When John Thompson died at the age of 38, he left behind a manuscript of 38 ghazals, a Persian form Thompson had adapted and personalized. That manuscript was published posthumously as Stilt Jack, a legendary book whose legacy has been enormous.
In 2010, PEI native Steve McOrmond turns 39. That the 39-ghazal title section of his new collection is the best part of his book is both good and bad news. Writing some three decades after Thompson, McOrmond’s references – to the Taliban, Paris Hilton, and YouTube, among others – are up-to-the-minute, and there are many arresting lines in the sequence. Nevertheless, the tone and mood – even the syntax and ironic stance – feel borrowed from Thompson. Sometimes the nod is explicit, but the cumulative effect is more of a well-executed but derivative homage than a credibly authentic utterance.
Perhaps this is why “The Good News About Armageddon” occupies fewer than half of the book’s pages, whereas Stilt Jack was intended as a standalone book. Diffusion, the bugbear of many an overpadded contemporary poetry collection, plagues this one. There are shining moments in the book – notably, its excellent closing sonnet – but there are also swaths of desultory bad sledding. A 16-page meditation on the grounding of an ice-breaking ferry is about as dynamic as, well, a boat stuck on a shoal.
Most of the persona poems scattered throughout the book feel like creative writing exercises, their speakers never quite coming to life. In a satirical piece, McOrmond writes, “The poet … ought to write more interesting poems,” but ironically, the poem dwindles from its provocative opening into a drab catalogue of speculations.
This book is perhaps symptomatic of the bad news about Canadian poetry. McOrmond’s third publication in six years seems to be evidence that, far from facing apocalyptic extinction, Poeta Canadensis is a touch too well-fed by publishers hungry for content.