A Timely Defence
Noble Gas, Penny Black
Brick Books, 2008
69 pages, $18.00
And suddenly there breaks forth the evidence that yonder also, minute by minute, life is being lived: somewhere behind those eyes, behind those gestures, or rather before them, or again about them, coming from I know not what double ground of space, another private world shows through, through the fabric of my own, and for a moment I live in it [. . .]”
—Maurice Merleau-Ponty (emphasis mine)
With the publication of The Vicinity in 2003, David O’Meara established himself as one of the best contemporary poets in Canada. As proof of O’Meara’s skill, consider his “Riding the Escalators” (from The Vicinity), which is the apotheosis of formal dexterity synchronized with inquiry into the very possibility of inquiry in a “post-post-modern” age (to borrow one of O’Meara’s formulations). O’Meara’s poem is a pantoum, a poetic form that recycles lines across stanzas (the second and fourth lines of each stanza become the first and third lines of the immediately proceeding stanza, and so on and so forth). The poem’s form is an iconic rendering of the poem’s department store “escalator,” which cyclically runs “from the clearance shelves in the bustling concourse, / and up into 2nd, 3rd, 4th floors.” “Let’s get lost in everything / as we glance around,” begins the poem. It’s unclear, however, whether losing one’s self is even possible in such a scenario – Keats never had to negotiate his Negative Capability in a consumer-culture wonderland of buy buy buy and more more more!
So, on the one hand, the speaker becomes an object as passive as those he describes: “We’re shuttled through clothes, sportsgear, perfume, appliances.” Differences from product to product and between product and consumer are erased, as everything becomes “an unbroken arrangement of progress.” In such a homogenous time-space, it’s impossible for the speaker to “get lost,” to experience “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” (to quote Keats), or to be shocked by the unexpected. On the other hand, constrained by the escalator’s restrictive and instrumental form, the speaker – like a poet – must use ingenuity to break the “unbroken arrangement” of things: first, through the simultaneous “reverse in sequence” and reflection “on the mirrored descent” (“reflection,” literally meaning a “bending” difference); second, by the refractive function of the poetic imagination (“refraction,” meaning “to break”), which proceeds to re-evaluate items, quite literally (“Descending, we might price each item, in order / to imagine what a bit more cash could buy”), and at the same time rescue those items rendered obsolete in “clearance shelves.” The poem’s opening and closing imperative, then, “Let’s get lost in everything” is powerful in its ambivalence: it suggests an unintended disappearance of self and agency (“lost” in a negative sense, in which case the imperative is an ironic indictment) but also the imagination’s recursive turning in upon itself in order for the speaker to survive (the mind’s eye as “everything”).
The other conspicuous effort from The Vicinity is “Letter to Auden,” a 26-stanza epistle that kvetches “about our damaged lot as humans” as we enter the new millennium. O’Meara suggests to his correspondent that, generally speaking, the world really hasn’t changed all that much since his time: citizens still display ethical disregard for fellow citizens (“You’d find our mixed-up planet feels far too familiar – / We can hardly cry a / Tear as we wipe each other out”). But one thing has changed: the world has succumbed to an implosive technological determinism, which renders negligible the all-important “commonplace”: “love, interest, praise, and gratitude.” These dialectically related concerns of stasis and progress make for an appealing poem. That said, one of the poem’s drawbacks is that it’s rhetorically pitched at one (repeated) note, offering nothing in the way of dramatic or tonal modulation.
I’d like to think about that notion of the “commonplace.” As the Romantic disappointment at the end of O’Meara’s “The Valley Temples of Egypt” intimates, one doesn’t need to look far and high in order to be affected; that is to say, to feel human and humble. O’Meara’s affective commonplace can be found in his signature colloquial rhythms, diction, and tone. It’s that commonplace style that protects The Vicinity’s elegiac “Poise,” for example, from distasteful histrionics. Likewise, in “Sister,” O’Meara quietly speaks of the threat of self-destruction: “Talk is you’re back [...]. They say the rate you’re / going, you’re bound // to burn up, burn out.” Finally, it’s worth briefly remarking on “The Basilica at Assisi,” where O’Meara adopts the Yeatsian “mask” of a manual labourer: “Oh, I took this grunt work / for room and board and a few / measly lira.” Grunt language for grunt work, which O’Meara doesn’t want to romanticize or render heroic in any way; the poem’s pragmatics ensure that doesn’t happen: in the final lines, the worker imagines going to “Urbino or maybe Florence / where the real money is – ”.
