Noble Gas, Penny Black by David O'Meara
Reviewed by Matthew Zantingh (The Goose, issue 9, summer 2011 - pages 33, 34)
Noble Gas, Penny Black, David O’Meara’s third collection of poetry, is a world traveller. Several of the poems are set in those in-between spaces of travel, such as airports and train stations. Others travel to places as far distant as South Korea, Japan, and Turkey. These travel poems form the thematic spine of the book, but interspersed throughout are more localized reflections on past relationships, childhood events, and everyday experience.
Several poems recreate grand historical events, but focus on the gritty everyday reality of such an event. “Tales from the Revolution,” a reflection on the first night and day of the Cuban Revolution, records Lucky Luciano admiring “the waves’ blunt force rushing the rails of the Malecon” before Batista’s last dinner party in Cuba, while Edwin Tetlow, a British foreign correspondent, is “startled awake by a sudden / unmistakeable burst / of silence.” In “The Day of the Invasion,” the speaker focuses on “weather, sports, and traffic. Local / reports,” while granting the American invasion of Iraq only a passing mention as if it is a mere shadow on his or her experience. This moment in world history, important as it is, becomes for the speaker transient, much as the steam in a bathroom after a shower will continue to roll on amidst such momentous occasions.
O’Meara is also intensely interested in past relationships, especially broken or lost ones. “The Old Story,” the longest poem in the collection, is composed of five sections detailing the arc of a love relationship from its initial swelling to its levelling off and finishing with its amicable yet disastrous conclusion. The two main characters in the poem are not named, and most readers will be able to relate to this arc whether through their own experience or their friends’. In “Boswell by the Fire,” one of the strongest poems in the collection, O’Meara writes a wistful letter from James Boswell to Isabelle de Charriere, a Dutch lady Boswell met on his European travels. Set in Utrecht in the eighteenth century, the poem recalls badminton, games of whist in a salon, the “pleated billows” of Isabelle’s skirts. The poem is soaked in longing for a different time and place – that comfortable place of being found in others. Throughout the collection, O’Meara reflects on this place, both its construction and its eventual dissolution.
O’Meara’s poems are comfortable like an intimate conversation with a close friend who has been travelling. Stylistically, O’Meara is not trying to push the formal boundaries of poetry, instead building vignettes of other places and times. However, the collection is by no means parochial, as O’Meara works carefully to craft poems rooted in everyday experiences, familiar to his Canadian audience even if they occur in Sunch’on, South Korea. Noble Gas, Penny Black will remind readers that poetry is a conversation?a conversation that we are both included in and kept outside of. My only disappointment with it is that it is not as long as I could have hoped, lasting only 63 pages. The collection ends like a latenight conversation cut short by the necessity of sleep and the twinklings of the dawn in the window.
MATTHEW ZANTINGH is a PhD Student in English & Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. His research focuses on urban nature in Canadian literature, asking the question of how our experience of the city mediates a relationship with the natural world.