Poetry | Michael O’Neill | A Tribute


Michael O’Neill (1953-2018) was a very gifted poet and a brilliant literary critic, who was Professor of English at the University of Durham, where he taught for nearly forty years. He published in the London Magazine during much of this time and was a friend of Alan Ross, who did much to encourage his poetic career. He published four collections of poetry in total with many of his poems appearing for the first time in the magazine. We were deeply saddened to learn of his death shortly before Christmas and reproduce a number of these poems from past issues of the magazine in his memory.



His flesh less like flesh than dough or clay
kneaded and re-kneaded; he stumbled towards me

like the undead embodiment
of some straggler on the retreat from Moscow,

like . . . but none of the ‘likes’ would do
when, under my nose, he tried to mumble the tale

of himself in a species of delirium,
grimed hands cuddling his bottle . . .

There’s no dodging anyone in this city
with its couple of bridges you have to cross;

despite my sidestep earlier he’s here,
singling me out as if he knew that I,

briefcase swollen with books and stuff to mark,
had got off scot-free and must pay . . .

The wound of his crimson-eyed stare!
Crossing his palm with a jingle of change

heals nothing — just earns me
a tangled mutter, more curse than reprieve,

and the sense of looking out at a field
where a vast, spoked wheel slows, then whirls,

the hangers-on — all of them, any of us —
grinning and grimacing before tumbling off.

(From The London Magazine August/September 1993)



I hold my life in my hands, my first collection,
The Stripped Bed, from which I read in the upper room

of a pub that was, I’m told, a strip club
(helps to explain why that bloke in the corner . . .).

Line-endings tease where once a half-bared breast . . .
Flesh wilts before the word, crosses its legs

at tables while light ebbs over Middlesborough,
city my father’s father left for London

and the tree at whose top there was ‘plenty of room’
After I’ve dropped my psyche’s underthings

I half-expect his dapper ghost to rise,
suggest two visits — High Force and a barber —

then tell me how the poems were at fault.
The care with which I’d listen! All’s forgiven,

Grandad! Instruct me how to field these questions,
I’d like to call out as I burble on . . .

But no one’s at my side when I explore
cheerless streets. Fantasising reception

as the wanderer who returned,
I duck into this dump of a café

with its air of a family concern,
dad broiling chips, the daughter (on the game?)

strutting across to the window to size up cars,
while the night threatens to blur or unravel . . .

until I’m with him in the palmhouse
(now closed, a broken-paned irrelevance)

at Sefton Park. He snores, chin on his chest.
Soon the hazy light will coax me out

to catch the 82C and head for home,
oblivious of his panic as he wakes

among the condensation and the heat,
the aspiring, childless writhe of trunk and crown.

(Featured in The London Magazine April/May 1992)


The Neighbourhood

We moved up to ‘The Park’, to a larger house.
Schoolfriends envied the attics.

At birthday parties, clattering like goats,
They’d leave me sheepishly behind, count stairs
— ’23’, ’24’, ’25’ — until they got their view:

Beyond the walled-in gardens, iron-railed ‘Prom’,
And serenaded by the gulls,
The Mersey washing our marginal world.

In dreams the sandbank sucked me slowly down.

A bulldozed plot squared up to us for months.
Gangs carved initials through heart-broken bark
— Visiting-cards from a city we’d cut dead.

Our siege mentality! Two moons rose at night:
One for the bristling docks, one for my window.

(Featured in The London Magazine, December 1985/January 1986)



It had a view, the room I was condemned
and lucky to inhabit for two weeks.
I’d move closer, as my white cell count climbed,
to the window, read my Milton — no idea why
I brought him (certainly bemused the nurses) —
and stare with a tired longing at the sky.

Vallombrosa, its fallen leaves a truth
too much for me, recalled our honeymoon visit,
the fictive sadnesses of distant youth
no longer bearable as I turned
to watch a car circle a roundabout and come back
down the road it had seemed to leave behind.

And yet, though sometimes uninspired, the view
was still a view, spoke of a real elsewhere
in which light and sky might conjure a new
series of manifestations, healing spaces,
a glimpse of chance escape from illness, even
a made-up Eden thronged by angels’ faces.

(From The London Magazine, December/January 2019)