More work by Joyce Wilson in Spring 2000


A review of Wit

Poetry Porch Feature

The State of American Poetry: Roundtable Discussion
What Really Matters

By Thomas O'Grady

McGill-Queen's University Press, Toronto, Canada, 2000. ISBN 0773519068 (paper).

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

***** To read Thomas O’Grady’s first book of poems, What Really Matters, is to experience delight in the intersections of form and content. Each poem invites more than one reading and offers surprises that don’t repeat or systematize. Born and raised on Prince Edward Island, O’Grady directs the Irish Studies Department at University of Massachusetts, Boston. Clearly, he is at home in the Irish cultural traditions of his family, as shown in his themes of the plight of exile, the lure of the exotic, the sanctity of marriage, the heritage of father to son, and the power of music. O’Grady’s dominant strength is his mastery of the poetic forms. He structures his free verse like mortared brick and finds freedom that percolates with wit in the confines of his sonnets.
***** Sonnets, rhyming quatrains, blocks of free verse, unrhyming tercets, a villanelle all appear here. In the poem “Transmigration,” it seems O’Grady has invented a form—four unrhymed indented lines that in their staggered shape resemble wings—which creates a fitting visual analogy for verse on the heron and migration.
***** Still, the sonnet is the most prevalent form. The sonnet “Some Days, Paradise” relies on the onomatopoeia—skip, hop, plod—of rocks over water to describe heaven, not in a walled garden as the etymology of the word would suggest, but in the act of gathering, throwing, and floating stones.
***** From the outside, “Bloodlines,” a pair of Shakespearian sonnets about the childhood impetus to run away from home, compares the elusive nature of destiny with the visual exercise of perception. The first sonnet states a proposal and the second proposes a solution. Then the carefully regulated life of the stationmaster and the lure of the exotic are balanced in the final couplet, which celebrates the longevity of family heritage with a humorous jab at wanderlust:
Our grandfather wisely mastered the urge
To wander where parallel lines converged.
***** “The Test of the Bow,” composed of an octet and sestet with no formal rhyme scheme, describes the effects of the violinist Michael Coleman, whose “larksome thrill of severed air” produced startling music that commanded all in attendance to listen. It is not long before one detects a sustained parody of Odysseus testing his bow to disperse the suitors from his home. O’Grady borrows Homer’s vocabulary on halls and suitors, bows and strings, and applies it to Coleman’s playing. Only here, the humming string of Coleman’s violin does not produce a slaughter but causes blood to flow and “fill the hall” as the inspired throngs get up to dance.
***** “Epithalamia” features a trio of sonnets. The first relates a lover’s courage to plunge under water; the second weighs love against marriage; and the third affirms the ability of a marriage to endure if it can “sail free of conformity and fixed notions.” Allowing that love inspires the smitten to reinvent the wheel “every morning,” the poet concludes that marriage is something that can be crafted over time, through cumulative efforts.
Make marriage burn like a ship spurning land:
weigh anchor, link by link, hand over hand.
Many of O’Grady’s poems mix images of work with the theme of marriage. Here, one delights in the irony of the image that a couple must “remain at sea” in order to make marriage a success.
***** Most of O’Grady’s rhymes are end rhymes, although internal rhymes abound if you look. In the third stanza of the first part of the free verse “Valediction,” the description of the sea sets words ending in “ell” in a different place on pairs of lines, each positioned so that the sound echoes throughout, reinforcing the sense of fragility caused by the impending separation:
Across the bay the island, too,
seemed more to hover than to float,
as if by breaking light a hand-shaped
cloud had brushed a tromp l’oeil
mural at the pearl-gray seam
of crestless swells and ray-
refracting sky. O how I wished
for the same deft touch to sketch
that scene inside an opalescent
shell: a fresco limned in miniature—
in shimmering aquarelle.
The soft endings in “mural” and “swells” are broken by the harsher consonants “deft touch to sketch,” to be taken up again, this time exquisitely, in “shell” and “aquarelle.” Finishing with the French word, borrowed from the Italian aquarella for watercolor, bumps the stanza into song. And how pleasingly the syllables sing!
***** This first book of poems demonstrates the confidence and skill of an accomplished poet, who matches his talent with personality and wit. Is this a talent untested by despair? Not if one remembers the opening poem, “Dark Horses,” about the Irish mosser who is steady on his feet, aware of his limits, and wary of the ocean’s powers. He is seen clinging to the backs of the waves in the poet’s dream where the ocean becomes an anvil, not one that receives blows but that “leaps up to meet the surging/ sledge of beast and tide.” This is the nightmare that wakes the poet to complete the work that he has been called to do.