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Review: Return of the Gift, by Michael O'Neill

In Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor comments that, for the Romantics, 'The artist doesn't imitate nature so much as he imitates the author of nature.' Perhaps it is because Michael O'Neill has studied the Romantic poets for most of his academic career, that his own poetry seems to go out of its way to avoid such a stance. If Wordsworth's 'The Solitary Reaper' seems possessed by the poet, O'Neill's poetry seems like an attempt to always to allow the Other to drive the poems, to, almost, form O'Neill's poems after their own kind. At the same time, it is clear that O'Neill is what he, himself, has called the 'authorising consciousness' of the poem. The 'I' in these poems is clearly the empirical O'Neill. O'Neill's new book contains its fair share of elegies, and O'Neill has always been a fine elegist.

In Wheel, published in 2008, O'Neill's first book after a considerable time, he published elegies for Alan Ross and Roy Fuller. This new book contains elegies for Dennis Kay and Jonathon Wordsworth; and beautiful, powerful poems in memory of his mother. One of these is the wonderful, 'To Do List', which is exactly that; the 'to-do-list' for his mother's funeral. That is to make the assumption that the list is written by O'Neill for the funeral for his mother. But O'Neill's tactic is not only to list the practicalities, with their consequent banality but to intersperse those practicalities with adroitly placed emotional correlatives, as in this passage from the middle of the poem, 'contact / pension providers; cut out the top // right-hand corner of the passport; / ask for it to be returned; dream / of her return as a young woman; live / with the images; dream // the windswept, out-of-body dreams; / scrape words together for the tribute;' Not only does O'Neill seem more organised than most; who would think about sending a passport to be cancelled? But, if O'Neill, who has lived with words more than most, feels that he has to 'scrape words together for the tribute', then we can all heave a sigh of relief. But also that lovely sense of 'windswept, out-of-body dreams'; an image which at the same time as it deepens and loads the emotions of the poems, seems to lighten the poem in the same moment.

O'Neill's imagination often spools into an imagined past. There is a kind of 'pre-imagining', in particular, when writing about his parents, where O'Neill often 'sees' them before he, himself, was born. This reimagining is always very carefully as it could come across as a kind of self-exculpation, in the way that children will blame themselves for the ills of their parent. In 'Calling', this 're-collection' turns around the large sense of 'the meaning of being born,' where O'Neill seeks to look to the deeper truths of the parent/child relationship. This spooling into imagined alternatives is part of the force of O'Neill's wry and deeply moving sequence, 'From the Cancer Diary'. Perhaps, as our poets get older, and bodies let them, and us, down, such sequences become more prevalent: Jo Shapcott, Julia Darling and Carol Rumens have written about this from the female point of view. O'Neill, always conscious of his context within a family, writes with the sensitivity we've come to expect from him about the effect his own cancer diagnosis has on, not only him, but on those closest to him.

There are number of very fine translations in this book, of a section of the Purgatorio, which concludes with a wry nod to what poets really want, not a place where 'human innocence took root, / [w]here spring is lasting and each kind of fruit;'. Turning to 'my poets', the narrator notes 'with a grin' that 'they'd heard this last proposal; // then turned my face back to that courteous woman.' So, Dante, and possibly the translator, have more earthy pursuits than rather paradisal notions of innocence. There is a lovely translation from Leopardi, 'To the Moon', which ends with an acute sense of the force of memory in later years,


In youth, when hope has a long trek
ahead and memory's road is short,
there's a grace in past events, though they
were unhappy and pain persists.

This is a warm, consoling book, entirely lacking in sentimentality, fully deserving of its Poetry Book Society award.