Issue 19: Michael O'Neill

Just as

in ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’

possibly the finest line

and your saintlike face and your ghostlike soul

runs along the nerves like wine

because of the earlier abundance

of allusions to the material

so in the course of my illness 

the fact that we love to crack jokes,

to talk nonsense and pass

into a private idiom

may hint there's a hope that lurks

in the disease's very medium 

which has the force of a dumb yes,

a wry, destructive, passionate kiss.


Half-worshipping, half-spellbound, here yet again,

I see you, Madonna, as more than human,

and yet certainly as a woman,

even if you're only a vision

in tesserae, blue cubes, golden

cubes, and though not my creation,

and I’m no Pygmalion,

you’re an icon I’ve fallen

in love with since, a young man

touring the islands, seeking shelter from the sun,

I first stood, mouth opening, before the Byzantine

sexiness of your maternal pathos;


as now to stand here, gazing at the line

that defines your drapery, at the pain

your famous tear allows us to imagine

you still feeling even in

your new transcendent condition,

is to glimpse a star whose reflection

steadies the stretch of lagoon

between Torcello and the Logos, between

trauma and benediction.

Earthly Paradise

    From Dante, Purgatorio, Canto 28

    In the way, dancing, a woman

pivots, feet on the ground, close by each other,

    neither moving ahead of the other one,

she turned to me upon the red flowers                                         

    and on the yellow too, with the air

of a maiden whose eyes are lowered;

and brought appeasement to my prayer,

    approaching me so closely her soft voice

was audible, its meanings clear.                                                   

    Soon as she’d reached the place where grass

starts to be washed by the shining river's tide,

    she granted me the gift of her raised eyes.


    ‘Now since all the air must turn

in a circle driven by the primal motion,

    unless the circuit is at all broken,                                                 

the motion, striking this mountain

    as it dwells freely in the living air,

then touches into music vegetation.

    And the struck forest has such power

it diffuses through the air its quality,                                                 

    essences the spinning air will scatter,

until the earth below, to the degree

    its soil is suitable and its climate,

conceives and rears tree-rich diversity.

    If this were understood, then it                                                      

wouldn't seem strange how, without seed,

    a plant will, in that place, take root.

You must have understood that the sacred

    fields where you stand are full of every seed,

and yield fruits which, down there, are not picked.’                           


‘Poets of old times, with their idea

    of the golden age and its happy state,                                                   

perhaps dreamt in Parnassus of this place here.

    Here human innocence took root;

here spring is lasting and each kind of fruit;

    this is the nectar of which poets write.’

Then I made a right-round, total                                                                

    turn to my poets, and saw that with a grin

they’d heard this last proposal;

     then turned my face back to that courteous woman.

To the Moon

       After Leopardi

A year on, I recall how

I came to this hill to gaze at you.

I was full of hurt.  You hung,

as now, above that wood,

filling it with light.

But your face was clouded, shaken,

as though you wept – an effect of my tears,

shed for a life that had been miserable

and still is, and, in that respect, won’t change,

my adorable moon.   And yet it helps

to record and go over

the period of my anguish. 

In youth, when hope has a long trek

ahead and memory’s road is short,

there’s a grace in past events, though they

were unhappy and pain persists.

Michael O'Neill is the author of four collections of poems, the most recent of which is Return of the Gift (Arc, 2018).  Others include The Stripped Bed (Collins Harvill, 1990), Wheel (Arc, 2008), and Gangs of Shadow (Arc, 2014).  He is Professor of English at Durham University: his most recent critical book, co-authored with Madeleine Callaghan, is The Romantic Poetry Handbook (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017).