by Carmine Starnino
Excerpt from Feature Review
David O’Meara. Noble Gas, Penny Black. London: Brick, 2008.
Add up the air travel, and Canadian poetry’s carbon footprint is huge. Ralph Gustafson tramped across London and Manhattan. Irving Layton was always packing for Greece (where Cohen waited). Al Purdy got boozy in Mexico and Russia. Earle Birney skin-dived off the coast of Fiji. Gwendolen MacEwen toured Egypt. P.K. Page was a resident of Australia and Brazil. And Don Coles’ “wander-years” included Stockholm, Florence, and Munich.
Canadian poets clearly get around, and, fittingly, their ports-of-call are as much stylistic as geographic. Ever since ancient Romans first caught the bug, travel has proven to be a kind of theatre. Whether the backdrop is uncharted rainforest or a cobblestone piazza, being abroad spurs psychological auditions, tryouts of self-invention under exotic test conditions. This premise—that we are freed by not feeling at home—also extends to language: a change of scene can uncork euphoric new noises. Flaubert believed travel helped “enliven one’s style”; an idea Layton echoed when he praised a junket overseas for “replenishing my stock of metaphors.” Of course, there are pitfalls: overconfident familiarity with customs only glancingly experienced, stolen snatches of a tongue one doesn’t speak, cultural namedropping. It was exactly this sort of pretentious cosmopolitanism that pushed Kingsley Amis, in 1951, to issue his famous diktat against poems about foreign cities. But the xenophilic itch to match untried sounds to unfamiliar surroundings is why the best Canadian poetry on distant settings—such as Daryl Hines’ “Arrondissements,” a dazzling sonnet-sequence on Paris’ 20 districts—ranks among the best Canadian poetry. In each spot on the map we find a poet outside his comfort zone, taking a leap.
The owner of a well-thumbed Baedeker, David O’Meara is constantly drawn to what he called in his first book, Storm Still (1999), the “flawlessly foreign.” Wales, Japan, Italy, and Tunisia are some of the far-flung places his poems have described. O’Meara, however, isn’t interested in package excursions. He prizes, and convincingly registers, alien encounters, situations where “our normal props of distraction,” as he explained in an interview with Ottawater, “have been disturbed.” Sightseeing, in other words, is about being blown off course: it stirs up (or ought to) soul-searching about how we live, the rules we follow, and our true intentions: everything about us that’s “half-hid // and too uncertain to crack open / easily.” Similar self-interrogations—by turns haunting, lively, and unsentimental—occur when O’Meara dwells on other subjects: small towns in Ontario, hockey photographs, 13th-Century Italian labourers, dilapidated movie houses, stammering, glass, boyhood, and the zeitgest itself, exuberantly summed up in a long verse-letter to Auden. It also bears mentioning that when he isn’t globe-trotting, he likes to take walks. His second book, The Vicinity (2003), was a paean to pedestrianism, filled with sharp-eyed reports on urban odds and ends. (O’Meara’s flaneuring is largely headquartered in Ottawa, where he bartends.) Point being, O’Meara doesn’t need to undertake a transatlantic flight to write a good poem. But sometimes his gifts—energetic verbs, spring-loaded syntax, a love of slang—don’t come fully into action unless faced with the disorientation and toil of travel. Want to arouse O’Meara’s senses and excite his sensitivity to language? Drop him into “the salt-cracked sufferance of the Chott-el-Jerid.”
Take “Arriving Early.” Included in his new collection Noble Gas, Penny Black, the poem finds O’Meara standing on a platform at night in the South Korean city of Sunch’on. He’s just missed his bus connection, and, along with it, any chance of rendezvousing with his girlfriend on her birthday. It’s a variation on a favourite theme: people sidelined by setbacks, demoralized by the gulf between dream and reality, or simply loaded down by the impedimentia of daily life. Things—love, health, especially the weather—rarely go as planned, leaving O’Meara to preserve the disappointments inside formal shapes that become “landmarks / of each near-disaster.” But O’Meara has another favourite theme: despite long odds, we keep making choices that give the competitive edge to hope. This explains why our stressed-out traveller, faced with no real alternative, hands over “just short of three digits Canadian / for a two-hour taxi ride.” What ensues is a high-speed chase in which O’Meara’s cab eventually overtakes the bus (“I raised one mental / finger as we shot across its prow”) and fast-forwards him ahead of the passenger he narrowly avoided becoming (“every inch a gain on where I might have been / if I’d been back there.”) Zipping along in rhyming sestets, the poem calmly captures the anxiety and burning-rubber adrenalin of the episode, but also the bemusement of a man who, his sensible side now eating his dust, has been awarded a fresh start. Arriving early, he is reborn:
Paying the fare, it felt a bit Caesarean,
that surprise advance arrival, stretching my legs, pearled
out from the warmth of my fiberglass shell, into a world
I didn’t expect to be waiting in. At least, not yet.
Twenty minutes ahead, I was point man, postulate,
herald to the very tidings of myself. I leaned
against your arm, and pictured my double lagging behind
down off the bus, puzzled, alone, rattling your doorknob,
pacing the lanes while we’re out on the town. Poor slob.
Two-timed by your evil twin: is there a cheekier metaphor for the way travel eggs us into behaviour so unlikely we no longer recognize ourselves? Even the language picks up new tricks. Check out “Caesarean,” an adjective that not only alludes to the speaker’s premature appearance, but also to how Caesar in 49 B.C. ignored edicts and marched his army across the Rubicon toward Rome, unopposed. And check out the verb “pearled,” with its suggestion of an irritant transformed into an object of beauty. Both words are uncannily right, packed with multiple meanings readers can absorb in a flash. For those familiar with O’Meara’s work, there’s also the sly self-quotation to keep us busy. “Paying the fare” points backwards to the culture-shock cab ride in Storm Still’s “Ikime-Jinja” (“we’d paid the fare. I was standing there / somewhere among the months / and nothing recognizable”). And the trope of taxi as timemachine (“into a world / I didn’t expect to be waiting in”) brings to mind The Vicinity and O’Meara’s comment about the driver in “From a Dawn Taxi” (“It’s a whole / other day there and he’s already in it, while / I’m in the back, with the night’s final fringes.”) It’s hard not to see those earlier poems as perspectives O’Meara has revised, improved, outgrown. And given the evidence, it would be hard to disagree: the clean-lined fluency, the invitingly informal tone, the crisp and unforced rhyming, and the speaking voice that, by skillfuly modulating short phrases against longer descriptive sentences, rides its own melting. Frankly, I don’t think he has written a more perfect poem. Indeed, encoded in its taut and effortlessly colloquial stanzas is the sense that another “poor slob” is “lagging behind”—O’Meara’s Prufrockian alter ego: practical, earnest, but without the swing in his step, the swagger.
The person who has “arrived”, in other words, is O’Meara himself—or, rather, a style readers can recognize unmistakably as his. “Arriving Early” is a breakthrough poem: coherent, memorable, wholly successful.
see issue for Carmine Starnino’s full review of David O’Meara’s Noble Gas, Penny Black.
|an Arc Feature Review [read more reviews]
Published in Arc 62: Summer 2009