O’Meara’s work hasn’t always been so at ease or naturalistic. His debut collection, Storm Still, often stumbles on account of some conceptual over-reaching – see, in particular, the interesting but ultimately failed long-poem “Soundings,” which presents the diary of Don Antonio Pigafetta, who was part of Magellan’s expedition. I don’t mean to suggest Storm Still is altogether unworthy of our attention; as far as first collections go, it’s far better than most. “Debut,” for example, is extraordinarily haunting by virtue of its ominously-charged symbolism. And it’s a poem, for better or for worse, destined to become a beloved anthology piece. The speaker recalls being “pursued by a bull. He was the hulking monster of my preteen terror, and truth / was the moment when I broke the horizon” (there are echoes, here, of Wordsworth’s man “flying from something that he dreads”). That the speaker survives the threat, real and symbolic, doesn’t mean that the source of the threat will not reappear at some unknown point in the future. Thus, the speaker must live in permanent suspense, “holding his breath.” Moreover, in Storm Still, O’Meara’s joy in simple, yet musical statements is nascent:
Down in the rice fields, the frogs
It’s spring after all.
O’Meara slips from relaxed speech to alliterative erotics and back again with startling ease and as certainly as spring’s arrival.
In O’Meara’s latest offering, Noble Gas, Penny Black, building off The Vicinity, the poet has given himself over totally to a style as well-wrought and totalizingly organic as the “hidden array of iron and carbon” he celebrates in “Structural Steel.” Thematically, those loose strands that textured his first two books have come together in a more woofed whole. O’Meara’s focused the fundamental relation between travel (“This mind, this pivot – this endless / drifting that clocks my time and place,” he writes in Storm Still’s “Omphalos), memory (the residue of the past, which haunts the present and fates the future), and self. He’s interested in the way “the invisible” or “immaterial,” those “shadows” of life (memory and place), leave a trace, thus shifting, however subtly, one’s way of being in the world. In other words, O’Meara pursues not the answers to but the relation between these three questions: where am I? when am I? and who am I? The answer is triangulated somewhere in between. O’Meara’s pursuit is propelled by some existential crisis. However, in Noble Gas, Penny Black, and unlike his earlier efforts, he responds firmly with the best coping mechanism he knows: love. It pervades this most intimate collection of poems, a collection far more affecting than the intellectual explorations of Storm Still or the Romantic meanderings of The Vicinity.
I’d like to draw a bead on what I consider the collection’s best poem, one of the best O’Meara’s written thus far in his short career: “Boswell by the Fire.” It touches on the book’s thematics, as described above. Stylistically, it’s conversational, one old friend reaching out to another; the aged Boswell – 18th century writer, most famous for his biographical Life of Samuel Johnson – imagines reminiscing with an intelligent and witty young lady he once befriended, thirty years ago, while living in Utrecht. Unlike the earlier “Letter to Auden” (another imagined conversation between disparate parties: O’Meara and Auden), “Boswell by the Fire” is more modulated, dramatically shifting in tone and perspective. It’s not a singularly-focused lament but a touching movement through multiple doors. This speaker is more self-effacing and endearing. At times, the speaker from “Letter to Auden” just sounds like a pompous ass, constantly positioning himself as morally superior to his peers. O’Meara’s Boswell, though, is a man coming to terms, as best he can, with the life he’s already lived and the decisions made therein. He’s willing to note that mistakes have been made. But he offers no extravagant apologies; no desperate expressions of regret for actions taken or not taken; and no empty promises that such things shall be overcome. If The Vicinity is O’Meara’s “civic gesture” (that is to say, public and, appropriately, often architecturally-focused), “Boswell by the Fire,” representative of Noble Gas, Penny Black on the whole, is a private gesture, marked by remembrance of a more human contact. Indeed, so many of these poems are about people together: family and friends, but especially romantic partners.
