canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Storm still
by David O'Meara
Carleton University Press, 1999

Reviewed by Dan Reve

"Storm still" is the infamous stage direction in "King Lear" during the scenes of Lear's descent into madness on the heath. The title captures the essentially romantic, tragic, and ironic tone of O'Meara's collection as well as its peculiarly Canadian sensibility (this is the land of the Ice Storm). Employing predominantly free verse, O'Meara also uses traditional forms and is particularly adept in his handling of the sonnet. The use of language is highly conscientious and there is an aggressive questing after the right vocabulary and image: the result is many successes, though at other times the strain is too evident and some lines and poems are overwritten.

Storm still is divided into 4 sections: "Axis Mundi", "Soundings", "The Desert" and "Storm still". The poems are predominantly medium-length, autobiographical lyrics, while the major works include the sequence "Desert Sonnets" and the narrative "Soundings".

The latter treats nothing less than two great technological and philosophical revolutions of the modern world: 1) Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe, destroying the "egocentric assumptions of the medieval [European] mind"; and 2) Darwin's theory of the origins of the species which refuted "humanity's belief in itself as being separate from nature" (I am quoting O'Meara's helpful notes to the poems).

These voyages of discovery proved the proud legitimacy of a scientific and technological vision and introduced modernity; the flip side, of course, was a humbling, if not outright humiliation of humanity. Fear was not conquered, nor doubt, nor death; God's wrath was replaced by nature's (including human nature's imaginative and rational problems). The narrator of the poems ends up at home telling his dead, absent "Master", how, in recounting "a more fantastic tale: / the truth", he "was tossed through / the[to] hose-piss and rotting vegetables" - as if the story were of an early Christian martyrdom.

The narratives suit O'Meara's perspective: ironic, romantic quests so characteristic of modernity and our myths. "Soundings" employs the voice of Don Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian nobleman who was aboard Magellan's ship, watched his Captain die, and returned home, having circumnavigated the globe for the first time. This point of view is an astute choice: it allows for the romance and awe of the experience, but also a more ironic realism, a more objective - or at least more familiar - view of events than the apparently fanatical Magellan.

In section iii, O'Meara briefly shifts to the voice of Quesada, a mutineer who is executed for subversion, providing yet another ironic perspective on the heroic voyage. The poems in the sequence focus on specific events - mutiny, stock taking, killing a rat, Magellan's death and an episode in a bar at home again. These settings bring out not only the characters, but the theoretical concerns of the narrative (Section ii, "Theories of the Earth (Departure)", for example, successfully combines a review of such theories while describing the Don's "last time standing/ on such solid ground.").

While the sequence is not long (nine pages), it communicates an epic sense, not only because of the subject itself and its implications, but in the device - often overused in contemporary poetry - of listing ("i. Provisions (Monday, September 19, 1519)"), and metaphors which express the vastness of the event: literarily and philosophically. Formally, the poems are very unique in the use of rhythm and rhyme: no traditional forms - except, appropriately, the couplets used in the poem on Magellan's death -, but effective pacing and occasional rhyme. Here is an effective narrative stanza from section "v. March 5, 1521", the stanzas of which are regular throughout:

I had cornered a rat
as it made the upper deck, skittered and sat
at the foot of the jib - a meal within reach
I meant for myself - though at last count
they were worth half a ducat each.

"Turtle Soup", the section on Darwin's voyage, is also successful combination of the comic and tragic, focusing on specific encounters between Darwin and Captain Robert Fitzroy (a choral voice, antagonistic towards the sacrilegious implications of Darwin's budding theories). These two episodes (the sequence is half the length of the Magellan one) reveals the heart of the crisis and characterize the two sides wonderfully: Darwin a rather insecure youth, green at sea, and Fitzroy a no-nonsense, moralistic, seasoned explorer.

Again, the view of this epochal voyage is ironic. O'Meara uses unrhymed tercets in the two sections of "Turtle Soup", which give a slight, appropriate allusion to Dante, for certainly the voyage of "The Beagle" was a modern "Commedia" of sorts, justifying the ways of Nature to humanity, linking the monstrous forms of life in the world's obscure corners to the supposedly "higher" human form, and further erasing the smudge of God. In the repetition of the words "space and time" in the poem, O'Meara subtly links Darwin's 19th century discoveries with those of Einstein and modern physics and theories of Space/Time, extending the significance of this poetic vision of modernity.

