Noble Gas, Penny Black
Reviewed by Jesse Patrick Ferguson (Matrix 82, spring 2009)
Noble Gas, Penny Black is the third collection from a poet known for craft and scrupulous revision. Few of O'Meara's readers are likely to complain about his limited output, however, because his poems achieve an easy grace that belies much authorial attention. Such polish can result in a collection of little derring-do, of few risks, but O'Meara's humour and casual tone-conveyed, for instance, in the disarming title "Japan was Weird"-tend to lighten things up and invite the reader in.
The collection's title offers an oblique entry into O'Meara's pet themes-home, love, and travel. Noble gases are slow to react, are stubborn and "chemically lonely," and many of O'Meara's poems, such as "Arriving Early," capture the dialectic of loneliness ("down off the bus, puzzled, alone, rattling your doorknob, / pacing the lanes[. . . .] Poor slob") and the miracle of love. When the lonely noble gas unexpectedly reacts with another element (a lover, in O'Meara's poems), the resulting attachment is precious. The dialectic, however, is never fully resolved; love is tenuous, as in the poem "First": "[I] was scared that in the interlude / you'd vanish, or were never really there."
Yet the second half of the title-penny black, the first viable adhesive postage stamp-cues us to the need to enter into the experiences of life without hesitation, a shift signified by the stamp's demand of prepayment, instead of payment on delivery. As the poem "The Postal Museum" informs us, we must remain open to life's bittersweet flux: "There's a sudden thought; the street / turns. A door opens like memory."
Amid the nuts and bolts of rhythm, rhyme and sound, O'Meara proves himself a deft mechanic. He unobtrusively deploys internal, slant and full rhyme, adding a measure of dignity to otherwise domestic material in such poems as "I Used to Live Around Here"; he sculpts a soundscape through alliteration and other phonic devices, delivering some musical lines: "marks on next year's calendar / as the ploughs scrape skeins / of snow toward the buried curb" ("Sick Day"); and, with few exceptions (notably the sequence "The Old Story," which contains flat passages and clichés: "said love's never assured," "prepared for the hurt"), his poems hold up their end of the author-reader compact. Noble Gas, Penny Black gives evidence of a fruitfully divided sensibility: one divided between deep feeling and imagination, and intellectual and editorial rigour.