The simple title, “Boswell by the Fire,” effectively sets the Yeatsian scene (“When you are old and gray […], / by the fire”) and mood, both somber and contemplative:
I still think of those flatlands and empty horizons.
And Utrecht, its tidy squares . . .
The cathedral’s hourly summons
boomed through the draughty walls
and dark, ancient furniture of my single room.
At tea, I ate dry biscuits from a polished tray
those first afternoons, only twenty-two
but already thinking myself old.
Travel and memory mix. Note what O’Meara’s done, without much hullaballoo: the poem’s speaker – the present, aged Boswell – remembers life at “twenty-two,” whimsical and freewheeling; but that twenty-two year old, the speaker explains, is one who imagined himself older, something like the very Boswell speaking. In other words, Boswell presents a redoubled parallax version of himself.
Why has Boswell travelled to Utrecht? We quickly learn. To “make amends for an idle past,” and in turn “become industrious, chaste and good” – in other words, “a fine, firm gentleman.” O’Meara is subtle, only barely hinting that Boswell might have gotten himself in a little trouble in London. Not surprisingly, that sort of trouble happens upon Boswell again, in the form of “girls.” Boswell is spellbound by the way they look and behave: “profiles in doorways, / flushed whirls on the dance floor, / décolletage in candlelight.” In this description, it’s as if what enraptures Bowell’s imagination is the dialectic of surface appearance and secrecy, or the visible and invisible, which they seem to carry, uncannily, at the same time.
At this point in the poem (stanza 6), Boswell particularizes his foolish romantic indulgences. He discusses his misguided affection for one “Madame Geelvinck,” “young, / beautiful, coy, and spoilt.” “I slaved for her attention,” he says, “lugging baskets / on errands while doting on her son, bungling // my French in hope she’d correct me.” O’Meara’s Boswell communicates his young, misguided condition concisely: he doesn’t sugar-coat his mistakes or, worse, rationalize them away. They are what they are. Precisely when O’Meara might have let his Boswell run wild with wild expressions of desire and longing, there is a radical shift: an apostrophic “you” arrives in full force. This unnamed other woman – Boswell’s long lost friend, his imagined interlocutor – is set up as a counterpoint to Madame Geelvinck (just as the old Boswell is in counterpoint to his younger self). If Madame Geelvinck indulges in high society balls and fashion, and is burdened by the secret that what her fancy clothes and sexual experience cover is an empty interiority, then the unnamed “you” is full of life (“you were bashing a shuttlecock / across a badminton net the first time we met”); wit (“you mocked the pretence / of society, wealth, and dull marriages”); independent thinking (“proud and heated talk of freedom”); and gravitas (“a grin that betrayed the gravity of your every measured breath”). The unnamed you’s “private and public [face]” is one and the same. Of course, Boswell did not realize how good he had it: he loses “you.” But the speaker’s experienced enough to know that there is nothing that can “change it [his actions, his fate] now.” There is no “seize the day” rhetoric that can undo that which has been done. And yet, miraculously, despite the overall bleakness, there is a sweet optimism that underlies the poem.
It’s worthwhile noting that O’Meara’s language in the poem is, for the most part, plain and unadorned. But he has an acute sense of dramatic timing, knowing exactly when to inject a burst of figuration so as to enliven the verse and to heighten the affective stakes. That figurative language appears so seldom makes one take particular notice when it does; for instance, early in the poem, when Boswell describes himself as “a soaked dog” “on that cold day of rain” when Madame Geelvinck leaves town for good. There’s something remarkably bathetic (“soaked”) and coldly critical (“dog”) in that simile, but also a hint of pity. It’s the mixed perspective that confirms how encounter, memory, and identity work upon each other.
