The Long Game: David O’Meara’s A Pretty Sight

After my first read of David O’Meara’s new book—his fourth—I was vaguely disappointed. By the time I finished reading it for the second time, I had been quietly blown away. There could be many explanations for the discrepancy between my two reactions, but I think the crucial factor is the subtle, nuanced ways that O’Meara is playing the long game in A Pretty Sight.

The crudest index of that long game, and of O’Meara’s artistic ambition, is the page count of the poems themselves. There are only thirty-two of them collected here, but they sprawl over ninety-odd pages. There are many short lyrics, but the defining features of the collection are the longer poems, including a dialogue between Socrates and Sid Vicious and a mesmerizing seventeen-page “rhapsodic” sequence called “Circa Now.”

If the book can be said to have a single theme, it is time. Be it moments or aeons, O’Meara is obsessed with what decays and is destroyed over time, with what changes, but also with what, for better and for worse, remains the same. In the book’s opening poem, the speaker, “Poet Laureate of the Moon” in an imagined future lunar colony, imagines the day when the space centre he inhabits will be discovered by an alien race and “become our Lascaux.”

In the brief lyric “Memento Mori,” someone finds a bone in a pile of manure and the poem ends with her “turn[ing] the thing over and over.” This is a neat encapsulation of the recursive approach followed by O’Meara as he recycles tropes, characters and occasionally phrases from poem to poem, period to period. He has said that this technique was informed by contemporary physics, but it also brings to mind Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which plays with that concept. Whatever the case, O’Meara handles leitmotifs adroitly, which is one of the reasons it pays to reread A Pretty Sight.

Another is its political urgency. One of the things that time does not erode is defiance and we get plenty of it in O’Meara’s collection. Besides Socrates and Sid Vicious, we meet, to name a few iconoclasts, Hans and Sophie Scholl, young anti-fascist pamphleteers executed in 1943; Osel Hita Torres, the Tibetan Buddhist tulku who rejected his destiny; and “Old Hoss” Radbourn, a nineteenth century baseball player who is the first known person to be photographed giving the finger. A key idea for O’Meara is what he has called the “interstice between the necessary and a perceived frivolity.” In the face of political turmoil, people in these poems turn to art; instead of standing still and waiting for death, they dance. The efficacy and purpose of art are questioned more than once by O’Meara’s speakers, but time and again art speaks for itself.

Time makes fools of most would-be prophets, but I hope that in ages to come, if people are still detained by such arcane pursuits as poetry, and they possess the tools to decode our decayed idiom, a few folks might parse these poems and understand that it was ever thus.

Zachariah Wells ( lives in Halifax.


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