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Review: Gangs of Shadow, by Michael O'Neill

Belinda Cooke, The Warwick Review, Sept 2014

Michael O'Neill points to the elusiveness of meaning / purpose via impeccably crafted, mainly formal poems, with simple diction that makes for nuanced arguments.


In 'Lift' where he drops his wife off at a bus stop, his upbeat mood, ("Back home, grateful for the everyday"), glazes over his angst on his return: "you stay for a while in the car, as though, / bracing yourself for what may never happen". In 'Twice' we have his disorienting shifts between waking, sleep and dream: "the same waterfalling plunge / within you, the same sense control / had left you", while in 'Even If' he is tuned into the minutiae of the senses: "edgy, keen to pick up any new note" and in 'Intimates' ongoing illness triggers a living in the moment sensation: "in each ripple of the stream of moments / it all seems to come down to, a tense / that coalesces present, past, and future." This all makes for great poetry in the way the reader feels an intimacy with the speaker while also detecting his unnerving, bleak aloneness.


Some of the real jewels in the crown, though, are the translations of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Dante. Quick comparison with the originals shows them to be fairly faithful but the diction, cohesive stanzas, relaxed, natural yet formal structures make them read as original poems. The stanza from Baudelaire's 'The Voyage' exemplifies the cohesion, balance, spot on diction and natural rhyming seen throughout:

Not to be changed into brutes, they get drunk
on space and light, and blood-red skies;
suns that toughen and ice that bites
slowly erase the trace of kisses.