Just as Boswell travels to Utrecht and is forever changed by that experience, other speakers in Noble Gas, Penny Black travel, both literally and figuratively. In the case of the latter, travel suggests everything from the self’s transience and liminality to its eroticism and nomadism. Travel is a means of accessing memory, while at the same time a way of forgetting the past. Travel sets the concept of “home” into disequilibrium. In other words, travel is a condition of permanent suspension, like the speaker of Storm Still’s “Debut,” who’s always holding his breath.
In “Travel,” the speaker arrives “at the inside [...] thigh” of his lover, the locus of “erotic suspense.” In “Station,” set in the “Ankara Central,” a traveller describes his thoughts as “gently rocked” by “days which claimed nothing [...] / felt / but never held, like wind over water.” There, again, it is the invisible which leaves its trace on the porous body and mind. In terms of a nomadic self, travel – with all its errors and deviations – is a “portal of discovery,” one which debunks the myth that the self was “simply [...] an arc / from A to B.” With regard to the question of home, O’Meara seems to be suggesting that such a thing as home cannot, thankfully, be possible after travel; home is always, then, something deferred: “‘not yet, not yet, but soon.’” Or, as he puts it in “I Used to Live Around Here” – another standout poem from the collection – “I turn away [from this house], I reach back, I let it go.” Finally, travel as a symbol of general liminality or transience is indicated in poems such as “Tales from the Revolution,” “Czarna Polewka,” “The Throw” (a stunner!), “The Late Show,” and “Powerboat.” In that last poem, a dramatic monologue, speedboat racer Sarah Donohue describes the experience of being caught between life and death after a speedboat crash: “There’s no fear / you just know you’re gone.”
Though my comments, thus far, suggest my admiration for O’Meara’s poetry, I do have some quarrels with Noble Gas, Penny Black. First, the biggest flop in the collection is a five-part poem titled “The Old Story”:
They fell into the old story,
the self-unsettling tale that begins
with a shared double-take, extends
to playful grins
whose lips become locked, whose tongues
are soon mopping mixed gin off
the muscling swirl of another sweet
If only the rest of the poem was as stellar as its opening. Underlying these rhythms is the ballad; and his ballad plays with the conceits that have come to dominate the form’s most popular contemporary avatar, the pop song: “the band’s raw twang was / soundtrack to what’s always on their minds. / Dear Willie Nelson, Dear Will Oldham.” There’s only one problem with what O’Meara’s trying to do. I’ve heard it done far better in actual pop songs. Second, consider the poem “Charlotte St.,” in which the speaker addresses his lover, talking about living in a “dark apartment,” burdened by financial strains (“two more weeks to another insufficient paycheque” or “how mean the restaurants look, how hard / everything seems”). The poem poses the question: how can love survive in such a difficult conditions? But in a rare slip, the poem ends with a note of falseness: “Let’s ditch this city, these jobs, all the bother / of having things, and keep only each other.” In those final lines, O’Meara settles for cheap, romantic sentimentality. Lastly, in terms of complaint, you’ll recall my mention of O’Meara’s affection for commonplace as a means of generating something more human. What such a tack risks, however, is occasional flatness or stasis: see, for example, a poem like “Root Cellar” or “Café in Bodrum.” They do not move (i.e. motion), and they do not move (i.e. make me care).
But I don’t want to leave off with that griping; so, let me draw further attention to other standout poems from the collection – poems you should relish. “Airport” and “Sick Day” are thrilling in the way they prove earnestness to be anything but a deficiency of style. The final line of “Airport,” in particular, when you arrive at it, will cause your eyes to well up. “After the Funeral” is a powerful elegy: however, what’s being eulogized, I would suggest, is not the unknown departed but the speaker’s ability to express feeling, one way or another, in response to death. The speaker’s ability to express feeling has waned. In the end, Noble Gas, Penny Black belongs in the small cluster of great poetry being produced in Canada these days. It’s formally challenging. It’s confident in its style. It’s the “commonplace” in praxis. And it’s a defense – timely – of love and togetherness.