by David O'Meara
by Dan Reve
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.
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".
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).
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 window...in[to] hose-piss
and rotting vegetables" - as if the story were of an early Christian
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.
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.").
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
growing preoccupation with metropolitan imagery, in his new work,
should be encouraged, however; there is Hart Crane's example.
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)":
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.
of "II. Lear" are also a wonderful piece of ventriloquism, a daring
and successful use of one of the most daunting pieces of English
... I'll not
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.
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").
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:
what's left, a sound - both vague and brief.
A monument or offering to things unsaid,
the least expression of joy or grief.
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".
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.
of forms and modes - narrative, lyrical, sequence, free verse,
sonnet and so on - and the echoes of such mentors as Crane,
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.
Reve used to be a lumberjack. He's still okay.