So I have finally gotten around to reviewing one of the four poetry books published by Brick Books I won in the challenge. I think David O'Meara's Noble Gas, Penny Black had the most gripping cover (a florescent light ring on a greenish background), which is probably why I started with it. There may also be the greatest disconnect between title and contents of any of the volumes. I think if people gave the title much thought, they would probably be expecting poems that are focused on the past. There is indeed a poem about going to a postal museum in Prague (to see the Penny Black stamp) but even here, the poem is far more concerned with the present, as are the vast majority of poems in this collection. Off the top of my head, I can't recall which poem had anything to do with gas, but I may go and look again before I pass the book along to another poetry lover.
In many cases, people struggle to find a way into poetry collections, so they may look for meaning anywhere. It caught my attention that O'Meara was a bartender in Ottawa, and I immediately put together a mental image of an overly literate bar tender (with a useless English lit. degree?) writing away in the afternoon after waking up late from another night shift at the bar. Fair or not, I did pick up a few times where O'Meara was using five and ten dollar words: diurnal, decolletage, mouldering, shuffled conjointly, antiphlogistine, effulgent and unguinous. For me, this indicates he really is aiming for a very specific, narrow meaning in these poems and isn't all that concerned about leaving readers behind. That is obviously his right, but it does indicate a certain type of poet. Only the first poem "The Next Day" seems to draw directly on bar life, but several others do seem informed by a life in the service industry ("Station" and "Cafe in Bodrum"). The last section of poems are drawn from his vacations, mostly to Japan. While it certainly varies, I tend to be about as excited by vacation poems as by vacation snapshots (though I prefer either of these to poems about dreams, which is not the same as dream-like poems, which can be very good indeed).
Just to prove there are always exceptions, my favorite poem in the collection is "Night Train," which is a poem about his experiences traveling in Asia. In this case, however, the focus is not so much on "I did this, I saw that," but about the possibilities of communication across cultures as well the remaining limitations.
Quoting extensively here:
With the parents and their child, we were five
in the sleeping car, the scoured steel rails
shunting us further into Asia.
"How old?" I could only try in English
and mimed the years with spreading fingers.
He flashed a loving victory sign.
And then it was night. We rattled
towards November. In blue uniform and cap,
a dusty porter haunted the passageway ...
"Papa, are we home?" "We're almost there,"
I heard him say, or maybe
"Not yet, not yet, but soon."
To be honest, I just wasn't that grabbed by this collection, though the 5 poems in "The Old Story" tracing a failed relationship have their charm (being so self-aware of how little new there is to say about relationships). However, "Night Train" strikes me as a truly great poem where O'Meara really elevated his game. Probably not coincidentally, he keeps it simple and doesn't go looking for opportunities to use fancy words to show off how much he knows. The poem takes you on that train through Asia and shares this special moment between O'Meara and the father (and son).