Brick Books - April 09, 2009 - 46 Comments
Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O’Meara
Reviewed by Ian LeTourneau
Noble Gas, Penny Black is a very good book. The jacket copy praises David O’Meara as a poet of the personal, but it is when he fuses this personal voice with the public and political that his poetry resonates with emotional honesty, psychological awareness, and a depth of feeling that is rare in contemporary poetry.
This book contains one of the most memorable and moving poems I’ve yet encountered from 2008. “The Day of the Invasion,” a poem about the commencement of the Iraq War, opens with the very personal:
Six forty-five a.m., the radio’s
programmed to rise in unwavering volume
until murmurs nudge us—like the bobbing prows
of docked pleasure boats—awake, into a room
of cream walls pouring into baseboards. (58)
Not one word is out of place here. There is a nice juxtaposition between images of tranquility and images of movement, the latter hinting at the frenzy that is transpiring half a world away. The language is rich and suggestive: “programmed” refers not only to the clock’s alarm, but the default setting of our day-to-day lives that is about to be jolted by events beyond our control. And while the “bobbing prows” and “cream walls pouring” sound soft and tranquil, the prows are an image of lifeless floating and the walls suggest crying, bleeding and the violence of falling bombs. Each successive reading reveals the depth of these lines.
The murmurs become, over the next few stanzas, reports on the weather, local news and then the big international news:
And experts discuss action near Basra, but can’t quite agree
on statistics of land area vs. tonnage of ordinance.
Weather again. Chance of showers, something Celsius, grey
outlook for the week, like a breadline has formed on our sense
of well-being. (58)
Notice the language here: the first two lines are detached. It is clear that the speaker is distancing himself from the reality those words represent. But a closer look reveals that this is a parroting of the murmurs on the radio—in my reading the speaker repeats this with shock. This is evident by the fact that the speaker misses the temperature.
I remember waking up that morning and facing the reality of the news that I knew was coming, but for which I was still unprepared. The metaphor of the breadline is a very apt one for expressing the speaker’s uncertainty and dread, feelings I shared on that spring day in 2003. It is a brilliant metaphor, and I am grateful for a poet like O’Meara who can put into words what eluded me.
At the poem’s closing, the speaker, who has just finished showering, claims,
I’m prepared for another entrance into the day, but stall. Aware the rising steam that softens the mirror will evaporate, with the world still stranded there.(59)
It’s a powerful image of futility: the speaker feels helpless, like the sense of rightness in the world has been abandoned. The cleansing power of the shower is only momentary. It is a powerful ending.
This poem is an accomplishment and worth the price of the book alone. But despite my close attention to only one poem, there is more to savour and experience here. Other fine poems include a translation of Ahkmatova, a monologue in the voice of Boswell, and a narrative from a woman boat racer who has just crashed at high speed. Here is a sample from “Powerboat”:
Our sponson just pecked the wake, but hooked, dragged, snapped and we barrel-rolled back over front, then tacked — a split-second aloft — straight down, like hitting brick at 80 mph. My mind left; there was a high-pitched whine like a dog’s whistle, that piped on and on.(56)
The quality of the verb choices stand out. “Pecked the wake,” for example, is perfect because while it describes the action that precipitates the horrific crash — a quick strike — it is also a subtle reference to the fact that the character flat-lines twice, and therefore pecks at the funeral wake as well. The language is this book is always this rich; every word is measured for its place in the line, the stanza and the poem.
Don’t hesitate: get this book and read it.