canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Songs from the Shooting Gallery: Poems 1999-2006

by Tony O’Neill
Burning Shore Press, 2007

Reviewed by Matthew Firth

Tony O’Neill’s Songs from the Shooting Gallery – Poems 1999-2006 is a landmark book. It is as solid through and through as any poetry collection I can think of. But forget comparisons to this or that past master of straight-shooting writing: O’Neill is his own man.

The power of O’Neill’s writing is in his unwavering gaze deep into his own guts – his guts, not his cock. The problem with most poets is that they look past their guts to their genitals, which are – as ever – ripe for rubbing. And from that comes dreary self-satisfied, self-obsessed, forget-the-reader poetry. Not so for O’Neill – it’s the stomach where his work is centred, the guts being the home of honesty, the place where we relate to each other the best. But more than peak into his guts, O’Neill takes a knife and slices open his bowels, spilling them on the floor, then examining what lies amidst the blood and bile and turning it into art – simple, concrete poetry, in this case. It’s not easy. But when a writer starts by being honest, the results can sing a searing, bleak and beautiful tune. Songs from the Shooting Gallery is a marvellous book and I don’t even like poetry.

Some background: O’Neill is a Brit living in New York City. He used to be a musician. Like many working class blokes, music was his out from the drudgery of grey English council flat living. It eventually took him to Los Angeles, where the young lad got into a spot of trouble – drug trouble, and all the shit that comes with it: thievery, abuse, violence, detox, fucked up relationships with other fucked up people, and quickie, doomed marriages. Death danced around O’Neill but – miraculously – never laid its cold hands directly upon him. He survived and fell out the other end to write about it. O’Neill’s 2006 novel Digging the Vein (Contemporary Press) lays it down in prose. Shooting Gallery – though – may be a slightly better vehicle for relaying his near-death experiences. Because his poems are so free of ornament and anything approaching traditional poetic style or structure they are truly liberated and ring clean, concise and clear. His song is this: bear witness to the hell I have lived. Have a look. See yourself in it. And take warning, for this hell is closer to each and every one of us than you might think, including you, gentle reader.

As the title of the book indicates, there is a chronology to the poems. The first lot centre on the O’Neill’s drug mire in Los Angles. He writes of bleak moments, desperate to score, abusing his body at any cost, so long as the temporary, sweet relief of heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and others followed. It is not pretty stuff but it is wonderful poetry:

last night
a hole opened up in my arm
a great, red, raw, yawning maw
and all of the dollars in the place
animated into hideous life
and wriggled, and squirmed
inside of it, never to be seen
I just lay there
the King of Purgatory
with all of his adornments:
blown shot, 6:30 am

from "Blown Shot: 6:30 AM"

Like many drug abusers, O’Neill endured attempts at crackpot cures and those who told him some god other than drugs could save him. None of it worked, of course. Those cures are worse than the drugs.

The poems take the reader from drug squalor in L.A. to drug squalor in London, after O’Neill returned to his native land. Back in England, he starts to wrestle free of the drugs, inspired, perhaps, by the destitution he sees looking upon his homeland with somewhat fresh eyes. The poems express bitter revulsion. "There’s No Place Like Home" is a caustic criticism of England’s poverty – characterized by a cycle of marauding, teenaged lager louts looking to abuse too-quick-to-fuck teenaged girls, with predictable, pitiful results:

in the town centre
under chemical grey skies
packs of laughing teenagers
numb with sex and Smirnoff Ice
talk of fist fights, bottlings,
pregnancies, and blowjobs in car parks
watching the same shell-shocked faces
drift by like ghosts."
And from the same poem, a couple of stanzas on:
"in the hospital the baby arrives
four pounds and one ounce
out of the cunt and into the incubator
where it will remain
until it is evicted and ushered into
a Council flat with two screaming siblings
and a drunken whore of a mother.

These poems show O’Neill learning something, being roused from his stupor. But what fully saves him is a woman – the right woman this time. The reader knows O’Neill is going to make it when his fix switches from smack to sex and then love:

love is messy and physical like that:
love fucks for 48 hours
with the curtains drawn
reducing the outside world to a sideshow
love gets high,
love slides its cock into your asshole
love collapses into
exhausted heaps
on your bed.

from "Don’t Take It Away"


all of the years
surviving myself,
America and ex-wives
do not make me worthy
of one second
of your laughter.

from "23-10-03"

At this point, O’Neill is far too savvy to think he’s past it, that it’ll be wine and roses for the rest of his days. As the collection ends, O’Neill concedes he has not won the war – the battle perhaps – when he writes "my mind has declared an uneasy ceasefire" in "After the Storm". He is smart enough to know that a woman, a new daughter and his writing offer shelter but not salvation. It is a relative calm. One misstep and hell will return.

The honesty and clarity from word one to the book’s final poem is powerful and poignant throughout this excellent collection.

Matthew Firth’s most recent book is Suburban Pornography and Others Stories (Anvil Press, 2006). Born in Hamilton, he has lived in Ottawa since 2000.






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