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Review: Wheel, by Michael O'Neill

The poems in Michael O'Neill's Wheel are busy poems of travel and everyday life and family bonds, troubled by distant rumblings of Catholicism. The shade of Dante is never far away (the wheel of fortune can be a circle of hell) and there is a recurrent anxiety about being trapped. Indeed, on one occasion O'Neill is stranded in Peterborough, where we may well sympathise with the poet's obsessive need to move on, rather than kill time (a phrase he dwells on and plays with). More conducive stopovers in Liverpool - his boyhood home - Norfolk, Germany, Venice, Bengal and Halifax (Canada). Places and events and their hectic dream-connectedness come to seem like distractions, a great diversion, from something more deeply interfused. O'Neill's poems, often beginning with decisive verbs (I pace, You went, You'll have), whisk us on, seldom finding a still point until the very end, where images of sleep or quietness or loss - but also hope - await us. In There he tries to pin down what exactly is driving him, imagining this other place. It's where we live / although we are forbidden to go there..., and he

swigs back the hope
that dreams will map coordinates of a place

breathing a stillness so like movement
he might not be dreaming but stepping

out of a house, only to enter its double
except that where the first house now looks dark

the second glimmers - on the front door letters
beckon; he reads there is this other place...

O'Neill likes poems that approximate sonnet length, but is most fond of unrhymed couplets, a form whose affectionate air-kiss has proved particularly suited to contemporary poets, half evoking the satirical Augustans, half settling into something like blank verse, but giving scope to lyricism and ambiguity as sentence meets stanza break. Michael O'Neill's last collection appeared eighteen years ago; Wheel reminds us just how subtle a poet he is.