Reviewed by Killian Quigley
We plot our personal histories against significant places, the loci – we imagine – of essential scenes. What to do when we return to such sites, but find them, and ourselves, incontrovertibly changed? Thus the thrust of William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” The poet recalls a previous visit, made five years prior, which left sensory impressions so intense and immediate that they required no “remoter charm, / By thought supplied, nor any interest / Unborrowed from the eye.” Their fruits were “aching joys” and “dizzy raptures.” In the poem’s present tense, Nature works differently, and more intricately: to contemplate it is to provoke “a sense sublime / Of something far more deeply interfused.” A spiritual guide for all mankind, this Nature can “lead / From joy to joy,” “inform / The mind that is within us,” and “feed / With lofty thoughts.” Its surfaces – “all that we behold / From this green earth” – are now for sublimating into “The anchor of my purest thoughts,” the “soul / Of all my moral being.” Wordsworth’s poem does not lament a lost way of being in the world – it exhilarates in its discoveries, the grandest of which is a maturely sensitive Self.
In its title, “Tintern Abbey” refers to a dilapidated church in southeast Wales, long derelict by the time Wordsworth ever saw it. It’s striking that he offers few precise details of the spot – but fitting, too, for this poet is most interested in the possibility that a finely-wrought sensibility might transcend its immediate surroundings. The better part of two centuries later, a very different sort of sensibility, and of ruin-poem, appeared in Frank Ormsby’s 1977 debut, A Store of Candles. In “Stone,” our speaker is only remotely a self:
This rough stone the horses scratch against
the committee for white heroes honoured me,
and honoured too the mangled testicles
of Leroy Earl Johnson.
to baffle grief with an inviolable presence,
some treacherous gift of innocence restored
I cannot believe in and would not refuse.
of the unborn –
a silent classic,
a chiaroscuro pan
through ghostly footage
primitive as dawn.
shit-faced and village idiot and Mr Magoo,
or hang from his ears that helpless hammock-mouth
brought on by women.
I want you to sift a handful or two with care
into the top-half of an hour-glass
and set me to pass the days on our bedside table.
From time to time,
tumble me upside-down for a posthumous work-out,
a punctual trickle and fall.
If I must be ‘the remains’, let me be so
as a soft grain in your living.
You can look to me daily for an hour
of silent company,
or tell at a glance you’re running late again.
Nothing had happened, yet the minute spoke
and the scene spoke and the silence,
and oppressed as air does, loading
for a storm’s release.