The Kiss of Light – Frank Ormsby and Anthony Toner
Like all the best stories, it starts once upon a time. In a bookshop named No Alibis on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue, an introduction was made. Two men, both masters of their art – a generation apart – shook hands. Words of admiration were exchanged and an embryonic friendship formed.
It was the younger man, the musician, who had found both solace and inspiration in the sage-like words of the poet over the decades, a reverential recognition of his work that had left a deep impression.
It was the older man, now shaken with Parkinson’s, who was open to the idea of some shared gigs – “Frank reading poems and me singing songs, each of us discussing influences and inspirations” explained Anthony Toner, one of Northern Ireland’s finest songwriters and an able man when it comes to a poetic turn of phrase himself.
And the idea for this recording came from that – a desire to celebrate Frank and his work.
That meeting of minds gave birth to ‘The Kiss Of Life’ – a clever compilation featuring eleven of Frank Ormsby’s finest poems juxtaposed with short, melodic, instrumental compositions by Anthony Toner on acoustic guitar, Neil Martin on cello, and Linley Hamilton on trumpet.
A courageous leap into creative uncertainty for both – a far cry from Toner’s canon to date; a step outside the comfort zone for a retired English teacher and former editor of the Honest Ulsterman. Yet it works beautifully. Its beauty is in the simplicity. It doesn’t try to be something it’s not – no fancy tricks or spin – just poetry and music, side by side, reverential and respectful; melodic and often poignant.
Ormsby often searches for the poetic in the mundane and the domestic – the poetry of everyday things – and so, ‘The Kiss Of Light’ opens with the short, six-line ‘Under The Stairs’ from his first full collection in 1977 ‘A Store Of Candles’. Its stark imagery of those discarded items we all hold on to because, well, “they might be useful someday”, and there they are – lurking under the stairs, just as we hold on to remnants of the past:
Look in the dark alcove under the stairs / A paintbrush steeped in turpentine, its hairs / Softening for use; rat poison in a jar; / Bent spoons for prising lids, a spare fire-bar; / The shaft of a broom; a tyre; assorted nails / A store of candles for when the light fails.
How small and perfectly formed is that! The accompanying music somehow captures this reflective melancholy – in particular Neil Martin’s cello, like a lilting lament.
Ormsby’s ‘Come As You Are’ from 1995’s ‘Ghost Train’ once more explores the theme of the ordinary in contemplation.
You are nobody’s bid for perfection.
a reminder that you are enough, that you’ll do! I doubt there’s a deliberate reference to Nirvana there, but anything is possible in this surprising and revelatory compilation.
The intimate and the domestic are explored further in ‘Moving In’ also from 1977’s ‘A Store Of Candles’. It feels oddly voyeuristic as if eavesdropping on an act not intended for our ears. And yet, it’s deeply honest and embracing – the first night in a new home, the bedroom curtains not yet hung, the city “at a different angle”, the shadows cast on the walls from the trees outside the window like silent witnesses.
In contrast to this meditation on marriage, Ormsby often explores his seemingly distant and possibly difficult relationship with his father who was in his late sixties when the baby Frank was born to a second marriage. He only ever seems to know his father as an old man.
The complexity of familial relationships is explored through the ordinary and the aspirational – as in ‘My Father Again’. It opens:
I might have been born to write your elegy.
There is a sense that every time Ormsby lifts his pen, it is his father who comes knocking, seeking his place in the poem:
For fifty years or more you have been my work in progress…
a constant conundrum and enigma, the root cause of everything.
The beauty of this album is how, through some joyful mystery, it is the music that captures the essence of each poem, as if holding a mirror up for wavering and fluid reflection.
No more so than in the romantic ‘L’Orangerie’ from 2015’s ‘Goat’s Milk’.
We have floated to the surface of Monet’s pond.
Here the music is light, like walking on air against your better judgement.
‘Bog Cotton’ brings us back to the poet’s father; never far from the surface.
My father turns eighty the spring before my thirteenth birthday / When I feed him porridge, he takes his hat off / His hair, as it has been all my life / is white, pure white.
Here the music blends trumpet, cello, and guitar as if in recognition of times long since past.
‘Winter Offerings’ addresses the poet’s mother directly, about the “blunderbuss” father and a blunt upbringing in rural Fermanagh. Here he refers to their guttural speech patterns – which is an important point for this compilation: Frank’s distinctive voice features throughout – his words from the throat, the residue of his Fermanagh early years blends with decades in Belfast to form words expressed in a unique accent; hence the impact of place on not just our core being, but on our vocal chords.
All of Anthony Toner’s instrumental compositions are worthy of note. Any could be a contender for a film soundtrack but if I had to pick a favourite, it would undoubtedly be the music that goes hand in hand with ‘Cleo, Oklahoma’.
‘The Gate’, ‘A Day In August’, and ‘The Hourglass’ are also included.
In this fast-paced and disposable world, it feels good to allow yourself time to be still, to become immersed in ‘The Kiss Of Light’. This is precious work, perhaps captured for posterity.
Critic Eve Patten assesses Ormsby best as follows:
A poet skilled in the transfiguration of the ordinary, a rendering, through language, of the commonplace into the unexpected.
This is highly evolved work. In ‘The Kiss Of Light’, we are seeing the emergence of Anthony Toner as a sort of “elder statesman” for Northern Ireland music.
Supported by the Arts Council, the four of them – Ormsby, Toner, Linley, and Martin – will play a concert at the end of March in the Centre Irlandais in Paris. Let’s hope we get an encore of that here at home before the year is done!
‘The Kiss Of Light’ is available from No Alibis bookshop in Belfast, from www.anthonytoner.net and to stream and download from usual outlets.