The Magellan chapter of "Soundings" purports to be "From the Diary of Don Antonio". Such narrative and structural devices, as well as the genre of the sequence of dramatic monologue and episodes are common in contemporary Canadian poetry; as is the myth of voyages of discovery. O'Meara is a voracious reader, and, from what I've heard, an amateur scholar of Canadian poetry with a huge collection. So it is no surprise that we find a sequence like "Soundings" forming the central vision of "Storm still".

There is also a deliberate attempt to construct a more specifically Canadian myth in Storm still: "Trans-Canada" is a 'Purdyesque' poem searching for a national image; unfortunately that image is not in focus and inadequately developed. The description of random images, discrete emotions and the obscure(d) narrative imply an inability to clearly define the mythic image (Canada as the highway). It can be argued that the lack of clarity here is not the poet's but the country's fault - that the 'failure' is ironically deliberate, but given the success of other lyrical and narrative poems in the book, I suspect the problem is over-writing and/or 'bad form' - i.e., the lyric does not suit the topic.

O'Meara's growing preoccupation with metropolitan imagery, in his new work, should be encouraged, however; there is Hart Crane's example.

The second major sequence, the very fine "Desert Sonnets", use literary figures (authors and characters) as vehicles for the poet's epiphanies. The blending of others' voices and images with the poet's own is authentic, and the greatest strength of these well-written poems are their endings.

Here are the last nine lines of "IV. The Voyage Out (Woolf)":

There's only the mind - shell-shocked, unraveled -
homesick as you stare from your own front door.
Each departure holds a promise you can't
sustain. Like a round flat stone pitched from shore
and skipping off, the hope for what you want
will ebb. Waves flow where even light can drown.
A stone in your pocket, you'll follow it down.

The tercets of "II. Lear" are also a wonderful piece of ventriloquism, a daring and successful use of one of the most daunting pieces of English literature:

... I'll not go in;
I'm past that now. I botched it up. And though
I've crossed this blasted space and learned how thin
the split is between true speech and fool's dumb show,
rapture or earthly horror, I've had it.
Storm still. It's the knowing makes it tragic.

This poem and the other sonnets enact that thin line of knowledge - "between true speech" (O'Meara's voice) and "fool's dumb show" (the text); that is, between the vehicle and tenor of the metaphor. (My metaphor implies not the denigration of a classical text, but the integrity of the new poem). The subtle but authoritative rhymes - masculine and feminine - and the syntactic movements between simple and complex sentence structures are wonderfully effective; memorable.

Just for show, here are the endings of a couple more poems from "Desert Sonnets": "... More or less, / I've learned what I know from that loneliness" ("III. Igjugarjuk"); "To be born is to sail a wreck that's caught / between two shores, and try to keep it pure. / Watch the breeze. Take it as it comes. Endure." ("V. The Old Man and the Sea"). Readers of The Danforth Review can enjoy another of David O'Meara's sonnets, a new one, in the poetry section of the journal ("Fountain").

Other voices can be heard in Storm still; or, if these aren't deliberate echoes or the influence of other poets' voices, useful analogies for the critic in describing O'MEARA's tone and talent. "Chinese Quince" has a Rilkean quality: entering the subject with an intensity that makes it - the quince/poem - radiant with life, authentic. "Um" ("- a pause word in English that some people use more than 1,000 times an hour") is a comic list of novel metaphors - a technique that is often overdone, but here handled very well, because brief and witty enough.

The free verse poem ends, effectively, with a rhyme, recalling Joseph Brodsky's metaphors and reflections on the parts of speech:

Um. That's
what's left, a sound - both vague and brief.
A monument or offering to things unsaid,

the least expression of joy or grief.

Other fine poems in Storm still include: "Axis Mundi", "Field-Crossing", "Spain", "Rain", "A Half-Remembered Year" (these last two written in rhyming couplets - deftly avoiding the usual comic-ironic effect of such a stanza), and the excellent "Return", the final poem in which the poet-as-a-child would "give anything for a road / straight out of himself".

O'Meara is clearly on that road as a poet - a road which leads, of course, straight back into oneself. The successful poems in Storm still are those in which O'Meara has assumed another's voice (the narrative, "Soundings", and the sequence "Desert Sonnets"), or kept the focus precisely autobiographical, instead of worrying over the myths expected of a Canadian poet.

The variety of forms and modes - narrative, lyrical, sequence, free verse, sonnet and so on - and the echoes of such mentors as Crane, Rilke, Heaney and Romantic poets generally, are a sure sign of a growing talent. In newer work with his distinctive voice, O'Meara is more self-consciously focusing on the city among other subjects - some of which readers of The Danforth Review are encouraged to enjoy in the POETRY section.

Dan Reve used to be a lumberjack. He's still okay.







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