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Review: Wheel, by Michael O'Neill

Both these writers possess huge expertise in slightly different literary areas. Michael O'Neill has based his professional career on the study of Romanticism in its varying incarnations. Michael Hulse is a translator from the German; most famously of W. G. Sebald but of other German authors, such as Goethe and Rilke. They both teach in British universities, and are also linked by the fact that their first books of poems were published by Collins Harvill more or less at the start of the nineties. Poetically, the link between these poets is that both these poets may be said to be 'romantics', if one of Romanticism's definitions is in the search for unity with the other.

O'Neill favours the shorter lyric. His poems often start from the observed detail and then move into larger meditations. These are then pulled back from abstraction by O'Neill's concern that we don't lose sight of the Other that is the origin of the poem in the first space. If this sometimes makes the poems a little held within their own grasp, it also makes them deeply tender. The poet acknowledges the limits of his own art, as it seeks to reach out of it.

O'Neill reaches out to a range of others in these poems: the strange and unlucky whom he has met on his travels, those who have died in odd places in odd ways, such as those who died in an explosion in the harbour of Halifax, Newfoundland the largest man-made fire before Hiroshima. But the best poems in this unobtrusive but deeply-felt collection are the ones he's written to his family: God Talk a lovely poem in which, at the end of a long day, O'Neill's son tasks him with big questions about God; Adoption Hearing in which the sheer length of time it takes for the 'rubber stamp' to be given to the procedure seems to threaten everything. When it finally comes, 'relief' offers transcendence,

glimpsing beyond itself a day like this
rinsed by the kind of light that comes of snow,

but also the reality that the adoption hearing actually leads to,

while you, wispy princess in your highchair,
wave the splodged spectre of a spoon.

A complex sense of reality also imbues O'Neill's view of art. In Exchange Visit, O'Neill reviews a sheaf of poems given him by an exchange student, Most flamed with desire, anguish, / angels and demons, hell or paradise. O'Neill's thumping pairings do not actually castigate the student for over-writing, or over-emoting, although it's clear what O'Neill feels, and he's quick to follow it with what the reader would expect The best I told him was a quieter piece in which the student writes about his family. What O'Neill can see in this writing is that distance has led the student away the origins of the writing, Years had made more trace than memory. And, yet, the poet the student's forward-toppling script forces the poet/tutor to admit, You were wrong, you were blind, reconsider. What O'Neill recognises is the pressure and passion that sustains the student's writing; tutor and student unified in their sense of the power of the poem.

Both these poets are superb elegists. O'Neill has elegies for his father, but also literary friends: Roy Fuller, Alan Ross...

A major theme in both these books is the personal struggle with the legacy of childhood Catholicism.