnings of two comic ones. Together they illustrate Ormsby’s skill in subtle variations of register, and the way his lyricism is earthed to common sense, common experience and common language even as it moves easily into language of more rarefied kinds. They also, of course, illustrate contrasting attitudes to life and art. No prize for guessing which is closer to Ormsby’s own.

From ‘Poem Beginning and Ending with a Drunken Poet’:

Snowflakes are melting into wine.
The poet, Li Po, drunk as a lord, has dropped his cap
in the dust and the way it blows back and forth
is the funniest thing he has ever seen.

And from ‘The Poets’:

The Poets are spaced out singly
around the park in dark overcoats.
Even the women are wearing bowlers.
Deaf to the barbarous vowels of the waterfowl
they talk to themselves
in an elegant, indecipherable murmur,
unnerving the swans.


The Rain Barrel by Frank Ormsby. £12.00. Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 978-1780374925

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to repost this review, which appears in The High Window reviews section.


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