The Clarity of Knowing
Michael O'Neill, Return of the Gift, Arc Publications, 2018
Michael O'Neill was professor of English at Durham University and also a very accomplished poet-past holder of both Eric Gregory and Cholmondley Awards and author over many decades of some exceptional collections-notably The Stripped Bed (The Harvill Press, 1990) which dealt unsentimentally with growing up in Liverpool and the poet's parents. In some ways-though there is much more to Return of the Gift - O'Neill returns to those close relationships a quarter of a century on and this time from the perspective of loss and transience. It makes for some powerful, elegiac poetry as well as lyrical translations, notably of Dante.
The death of his mother in 2016, the need to care for his father and his own diagnosis of cancer has placed O'Neill in a place where a collection such as this may be seen as a cathartic exercise. This would be a disservice. Certainly the emotions associated with aging, death and illness give many of the poems their starting point. But this isn't catharsis as a purging or a cleansing of emotional trauma that, if remaining unacknowledged, could be destructive. More a catharsis as clarification where the essential significance, the import, of the events around which he creates poems, is fully understood and, as such, can inform the moving onward without mushiness.
O'Neill's academic interest is in the literature of Romanticism and again, given that movement's focus on the unfettered expression of emotion, one might expect a fairly florid approach to the strong emotional charge of much of the subject matter in this collection. After all, Wordsworth described poetry itself as the 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings' and death and decay can certainly evoke just such feelings. Again though, a disservice would be done - there is no overflowing here. Underlying many of these poems is, undoubtedly, a very deep seam of potentially destabilising emotion, but it is testament to the craft of O'Neill that this is dealt with in the poems with sublime grace, a gentle touch and an airiness that is uplifting and reassuring.
There is no better example of this than the masterful To Do List that is worth the purchase price alone. The connotation of the list as a means of making order out of the chaos of bereavement of his mother is cleat Mundane tasks such as ringing the Register Office, booking the Church Hall are present. But these are juxtaposed with almost a perverse attention to detail - 'cut out the top/right-hand corner of the passport/for it to be returned...' - that speaks volumes about the intensity of the emotion the list seeks to control. More, the poem parallels these details with lyrical loss of control in the midst of list-making - 'dream/of her return as a young woman; live/with the images; dream/the windswept, out-of-body dreams...'. And the longing cannot be assuaged with a list - the closing lines are the emotional heart - 'gaze at her face in the chapel of rest;/wonder whether her diaphragm lifted, whether she breathed just once'.
There isn't sentimentality-just the clarity of knowing, of understanding, that loss must be felt but that the certainty doesn't make it easier in the short term-nor does 'the old myth of the soul' (Chapel). These poems face things head-on -'you left alone, you, the spruced wood/and the stiffened limbs,/the body from which breath is gone.' (Chapel) and are better for it.
Death is, of course, a common, though still shocking, aspect of normal life. As such it fits well with the collection which is characterised in both subject matter and approach by an 'ordinary wonder' (Scene)-~a phrase which, in its simplicity and its transcendence, sums up the craft of O'Neill. There is an acute sense of place, the requirement to say, precisely, where it happened, where he is: 'I was leaning on a rail/at the bottom of steps..' (Reverie); '...as an Orange Lodge parade/mounted a slow, defiant climb/ up Leece Street before turning right...' (Pruritus).
This sense of locating, this rootedness, is hardly surprising given the personal and familial dislocations O'Neill writes about but he is never tied down. In Postcard, for example, he is 'Over a field of sunflowers/close to the Gorge of the Ardeche/ a butterfly quivers' and this precision is a means of holding fast, of asserting life, in a poem which meditates on the death of his mother who has 'slipped away and gone' and whose leaving still defeats his imagination. This sense of the poems asserting a need to understand which will allow for a leaving go that involves the poet's continued existence as a life in the face of death, aging and illness is strongly but elegantly and humanly expressed without guilt or sentimentality.
In Care, which deals with a visit to his 91 year-old father in a care home who is refusing his medication, O'Neill exerts emotional control through extemporising a 'cheerless tongue-twister' around the inhuman name of the medicine while, at the same time, noticing that 'an oystercatcher shrills/and peeps from the foreshore,/ and a plane, tilting ascends...'. Such coping displacements are abandoned when, the visit over he drives away and embraces the temporary and illusory freedom 'to speed past traffic cones and lorries/ lumbering up the long inclines...'.
Notwithstanding the subject matter these poems are neither lachrymose nor downbeat_simply honest, and beautifully written. There is also a lingering tone of reflection and coming-to-terms pervading the collection_again hardly surprising. The aptly named Reverie catches the tone- a busker plays, he 'riffed/chords of a lost song that took me right back'. It is Fleetwod Mac and 'Shall I tell you about my life?' makes him a teenager again 'waiting for/it to unfurl, waiting'. A cancer diagnosis and mid-60s inevitably encourages such contemplation as to whether the waiting was worth it. There is resignation here - in The Trick, a series of souls are met and offer advice in a dream but waking and rising O'Neill can 'leave/my dead behind, to know they'll call me home'. The reflected-upon life where 'my memories are heavier than boulders' (The Swan) can provoke a kind of pentimento too. Not to mention a sadness at what is past and gone-'.. .All gone, failed-/all gone, the culture of it, how we were and what it was'. (Values). But O'Neill remains strong-'Well, why not wax as well as wane?' he asks in Janus and Return of the Gift answers that question in the affirmative. Indeed, it clearly is not 'too late to seek a stronger life' (Fantasia) - this is poetry that waxes and waxes.