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

Elegies too can suffer similar warping under the pressure exerted on the language by the death drive, especially if the fear of one's own death shapes the ways one mourns the loss of one's loved others. Such distortion is the topic of Michael O'Neill's extraordinary collection, Return of the Gift, which responds (if response is an adequate term for the delicacy, intensity and turmoil here) to the loss of his parents whilst he himself undergoes disabling cancer treatment. What staggers is the fidelity to poetry even here, even at this pitch of annihilative distraction: for Michael O'Neill clings to poetry's quiet powers as if to a form of life, drawing on the rich resource [...] of Romanticism and its credences in art's life and life's art (flowing together across time and in space), as much as to the Irish poetry he has been such a superb critic of, the serious play and command over particularities of Yeats and Mahon. The collection ends with a sequence on his cancer treatment, 'From the Cancer Diary', and characteristically includes a poem about a sudden experiencing of Keats' searing line 'When I have fears that I may cease to be'. The line 'jumps out alive in front of me' and goes through him like 'a spear of white fire': and these lines become electric with feeling because of the hardly spoken fact the line hits him as he is travelling into Kings Cross by train - the line catches fire as a train-track struck by sudden sunlight, and makes the scene as suddenly alive with the fire of the circumstance, his being moved so remorselessly towards non-being. The poem moves on to speak of the gap between the living people 'laughing and swallowing in Jack Horner's pub' and his own existence, reduced by the cancer to 'a malignant structured foodpipe' - but again the train reference complicates this already harsh view. The whole weekend, 'mind the gap' is in his mind, he writes: the London tube recorded imperative turned into a dark message from the collective unconscious about the line from life to death, and the gap between the death-train and the living world. The mind is also a gap here and under these circumstances: 'mind the gap is in my mind' not 'on'; a black hole that is the malignant structure abiding there. Yet the poem holds on to its own capacity to voice, despite the reduction of the poet to cancerous gap: it is the very poem we read which resists the occasion in the very same words that define that fearful occasion's malignity. Keats' line describes his fears of annihilation from his disease before he has had the time to glean his teeming brain; and it is that very line which provides a weird form of stability for O'Neill:

When I have fears ... cease to be
Put it on hold I tell myself put it all on hold

These lines come to him as he walks through Bloomsbury, breathing its 'unsolacing bracing' air while the day 'turns inside out'. Elegy is awakened and turned inside out by the summoning of solace in 'unsolacing', and the impossibility of writing a consolatory self-elegy informs this air, this bracing poem. What braces, in a different sense, is the accompaniment of Keats as a fellow mind, body, poet, and his comparable anguish, though edited in final form without 'that I may' as though dictated by the death drive: the felt connection across time and space occurs, nonetheless, as if O'Neill were experiencing a shaft of Keats' pain. The language of the line from the Romantic sonnet is taken on and in and becomes a way of holding on, of putting the death so feared on hold, through an almost supernatural interchange of feeling activated by impossibly actual identification - the poem, in a moving sense that puts on hold the death train and its movement, puts everything on hold in a waiting game beyond the normal satisfaction of the death drive. This is as if Michael O'Neill were holding on to the performative powers of sustaining and bracing that can make Romantic poetry such a companionable form, and which this poem launches into spacetime as a voice holding on for all future others in such plight, for all others who seek for the resources of desire (beyond solace) and identification (as if one had 'a right to be a person') that only poetry can provide.

And the cancer sequence does come to us at the end of the collection, so its ending only occurs after we have experienced the many poems' quizzing of endings, of terminal and afterlife fears, of poetry's extension of endings into open breaks in a non-finite white space between now and then. In particular it undoes the terminal expectations you might harbour about the estranging fact of facing an ending co-terminous with your parents. The poems about the mother's decline are ghosted as silent dreamlike dialogues with the dead, so intimate as to feel sorrow at sensing:

                       those souls swoop off,
borne on tides of light and dark above
the bed I'd been dreaming in and rose from,
ready to begin again, to leave
my dead behind, to know they'll call me home.

This is both fully sentimental and technically accomplished, finding extra feeling in the spacious felicities of sound and syntax: note the dreamy rhyming on 'dead' at the beginning of the last three lines, creating a rhymey effect that brings 'rose from' home to 'home', manifesting the tides of light and dark as sound-effects; and the line-break play at 'leave / my dead behind', which enacts in little the imagining of the terminal as death only to turn it around as both a resurrective gesture dreaming and rising from the lines and as a farewell to the ghosts: as though part of the call home is a sustaining, rather, of the putting it all on hold. This is poetry that has Dickinson and Berryman behind it alongside a melodious expansiveness that must come from Shelley himself: a collection that asks to be read and re-savoured and begun again.