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

Michael O'Neill's fourth collection of poems, Return of the Gift, is based on the conceit that the best verse comes from the anteroom in which sins are shriven, burnt off, cast aside, before the soul makes its way to another place. It is only fitting that the gaze of such poetry be ill disposed to flatter, unforgiving, cold. This is a sizeable collection of a hundred pages. There are many distinguished poems and it is difficult to know where to start. One of my favourites is 'Stalker':

'Cease and desist' more or less worked,
though malignancy still lurked
on the net, in the latest
misspelt post.

In the end, it's all grist;
the episode taught him one lesson,
giving, as it did, the lie
to those who deny
there is a place called purgatory,

but, were they to reply,
'In that case,
what was your sin?',
he'd be, in this instance, at a loss,

have to fall back on 'being born'.

The idea that the stalker, faced with the threat of legal action, might retreat into the relative safety of anonymous trolling, is transformed by that multisyllabic, guilt-ridden, shameless word 'malignancy' and by 'lurked', the persistence of which finds an emphatic chime in 'worked. Such resonances, more unsettling than the nuisance-value of an actual stalker, direct attention to the malignant, lurking cells which are the true subject of the poem. 'In the end, it's all grist', says O'Neill, harnessing idioms that fabricate the tone and inflection of the casual, spoken utterance a softening up exercise for what proves to be a score-settler. O'Neill's invocation of sin in relation to disease - particularly one with the power to persist - exemplifies a strategy of this collection: to use the grimly physical as the platform for a meditation on the spiritual.

[...]

O'Neill's voice is unmistakably his own. His reading of others becomes incorporated into the creative pro cess - which is why, at his most literary, O'Neill is most himself, whether adapting Baudelaire ('The Swan'), Leop ardi ('To the Moon'), or Rilke ('Roman Fountain'). There is a moment in an ekphrastic sonnet inspired by a paint ing of Kandinsky, 'Landscape with Red Spots, No.2', which demonstrates this:

It cuts its course, our packed traghetto,
across the Grand Canal.
It'd cut its course,
your death, your quick, aortic death, across
the year, as though you'd somewhere new to go.

And yet I'd keep you for a short duration,
make-believe this room bequeathed by Peggy G,
shrine to the lilt and shimmer of Kandinsky,
held essences like yours through art's creation.

Spiritual yellow arcs, halos round red spots,
leave space for spidery hints that shape
a cemetery's outline - dark tints the clue.

But 'essences likeyours'.. the phrase rots;
even if your features crop up
everywhere, these brushstrokes can't recall you.

[...]

O'Neill's poetic language never strains against meaning: his is pure speech, not rhetoric. It is understated almost to the point of neglect, though none of the techniques used here is more downplayed than the manner in which O'Neill alludes to earlier writers. Presented as self-quotation, 'essences like yours' has an unacknowledged literary source. It originates with the Chartist poet Thomas Cooper, whose Purgatory of Suicides (1845) asks:

Is it decreed
That essences like yours in afterstate
Of absolute brutality prostrate
Shall lie forever?

[...]

There are many poems of real moment in the book, among them the sequence 'From the Cancer Diary', about O'Neill's experience of the illness. A memorable part is entitled 'Mists':

Mists spiriting up from the fells
the sure and certain knowledge

they will continue to rise and catch
the gaze of others

after I'm no longer around
to steer the car towards

that imaginary vanishing point
I've had in mind for many years.

Or the leaves struggling free of branches
back in the old garden as every September

(it wouldn't surprise should a figure with pince-nez
turn up disconsolately pushing a pram)

girders and trucks banging out their dissonant music
from the nearby Garston container docks

my father in his chair in the Long Room,
reflecting on who knows what,

me lingering on beneath the wide sky

The self-elegising posture ('after I'm no longer around')
is again familiar from Yeats - in this case, 'The Wild Swans
at Coole' - but so elemental to the meditating self that
there is nothing second-hand about it. It is as natural an
emanation of the mind as the mists themselves. But the
phrase here that has stayed with me since I first read this
poem is 'that imaginary vanishing point I I've had in mind
for many years'. The image (or non-image) is unexpected,
the affect powerful. Why? Because it alludes quietly, unob
trusively, un-selfpityingly, to the unlearned habit of antic
ipating one's own demise - something almost impossible
to talk about other than through metaphor. The power
derives from O'Neill's acceptance of fallen human nature,
and how it makes us desperate not to release our grasp
on the world before of us.