Steve McOrmond’s first poetry collection, Lean Days (Wolsak and Wynn 2004), is an engrossing read and one I enjoyed very much. McOrmond’s poetry is familiar, lyrical, and extremely visual; the imagery draws the reader in and captivates the imagination. From dealing with one’s past and escaping one’s hometown to love and separation to meditations on the life of Glenn Gould, Lean Dayssurprises and delights.
“Loyalist Burial Ground,” the book’s first section, looks back on the speaker’s hometown, dealing with themes of identity, growing up, and loss: “You try on adulthood / to see how it fits, practise saying I love you and goodbye” (“Loyalist Burial Ground” 13). McOrmond knows how to end poems with the most impact, with final lines that resonate with the reader. And because his poems are so full of imagery, so visual, he often creates metaphors that catch the reader off guard. For example, he compares an old Sears catalogue to a family bible, describing the catalogue as thicker “and more thumbed over” (“The burn barrel” 25), or: “The girl checks her watch, takes a last drag of her cigarette / and tosses the butt. Seen from a distance, she might be blowing a kiss” (“Loyalist Burial Ground V” 28).
Where this first section sometimes falters is in the occasional slip into the sentimental, melodramatic, or cliché:
The tall skinny boy with the shaved head
is so in love with the dark-haired girl he can’t
hide it, her distant smile keeps him up at night.
Your one wish is that they love each other simply
and fiercely for as long as it lasts. (“Loyalist Burial Ground IV” 23)
The two repetition poems of the collection – “Field guide” (39) and “Scherzo” (77) – also seem more like poetic exercises than finished, publishable poems, but these are minor quibbles, especially considering this is a first book.
The book’s second section, “So Long,” is concerned with the world outside of the speaker’s hometown. Consisting primarily of love poems, the section examines a new relationship and focusses on the subject of the speaker’s affection. “Blue Hills,” the third section, then deals with separation, nostalgia, and regret when the relationship ends:
And as if this wasn’t enough,
the terror I keep waking from: your voice
calls across the ocean between us.
I walk on water, I stumble
over the blue hills
endlessly towards you. (“Almost” 51)
“The Discography of Silence” is a fascinating poeti-biographical look at Glenn Gould, from 1955 to the early 80s. McOrmond creates a brilliant, eccentric, tangible character, and I immediately wanted to know more about Gould and his life: his genius, his neuroses, his struggles and triumphs.
They expected him to sit up straight
like an operator at a switchboard
but it wasn’t in the job description
to deny what the music wanted –
either to lift him up to heaven
or throw him broken to the floor.
They mistook him for a clown
in his rumpled suit and gloves with no fingers.
Later, for a vulture hunched over
the keyboard, disfigured by the thing he loved.
Nothing was for show: the gloves he wore
year round kept his hands at a constant temperature.
The folding chair, though it squeaked,
allowed him to sit low and strike the keys
flat-fingered. And when he hummed,
it was wishful thinking. (75)
If this section carries less power than the other three, it is only because it relies on at least some knowledge of Gould’s life (of which I have none). Having said that, the poems do stand on their own, and Gould, in the end, is merely a vehicle for McOrmond’s own poetic designs.
Lean Days is a book without pretense. What faults there are, are minor and certainly don’t detract from the rest of the collection. I look forward to seeing what McOrmond has in store for us next time.