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Review: Gangs of Shadow, by Michael O'Neill

Jan Montefiore, TLS, 3 June 2015

The atmosphere of these haunting poems is as crepuscular as the title promises. The tone is set by the opening poem, "The Garden", in which a park is used and loved until mysterious all-powerful authorities first close it and then announce that it has "had to be abolished" - a sinister fable which at once invites and resists interpretation. Other poems address ageing, illness and lameness: in the wry "The Rival", the speaker notches up fitness-regaining lengths against a balding narcissist who swims with hateful "vim, fake valour"; a cancer scare prompts gallows humour in "Three for the NHS"; while "Until" muses on the impossibility of apprehending the full meaning of a life whose end may be near - "You have to let go / you tell yourself, holding the banister rail / until your knuckles whiten". Consciousness is subject to moments of heightened perception, perhaps hallucinatory, when strange voices are half-heard in deserted woods, or to the sensation of rushing towards an abyss or being allured by shadows across dark water. In this transient world the solace of art - represented in the poems' own grace and skill and in the ghosts of poets from Louis MacNeice at the start to Catullus at the end - lies neither in defying extinction nor transcending it, but in bearing witness to the losses that shape and finally end all human lives.

Michael O'Neill's scholarship in Romantic poetry enriches his own elegies and meditations on the cut-off lives of Keats, Shelley and Byron; in Liverpool [...] he thinks of vanished families "leaving / at best a trace or smudge on the air". His translations from European poetry hover between enchantment and irony: in "Meeting", the ghost of Statius pays homage to Virgil, also a shade; "Voyage" reworks Baudelaire's disillusioned paean to travel; and in Rimbaud's "Memory" we find vivid images, gracefully rendered in irregular lines and half-rhyme - "angels at play - No, the tide, moving, / moves dark, cool, oily arms. She, with her ring / dying under the sky's blue / summons memories, summons you". More happily, the poet's own family inspires "The Baths of Caracalla", about the magical place where lovers imagine how water would "ripple and tilt above its bed", and the tender, funny "Guh" in which a granddaughter acquiring her first syllable shows "what a word might entail, a single word".