||A Review of: The Vicinity
by Tim Bowling
The Vicinity, David O'Meara's second collection, advances the
impressive aesthetic confidence and purpose exhibited in his fine
debut, Storm still (Carleton University Press, 1999). To be more
grandiose--which goes against the grain of O'Meara's even-tempered,
carefully wrought conversational style--this volume firmly establishes
him as one of the warmest and most inviting intellects in our poetry.
His voice, best described as urbane, worldly, perfectly at ease
with contemporary life even as it highlights its shallowness and
very real soul-destroying dangers, is a welcome antidote to the
formless narcissism that plagues contemporary culture.
The Vicinity will come as a revelation to those who, recognizing
that the vast majority of Canadians live urban lives, bemoan the
rarity of city poems in our literature. Right from the neon streetscape
of the book's cover to the title of the opening section ("A
Civic Gesture"), it's obvious that O'Meara's out to map the
steel, glass and concrete world most of us inhabit. Of course,
poetic excellence has nothing to do with subject matter and everything
to do with its treatment through language. Happily, O'Meara's
inventive use of form and his sensitive insights into finding one's
way amidst the turbulence and chaff of history's onrushing tide
give his urban poems a winning human foundation. Just consider this
lovely moment from "Brickwork":
Or one afternoon, when an old lean-to
is removed from the back of a house,
check the darker patch left there
where sunshine did not abrade, and
consider the original
That colour is older than you.
That colour is the light from the same afternoon
as your father's father's birth.
O'Meara possesses a keen awareness of the past which colours
everything he observes with a faint melancholy hue, and which
explains both why words such as "history" and "memory"
occur so often in his poems and why he's so concerned with rhyme,
metre and other formal devices ("Time, time, time" is the
whisper back of every good poet's lines). Little wonder, then, that
one of The Vicinity's most interesting and ambitious experiments
is an expertly rhymed poem in 26 nine-line stanzas that attempts
to describe post-millennial western civilization to one of the
twentieth century's most politically and historically engaged poets.
"Letter to Auden" showcases many of O'Meara's finest
qualities: his technical control, his sense of humour (seeking a
rhyme for stanzas, he writes, "There is no rhyme but Kansas"),
his engagement with contemporary society, and his respect for
history. It's no small compliment to say that, in such a poem, and
in another long piece, "Walking Around", O'Meara successfully
mines a rift of ore that few poets have even located.
And, it must be emphasized, he's doing so with a wonderful humility
that might just be his greatest gift of all. Few poets exhibit such
a winning curiosity about life combined with such an obvious delight
in linguistic creation. O'Meara's having a great deal of fun while
he unblinkingly looks at the mess of our lives (check out the rapid
beat and cultural evisceration of "Day Planner", or this
delicious closure to "Rooftop": "In the future,
everyone should be unheard of/for a quarter of an hour"). It's
a rare talent that can shift gears so effectively, treating large
historical themes in "Photograph of the Funeral of Pol Pot",
"The Unhappy Condition", and "The Valley Temples",
then penning a surprisingly lovely elegy to an old-time hockey
photographer in "The Turofsky Collection" and a delightfully
inspired piece of falling rhyme in "At the Aching Heart
Diner", which ends:
And the salt that is scattered when she topples the shaker
she'll toss with a flourish across her left shoulder.
I'd like, I will say, to get to know you better.
I'll look down at my clubhouse, so we don't look at each
as I pull out the toothpick that holds it together.
With more space, I'd expound on O'Meara's traditional poetic
fascination with the subject of walking (easy to imagine him traipsing
about with Thomas and Frost) and highlight his unique kind of
gregarious loneliness (he writes much of friendship, but can also
admit,"I like the slippery moments of a dark and tiny hour").
But perhaps it's enough to point out, again, how refreshing it is
to read a highly skilled poet whose healthy, unbroken joie de vivre
confronts the darkness of the times in which we live without
succumbing to trendy middle-class angst.