“What We Leave Behind”: William O’Daly’s Poetry Collection The New Gods Reviewed by Toti O’Brien

With no title poem to ease our way, we wonder who William O’Daly’s New Gods are. Trying to identify them is one of several paths we can borrow as we tread the intricate landscape of his verse. Are they uppercase, lowercase? Singular or multiple? Are they better than the old ones? Are the old ones gone?

Though the poems are constellated with traces—the sacred being both hinted at and openly evoked—they remain elusive, layered, and mysterious. We are left free to formulate our conclusions, if we so choose.

“The Fire,” the opening poem, concisely outlines a seven-days hike in the mountains. Somehow, it jots a template for the whole book, inviting us to a steady-paced journey of discovery. Perhaps, to a pilgrimage.

Nature, ever present, usually starts as place—and precisely so. Endnotes provide the exact location for some of the poems, others name their own topography. Gradually, we start recognizing landmarks. We become familiar with the peculiar atmosphere, for instance, of the Californian Sierras, of the Chilean Andes.

Nature starts as place and promptly shifts into metaphor—it becomes a grid or a lens through which life is examined, seeking for directions, for meaning. Then, it further shifts—from metaphor to vision, breaking space and time boundaries, encompassing the past and future, the remembered, the lost, the invisible. From “The Dream of Mount Liberty”:

the snow-covered mountain
no longer hears its own ringing.
It knows no fear.
In its language
will does not exist.

Nature moves “according to gravity and necessity,” which are its main laws together with the ineluctability of change. From “Hug Point”:

Tonight in this rented cabin
above a last gasp of creek
and the hereafter of ocean—
the day lives, choreography
of gulls and light, ever changing,
wave roaring on dark wave,
continual, necessary. I want to be
for you a rock anchored in sand,
the current you will never chart.

From “The Dream of the Waterfall”:

The old stones stream in the arteries
of the gods, and every moment the river
changes, our bodies change, love changes
everything […]

One poem (“Tonight…”) invokes the four elements, pairing them with four human states of mind. But, throughout the book, water and fire hugely overwhelm the presence of earth and sky, no matter in which form. Water is more stream, more river than ocean or lake. Often ice-cold, “glacial,” it offers—like fire—purification by an implied rite of baptism. Perhaps, rebirth. The same rivers, sometimes, are tinged in blood. And blood, our blood, is water. Fire is bonfire that gathers us, warming up the night, shedding light upon our distinct solitudes. It is burning bush, promising revelation. It is ruins and, again, the necessity of re-creating, re-birthing.

Tension between the natural and the unnatural world tightens the collection, giving to the voice a compelling urgency that—as much as we want to linger within each moment, site, instance, universe—makes us turn the page to see what the next will bring.

The unnatural world is as haunting as nature is, but in filigree, shadow-like. It’s the shadow of war, ominous even when so remotely invoked, we doubt we recognized it. (For example, the hikers of the opening poem or the “I” of “A Summer Prayer” suddenly start to look like soldiers. Are they? Nothing states it. But the exhaustion, the boots, the tin cups they drink from…) One poem (“To the Forty-Third President of the United States of America”) says it out loud—the horror—and doesn’t mince words. Other ones (“Afghanistan”) are also explicit—in more contained form, sotto voce.

War infiltrates the poetry in subtle, unpredictable and yet unstoppable ways. It is blood tainting water. From “For Neruda”:

Pablo, tie your horse to the night,
sit with me in the lost city on a patio
ringed by geraniums and quiet hills,
before the dawn arrests our sense of beauty—
in an hour the river will run
with the color of blood …

The New Gods is a book of questions from beginning to end (“shall we give the earth back to our feet?” is the very last verse). Sometimes—as in “Questions for Pablo” [Neruda]—they are the building blocks of the poem. Otherwise, they break in anywhere, any way. Sometimes, they inquire about irreconcilable opposites—“Are words […] weapons or prayers?” “The beginning, is it a death or a birth?” “Was it a smile or a wound that devoured you?”—and we understand, perhaps the mute answer is “both.” Usually, they are meant to remain unanswered, as in fact “we are the question [italics mine] the stone and the river ask,” and “we […] curl in our bed like question marks.”

We are the question. The inquiring mode makes the poetic monologue porous, open, vulnerable. Simultaneously, it makes it intimate, direct. It implies an interlocutor, be it us or some third, invisible presence. Seamlessly, here and there, the monologue breaks into dialogue, demonstrating how thin is the line dividing the two. In “Come Out of the House,” the poet and a young soldier interrogate each other. Two powerful poems address Pablo Neruda (O’Daly is the English translator of a great number of books by the Chilean author). Several ekphrastic poems speak to portrayed figures, some to lovers/loved ones, some to longtime friends.

The Neruda poems are striking, also because they shape an unusual reversal of perspective. Translators—of O’Daly’s caliber—somehow become the voice of those they translate. We envision them standing either behind or (transparently) in front of the original authors—certainly oriented the same way. Here, the translator resumes his own voice and he turns, directly facing the man on whose words he has labored. It is a thrilling motion, suddenly revealing how deeper than literary is the tie, how human—rather than merely linguistic—the relationship.

But the dialogues that most touch me are those with the poet’s daughter, here unborn, there barely delivered, there a five-year old. In “Mysterious Figure,” she is the one asking the questions, as all five-year-olds do: “Is God a girl?” In “Bird Experiencing Light,” her questions are anticipated, maybe wished for: “Someday, angel of the seashore, you will ask and I will tell.”

Choosing the inquisitive mode as O’Daly does in The New Gods equates choosing the point of view of the child. Of the children. They are another leitmotiv, subtly, finely inserted. Children appear impromptu—ours, the children to be, and the children we were. In “Christian’s Animal,” they dance across the night:

I pray that one day they will return
and be what we no longer take
for granted.

More often, they are sacrificed. They are those that wars spare the least. From “To the Forty-Third President of the United States of America”:

                                                            I imagine
Iraqis, weakened by sanctions, spending time
with their children. What do they play together,
what makes them laugh, what crude medicine
do parents spoon down fevered throats when
they too are roused from nightmares of fragile
necklaces of bone slung around the necks of
American fighters whose hearts we camouflage?

From “For Neruda”:

 […] in fields where women search
for a shard of bone, the back of a skull
empty as a womb
a foot still in its shoe—
the youngest son, preserved in the dry earth

They are those who don’t yet share “our belief that they [italics mine] are not like us.” Those who, when we quicken our pace fearing a beggar’s hooded figure, slow down and turn back, spontaneously sharing with the stranger “half a cheeseburger, and a heap of fries.”

After careful reading, I dare to decide that children are the new gods. Minor ones. Multiple, lower case, on this and that side of all borders.

It occurs to me that O’Daly’s is a book of legacy, made—in hope and in love—for those who will follow us: “What you create—the bad? the good?—creates you” (“Hestia”). From “Origin”:

The prayer wheel spun us at our core
as we labored to learn that how
we live is what we leave behind.

The New Gods, by William O’Daly. Beltway Editions, September 2022. 92 pages. $20.00, paper.

Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish Last Name. Born in Rome, living in Los Angeles, she is an artist, musician, and dancer. She is the author of Other Maidens (BlazeVOX, 2020), An Alphabet of Birds (Moonrise Press, 2020), In Her Terms (Cholla Needles Press, 2021), Pages of a Broken Diary (Pski’s Porch, 2022), and Alter Alter (Elyssar Press, 2022).

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