The Vicinity

by David O'Meara
ISBN: 1894078306

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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
unfaded hue.

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 other
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.

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