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Review: Gangs of Shadow, by Michael O'Neill

The fine poem, 'Elsewhere' ...., while admiring religion's 'grail of total strangeness', also implicitly reproves such otherworldliness through its own satisfyingly muscular manipulation of syntax and sound:

I'd welcome such a thing, in fact, no more
than wintry repetition, even as
I'd hope the sea might never
lose its air of danger held in check,
or as I'd pray that some I've known
might never crush the wish that those
they'd loved might pass across to heaven
like beaten ships discovering a shore

The title of the book comes from an early, unnerving moment when a speaker sees his own spirit as a shadow absorbed by other shadows pooling on a stream. Later another poem modulates the title slightly by describing someone waiting for 'the gangs of selves and non-selves / I'd call these lines to walk / across the poem's stage-set'. The lyric poem's concern to construct voices and selves is evoked here in a manner that reminds one of O'Neill's day job as an important scholar of Romanticism. Other poems reinforce the theme. In a collection full of references to Italy, it is no surprise that a translation from Dante crops up, but O'Neill's choice of Canto XXI from Purgatorio is particularly apt. For here the poet Statius - a shade himself - famously reflects on his own facility for conjuring a convincing presence from the shadowy, flitting realm of words and images. Gangs of Shadow seems at once fearful, dismissive and astonished by the shades it manages to raise, and it is in this range of conflicting emotions that its considerable merit lies.