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Review: Wheel, by Michael O'Neill

Because poets no longer write in Spenserian stanzas or iambic pentameter, it's sometimes imagined that the voice of Romanticism has vanished from the modern world. But that Identical yearning - the longing for the sublime, the endless quest for what lies beyond the horizon, the repeated sense of the illusory veils of life - can still be found. It is always worth listening to.

Michael O'Neill's world in Wheel, his second collection, is ostensibly his everyday round as a professor of English literature in a northern university town, with lectures to plan and seminars to attend and stuff to mark in his briefcase. His poems include Daypex tickets, emails, television shows and breathalyser tests. They are set in railway stations, adoption agencies, and, often, in that particularly modern limbo of the featureless hotel room. All these things are given the exact, spare words they need. But beyond observation lies a constant restlessness and wondering: a sense that where we are is never quite the point, and that there is this other place.

In this frame of mind, the ordinary is transformed into vision and dream. An aeroplane over Lake Geneva is an angel preparing itself for the earth's blithe, stained embrace. Vapour trails remind him of the persistence, but the gradual fading, of memories of the dead. The waves breaking on a Norfolk beach are trying to communicate some maxim, perhaps, concerning survival, the need to endure, to hope just enough. In a Mediterranean resort, with tourist coaches jamming behind him, the poet watches light dancing on water as if to lure me on, or leave me stranded. And a dream of walking in winter suddenly brings him to a corridor, fire-vaulted, with air for walls.

A Catholic sensibility informs many of these poems. The fervent faith of boyhood has slipped, and may not be recovered; but the imagery still returns with power. After confession (at which, like many of us, he has held back the worst sin), a door closed and a skylight disappeared. In a poem called Lost, he includes the moon rising from the monstrance of a cloud, and the invocations Tower of Ivory, Queen of Peace.

In one of his most moving poems he describes the difficulty of describing Our Lady to his small son, for whose inclusion in his family he once prayed to her. Looking out of a plane at 30,000 feet, he sees the clear blue (blue as her robe) as a proof, though slender, of immortality.
Michael O'Neill's voice is quiet, sometimes tentative, often perplexed. But his poems are satisfying both as records of the contemporary surface world and as repositories of sudden, deeper thought. This is a collection that is haunted: by childhood games and places, by the deaths of friends, and by a voice. The poet very seldom hears it, amid the clutter of his life. But he is aware that he is both waiting for it, and shutting it out: why don't you walk towards me, lose yourself/ in that dimension always beckoning,/ always receding?