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Review: Wheel, by Michael O'Neill

Michael O'Neill, in the poem Gloss, dedicated to the poet and editor Alan Ross, writes (presumably quoting Ross), too much cleverness / in poetry today - give me / one good lyric by Spender, something that comes / out of deep feeling. Both O'Neill's first collection The Stripped Bed (1990), and now, after a long gestation, Wheel, could take this quote as an epigraph. This is a double edged sword. O'Neill, not unlike Spender, is acutely self-questioning throughout this collection; there is no denying that he writes out of deep feeling, the poems slowly ruminating on the everyday lifted into the realm of the philosophical. But the castigation of 'cleverness' does raise alarm bells.

As the title suggests, the poems spiral, outwardly, inwardly and full circle between various streams of consciousness. This is often made explicit, such as in Dawn, where if

...a camera trained on him performed
a 360 degrees shot, he and the river

would seem to tilt and spin towards the sky

But it is best exhibited in the poem Moments, which opens with the unusual idea that Keith Douglas found in killing a knack or a skill, / a damnable grace that sent grace packing and spreads out into theories of soldiers, poets and soldier-poets, then athletes (their actions belong, like those of a sniper and poet, // to no one's republic), Olympiads, nations rising from the ashes, until the stadium draws history, for a second, into its wake, before the denouement and the understated punch line: the tracksuit slipped back on like a wry knowledge.

The wheeling style does, however, sometimes result in avenues being navigated then abandoned. O'Neill believes in things being left unsaid (more than two thirds of the poems contain ellipsis), which is important for the philosophical tone of his poems but is perhaps utilized too often, leaving too many gaps in the narrative. His writing can feel at times old-fashioned, with an incredibly conservative tone, and I found his style overbearing, the machinery of the form working sometimes too obviously. In his translations or versions of other poems, such as Dawn after Cardarelli, and Infinity after Leopardi, his style is much looser, less hindered, it seems, by his own presence in what he writes. These pieces (the following lines are from Infinity) are amongst the most beautiful in the collection:

And hearing the wind
gust through this windbreak, I compare
infinite silence
with the wind's voice, and what haunts me
is the eternal,
and the dead seasons, and the present season,
its life, and the sound of it. In this fashion,
the mind drowns in immensity;
and it's good to be lost in such a sea.