How Poems Work: Ken Babstock on David O’Meara



The clover’s razed; the ground is autumn-hard. The land
bristles in a ragged frame. I’m on the far end, watching

weightless clouds hastened

by wind, the day dark but huge with a muscled rustling.
A hydro pole impales the midriff of the field  a world-tree

ripe with announcements; a pivot staking sight-imperious

and actual against the numbing pace of flat horizon.

First frost tonight. Silver power-lines stretch into the distance, on
and on, beyond the fenced concessions.

I still have not set out.

 from Storm still (McGill-Queen’s, 1999)

One of the more difficult challenges for young poets is the often-unconscious process of absorbing and digesting influences. A new voice appears on the literary landscpae as something unique, peculiar, sometimes difficult, and purely itself. If it hopes, however, to be not just novel but durable it must engage in conversation, loving or contentious, with the voices of the past.

David O’Meara has read widely in world literature, and his first collection rewards re-reading because of the subtle resonances and depth charges embedded organically in the poems.

We’re given a recognizable rural landscape under a title that suggests a task or journey, and not an easy one. The clover is “razed,” the land “autumn-hard” and “bristl[ing] in a ragged frame.” We’re situated at the one point of stillness, along with the speak  “at the far end, watching.”

Rhythmically, line 4 enacts the peak of the speaker’s panicked watch: six ominous, driving accents banging and jostling inside a line consisting of only one- and two-syllable words. What is it the voice expects to see scanning this frost-encrusted scene? My guess is: Meaning. Some stable reference point or knowable landmark by which to measure a life’s progress of stasis.

When vision rests on that hydro pole “impal[ing] the midriff of the field,” I think immediately of Al Purdy’s famous church spire (“God’s belly-scratcher”) in his much-anthologized poem Wilderness Gothic. And here again, imagination takes a stab at investing such a banal entity with significance: It becomes a Heaney-esque “world-tree/ ripe with announcements” but never reveals to its observer what messages hang rotting on its branch.

This is a poem about inner silence, however disquieting, and taking stock of one’s place in the world  an attempt at positioning ourselves in some meaningful relationship with the world outside, even if it’s only some disused fields with the omnipresent scar of technology.

The last couplet contains a subtle but potent double-entendre: The silver power lines  in closer harmony with the frost on the grass than is the speaker himself  stretch off into the distance, traversing more of the earth, with more ease, than the isolated voice feels capable of.

After that, “concessions” is perfect, referring to both the roads dividing the county and whatever uneasy compromises the poet has made in his life thus far.
“I still have not set out”: Not an easy admission, but not a despairing cop-out either. The implication being that the future is nothing if not an offer thick with potential, the chance to change ourselves, to engage life as fully as we know how.

Part of situating ourselves meaningfully is knowing where we came from. This line, apart from its own graceful simplicity and solemn, oath-like tone, carries with it echoes of two great closing lines from lyrics of the same family: James Wright’s “I have wasted my life” from Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota, and, further back, to Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, with its awesome imperative, “You must change your life.”

Ken Babstock’s last collection of poetry, Methodist Hatchet, won the Griffin Prize. Originally published in the Globe & Mail, May 24, 2001