Oliver Dixon reviews
The Good News About Armageddon
by Steve McOrmond
In a time where a “Biblical”-scale disaster has razed the world’s third richest nation, killing tens of thousands and precipitating a possible further nuclear catastrophe, where civil war and revolution are flaring across North Africa and where here at home we face a pernicious neo-Thatcherite decimation of public services, arts funding and education, Toronto poet Steve McOrmond’s title seems timely. Is he of the same mind as Michael Stipe of REM when the latter sang “It’s the end of the world as we know it/and I feel fine”, content (like Birkin in Women in Love) to see our botched human world swept away? Or is McOrmond, rather, exploring what’s left to cling to in this “end of history”, scrabbling for shreds of good news among all the apocalyptic headlines?
If so, even as he dissects the culture that surrounds him McOrmond seems intent on satirizing our contemporary scatterbrained “search for meaning”, oscillating between outrage and bemusement, jadedness and sarcasm in addressing themes of religious zealotry and spiritual salvation:
Forgive me, Father,
I’ve watched too many wars, surfing between
car-bombs and the canned laughter of sitcoms.
The title-piece is a compelling poetic sequence taking up around a third of the present volume, a set of terse yet loose-limbed assemblages of mordant reflections, lyrical fragments, quips, quotations and found texts held in place by a repeated form comprising 4-8 unrhymed couplets and a recognisably likeable narrative-voice, as ruefully self-facetious as Berryman and as playfully tangent-prone as Ashbery, not so much world-weary as world-exhausted.
Cutting ironically across the poems’ carefully-weighed structures is a vivid and often poignant sense of the narrator’s exasperated attempts to locate cohesion or personal authenticity within the post-modern babel of media-overload, commercial sloganeering and “virtual war”: “The roll call of extinctions is televised”. Efforts to evade consumerism and its vices, such as quitting alcohol and cigarettes, getting “reacquainted with nature” or even making love, seem doomed to blackly comic setbacks.
The glimpsed epiphanies accorded by poetic insight itself (“We are as wisps of hair caught in brambles/Our presence loaned to us by the wind”; and – worthy of William Carlos Williams – the haiku-like “O spring!/A woman holding her skirt down in the wind”) are all that’s left to build on, it seems, although no moment of afflatus is allowed to flourish unchecked by a contrary sceptical impulse. Despite lapses where the self-mockery sours into self-pity and the drollery turns corny (as in the wearisomely dated “Dem bones” piece),’ The Good News About Armageddon’ is a powerfully sustained sequence which plots the internecine dilemmas and contradictions of contemporary society with dogged wit and grace.
The remainder of the volume is something of a mixed bag. There are further effective and tautly-written pieces extending the theme of apocalypse, such as the haunting list-poem ‘The End of the World’, which crescendos to the disconcerting final image of “the locals celebrating/the wedding of the loveliest girl in the village/by firing their guns into the air” and the post-catastrophe vision of ‘The Light-Keepers’, almost like a monologue by the boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though leavened with faint hope: “From less than this, civilizations have risen:/A man, a woman, a wing, a prayer”.
A shorter sequence ‘Strait Crossing’ certainly takes on a topical resonance in the context of watching daily footage of tsunami-ravaged Japanese coastline on the news at present, but its handling of the over-familiar theme of human vulnerability in the face of natural forces – the sea, the weather – is perhaps less than convincing. To say of a violent gale “It will do to us/anything it chooses” is too near to stating the obvious to work as gainful poetry.
The final section is the weakest, including several poems (‘The Tooth-Fairy’s Lament’, ‘Penny Dreadful’) which – and I can only imagine this to be a stinging pejorative among the international poetry community – seem to me distinctly English in their gauche, jokey tweeness and reliance on a sort of undemanding, populist, intellect-free register. Although perhaps included to counterbalance the darker and more acerbic poems that dominate the book, they seem unworthy of the pithy, sharp-tongued McOrmond of ‘The Good New About Armageddon’ sequence.
Oliver Dixon is a poet and writer based in West London whose poems and reviews have appeared in PN Review, The Wolf, Frogmore Papers, Blackbox Manifold and Nth Position.