Dublin Gothic is one of those increasingly rare artefacts: a handmade book. It was published in 2015 and comes to us via New Zealand, courtesy of Kilmog Press, with just forty copies in existence. It’s beautifully bound and the pages are charmingly uneven in dimension. The hardback cover is handwoven with overlapping wavy strips of paper in earthy tones that make it gorgeously tactile. It is one of a trilogy of books about Dublin, the others being The Dark Pool and Fingal (unpublished).
Despite having five collections behind him and having edited the anthology of Irish poetry And Agamemnon Dead, Peter O’Neill’s work is not particularly well-known in Ireland. Granted, one of those publications was with Lapwing Publications, and O’Neill lived for many years abroad, but it does seem odd that his work hasn’t found a little crack to slip through before now in the national poetic consciousness.
Not only is he a poet, he is also a translator from French, notably of Baudelaire’s foreboding Fleurs du Mal, in which he has been immersed for several years. I can only imagine that living and breathing the father of modernism for an extended period might play havoc with your sanity if you didn’t have an outlet. For O’Neill, one outlet is his own poetry, where some spleen has definitely filtered through, creating the gothic ambience of this Dublin collection.
The title, Dublin Gothic, comes from one of the poems, dedicated to the memory of the poet’s father. It’s a significant poem because it sets the scene for many others, in that it struggles with clichéd concepts of Irish identity. Apart from the ‘diddle de aye / Dee Doo’ that O’Neill rails against, ‘With its ‘Oh, so happy I’m ‘Irish’ manure’, he also addresses small-minded ignorance that is born of fear. Scathingly, though also with regret, he alludes to this darker side of Irishness that lurks behind closed doors:
But it was what went on inside that really struck me.
My grandfather threatening to throw my father’s copy
Of Ulysses out the window, that strikes me as being
Very Irish. How many more that are like he was still?
My grandfather the great patriot…
O’Neill’s identity is of a more universal kind, his citizenship being of the world. Following in Beckett’s footsteps – another significant figure in his work – he even gives us two poems in French, a language he sometimes uses to write poetry (there are several French poems in The Dark Pool). One of these, Baudelaire, ou L’architexte, contains the kind of spunky sexuality and philosophical punch that I suspect Rimbaud, or even the great man himself, might have been quite pleased with.
Pendant vingt ans j’étais ce Bateau Ivre.
Finalement, rejeté par la mer, je me suis retrouvé
Par terre devant les pieds d’une déesse impitoyable,
Et sans remords qui s’est transformé en pute.
Parfois en gode miche et armée avec son fouet
Et ses bottes, elle me gronde. Je me laisse diriger par eux,
Avec leurs signes obscurs, et leurs ordres sévères.
Je me suis battu une veritable cité construite qu’avec
Des paroles. Et parfois, marchant avec eux
On s’arrête devant le Temple d’Heraclyte l’obscur.
The breadth of O’Neill’s engagement with cultures outside of Ireland comes through in the many references he makes to European history, Greek mythology, philosophy, translated literature, and other languages, all of which create a lavish convergence of images and temporal fusions. The result is that he highlights a common humanity between himself and the rest of the world, which runs like a metaphor through many of the poems. Metaphor, in fact, is a very strong concept in the collection, mentioned explicitly on several occasions. It is a redeeming device for O’Neill, in that it allows him to redefine himself as a person and an Irishman. He can allow simple things like a house fly or the landscape to speak in a language that resonates below surface observations, a language that draws on foreignness in order to sharpen his focus on the local.
Populate the mind, an obscure terrain,
With contemporaneous geographical
Matter, such as the common ordinance
Of sheep, house flies and a solitary tree.
All of which are imbued with mythological
Status, evoking Cain, Cyclops and Aeneas.
That’s three civilizations in one implant,
Causing temporal resonance in the hippocamp.
Because of metaphor our worldly hurt is shared;
We all equate with the great salty wounds
Of Ulysses, laugh at the dicks in Euripides.
Because of metaphor, when I look
Northward, in place of the blue arteries
Of the Mourne, I see the Argo.
In the wonderful poem, Giordano, alluding to Giordano Bruno who was burnt at the stake for heretical beliefs that expanded on Copernicus’ findings, O’Neill is keenly aware that we are composite beings; that we cannot know ourselves properly if we don’t recognise our complex sources, and engage with what is beyond constrained notions of self and of the world. The weight of this realisation can be a burden, of course, ‘When tucked away behind the Cornflakes box / The monstrous tomb of history rocks.’ Yet O’Neill voyages onwards undaunted, occasionally defending himself with that most unique of Irish defences: humour.
I marvel anew at the design inherent
In the intestinal walls, as the earliest patrons
Of MOMA must have when they first
Caught sight of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stairwell.
Of course, the exhibits mounted on those walls
Also share a common currency with the
Gentle motions of stool which cascade along
Ever so gently to the eternal gateway of Armitage Shanks.
Another interesting feature of these poems is their structure. Most of them are sonnets, often with rhyming schemes. Many readers will admire O’Neill’s effortless adaptation to the form, which never imposes itself on the flow of the lines. I, for one, am always suspicious of contemporary poetry trying to drape itself around forms I consider to be quite worn, and am tempted to think this might be another defence mechanism, as if O’Neill is hoping by association with respected antecedents to lend gravitas to his own poems. But I admit it is a personal bias. In the case of Dublin Gothic, there is certainly an argument to be made for the form fitting the tone of these poems, using it as a way to connect with and acknowledge the important legacy of the past while simultaneously accommodating a more modern idiom.
These are pithy poems. There is hours and hours of material here if you want to delve into some of the many references. I can’t say I know who General Wenck is, for example, and I’m not well up on Heidegger or Deleuze either. No doubt my reading of the poems would be enhanced if I were, but this does nothing to detract from the pleasure of encountering the multiple worlds that O’Neill explodes for us, and the possibility of pursuing some of their inhabitants and myths that have probably touched all our lives without us even realising.
He edited the anthology And Agamemnon Dead.