What might one expect from a pamphlet exclusively on the theme of living with Parkinson’s Disease? Melancholy? Self-pity? Refusal? Having been diagnosed in 2011, Frank Ormsby says he felt “little inclination towards the morose, the lachrymose, the sentimental or the elegiac’ when writing the poems. Instead, the pamphlet is littered with gallows humour, the type that Northern Irish folk seem to do so well, heard in waiting rooms and hospital wards across the country. You can’t help but smile when Ormsby remarks his brother and himself having enough tremors between them ‘to rival the air conditioning’. Or the opening epigram of ‘Friends’:
Which would you rather have,
Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s?
Parkinson’s. I’ll rather spill half my pint
than forget where the hell I put it down.
This is not to disrespect those with Alzheimer’s. Elsewhere, Ormsby’s past heart failure and current diabetes get mentioned, with the sense that all other ailments pale in comparison, Parkinson’s being so engrossing and curious. Throughout the poems, the reader shares Ormsby’s near-enthrallment, keen to find out how the condition might affect him next. In the Preface, he mentions ‘reading articles, watching documentaries, discussing Parkinson’s obsessively’, in that the more one knows, the more one might understand.
At times, the stance is accepting, at other times, naturally, regretful. In ‘Side Effects 2’, the act of doing a live reading is now transformed, the previous ‘teacherly gulder’ gone (a perfect description indeed for how some poets talk), the words having the ‘right of way’ and ‘each lost syllable recovered, having its say’. Elsewhere, ‘The Later Stages 1’ is full of defiance and assurances, offset by the dread of the opening lines: ‘That lively man | in the wheelchair | could be me, | ten years from now’. It is in the unusual choice of ‘lively’ that we find a countermeasure of hope.
The triptych ‘Hallucinations’ investigates capricious inventions – not of the poet’s choosing, of course – of blurred figures, table-dancers and light-doctors (a kenning that is deliciously left to our imagination). No one else is privy to these, which at times can create ‘a loneliness beyond reason’. Ormsby recalls seeing his mother-in-law and striking up a conversation, only for her to then disappear. He comments on the quasi-existence on these ‘visitors’ in ‘Hallucinations 3’:
They have the fearsome
patience of invalids.
Whatever it is they are waiting for,
they will wait for ever.
The closing poem in the sequence, ‘The Later Stages 2’ is a pre-warning, a list of what can no longer be done and the anger that might rise up alongside the loss. It is sixteen short lines, and as a parting note, is eerily ominous. Overall, Ormsby has given is a fascinating insight into his life with Parkinson’s, one that does not ask for sympathy or even compassion. His language is not of the medical textbook or the observing doctor, but rooted in real life, of daily walks, music, pubs and the football season. Within these fourteen poems, Ormsby is not rediscovering his life post-diagnosis, he is reasserting it.
‘The Parkinson’s Poems’ is available from Mariscat Press, ISBN 978 0 946588 84 4, £6.00