canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Vicinity
by David O’Meara
Brick Books, 2003

Reviewed by Anne F. Walker

The image on the front of The Vicinity by David O’Meara is an urban blur, oil or acrylic presenting haze of lights in darkness. The image on the back is from a position of greater distance, but again, one of a city at night where the lights create almost abstract patterns. 

Within the text it is as if the titles of the poems are component elements to a city: “Grass,” “Glass,” “Wire,” “Rooftop,” “Concrete,” “Structural Steel,” and “Brick” appear in the opening section called “A Civic Gesture.” The second section, “Walking Around,” continues the vision of urban exploration with titles such as “Rough Directions,” “Idleness,” “Thinking and Feeling,” and “A Last Walk.” While these poems describe states of being, they are placed in the city O’Meara creates:

We might find our life in any landscape,

but moreso here. Each city a turnstile
of details, questions, private moments
stirred by a single weathered threshold
or the touch of a single tile

or today
These lines are from “A Last Walk” which is dedicated to Dorothy Jefferies, to whom the collection is also dedicated with the words “For Dorothy Jefferies, my love and these words,” a line which conflates language/articulation with love. This sentiment that bookends The Vicinity, via the poem’s dedication and last poem, remind me of Walt Whitman’s “Once I Pass’d Through a Populous City” where “a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, traditions, / Yet now all of that city I remember only a woman ...” Cities have a long tradition of being a setting for internal logic, feeling, and knowledge. External constitutional components, such as O’Meara’s “Structural Steel,” are clearly vehicles for the poet to access meaning, comprehension. The poem begins with a simple syntax and beat in a Terza rima form which braids end-rhymes:

Make no bones
about it, the arc-welded skeleton that stared
skyscrapers rolling. It’s steel. Stones

once cracked from quarries, chiselled, carted
stacked as pyramids
or devoutly spiralled into minarets, hatted

Terza rima history stretches back to Dante’s Commedia, and appeared notably in poems by Shelly, Yeats, Eliot, Frost, Heaney and in Pinsky’s translation of the Inferno. “Structural Steel” continues this technique which rhymes the first and third line of each stanza, and where the second line of each stanza is then the rhyme-base for the next stanza’s first and third line. While occasionally a little strained, it’s an interesting structure to use in a poem that is concerned with that strength that gives form to cities’ high buildings. Other poems in The Vicinity also employ quite tight end-rhymes: for example “Fountain” is creates an AABB CCDD EF FE pattern where p’s t’s and b’s bang off each others’ aurality. In “Structural Steel” the rhyme-scheme creates a tight base for the poem’s sounds:

and forget about the base-to-height ratio”
Woolworth, Chrysler, Empire State
and Petronas—they can each thank Chicago

for starting it all. That said, of late
I’ve been thinking how the one thing has led
to another, the way foundations are laid—

as if I’d suddenly caught the thread
formed by the structure of I-beam and girder
and saw how steel’s connected

to real estate value, higher
rents, tenements, loss of neighbourhoods, suburban
car-dependency, further

For me the poem lifts off in the line “as if I’d suddenly caught the thread.” This is where variant ideas—of time (the earlier reference to pyramids), of civilization (questioned in the subsequent lines “rents, tenements, loss of neighbourhoods, suburban”), colonization implicit in the cities that “Woolworth, Chrysler, Empire State ... Chicago” evoke—themselves begin to braid and transcend the page. At the end of “Structural Steel” the tight Terza rima form is broken by a single-line stanza: “look around. Raise our eyes a little.” The suddenly caught thread is the line of imagination that runs through the book.

Lines from the book’s conclusion, “a single weathered threshold / or the touch of a single tile,” are footnoted as “excerpted from a 1929 essay by Walter Benjamin, quoted in Edmund White’s The Flâneur.” Via The Vicinity O’Meara successfully integrates himself as a contemporary flâneur, an attentive interactive element mobile within the parameters of poetry and the city.

Anne F. Walker’s most recent book of poetry is The Exit Show. She is also the author of Pregnant Poems, Six Months Rent, and Into the Peculiar Dark.






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