Book Review

David O’Connell, A Better Way To Fall, The Providence Athenaeum, 2013

by Richard Merelman

David O’Connell has written a fifteen-poem chapbook that begins and ends
with poems about the Icarus-Daedalus legend in Greek mythology. These poems are bookends to a linked series that explores the many facets of heroism, tragedy, ambition, romance, and morality embedded in the famous tale. Other mythological figures associated with the legend appear, such as the Minotaur in his labyrinth; the lovers Ariadne and Theseus; Atropos, the goddess who snips the thread of life; and even the bull who impregnated Ariadne’s mother, Queen of Minos.           

This classical framework does not weigh the collection down; instead, it propels  the poems, most of which are thoroughly contemporary in subject matter, form and attitude. The book fits nicely with recent works by Anne Carson and David Ferry that also draw heavily upon Greek and Roman mythology. O’Connell’s poems meditate powerfully upon recent school shootings; the events of 9/11; the surveillance technology of Google Earth; prisoner interrogations in Afghanistan; films about terror; and even the changing meanings of the word bomb. Other poems engage more mundane topics: a wife’s imminent death; a field trip to a museum; a Catholic childhood torn by a father’s arrest.

A master theme—that of the fall, alluded to in the book’s title—connects the classical myths to the contemporary poems. O’Connell’s is not the Christian Fall, but rather the fall chronicled in the story of Icarus and Daedalus. Icarus plunges into the sea after a tragically brave assertion of human ambition to seize freedom. Speaking to us from beyond the grave, Icarus proudly proclaims his “moment in the sun,” and asserts the righteousness of his revolt against the received wisdom of his father. A truly noble tragedy is possible only when there is first a momentary triumph of heroic will, epitomized in Icarus’s decision to fly higher than his father ordered. The fall thus becomes not a punishment, but an earned reward. Indeed, in the book’s final poem, Daedalus begs forgiveness from Icarus for his failures as a father. O’Connell’s interpretation of the myth is about as culturally American as one can imagine. Indeed, it evokes the young James Dean and his ineffectual father in Rebel Without A Cause, but O’Connell advances a more general argument: ultimate failure, symbolized by the fall, is the human condition. The question is whether we today can find a “better way to fall.” The answer, according to O’Connell, is generally no.

Falls of many kinds infuse these poems. We prepare for Sandy Hook-like school shootings. We consider a high school student “falling” into a  role as military interrogator and possible torturer. We observe bombs being prepared to fall. We view a video of a young boy’s successful dive into a pool, in the context of the boy’s death a few years later. Unambiguous symbolic meanings fall away in literature (the green light on Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby). The reader descends with Google Earth, ending up with a sharply defined image of the narrator’s house. A wife descends towards death in the same poem where her baby descends from the birth canal into life. Though disparate, these many falls knit the book together.

The strength of this collection lies not only in the depth of its substance, but also in its craftsmanship. O’Connell imbues his language with power. The poems are generally accessible; most deploy plain diction, bold line breaks, skillful transitions in time, space, and situation. Each poem proceeds at an almost relentless pace, firmly anchored in iambs. There is relatively little in the way of metaphor or simile. Instead, the dominant conceit of the fall emerges from the poems about Icarus, Daedalus, Theseus and Ariadne; entrapment and escape from the labyrinth; the slaying of the Minotaur; and the twin flights from bondage to freedom of Daedalus and Icarus. Given the breadth of this conceit, most of the contemporary poems require little adornment. There are few experiments with indentation or varying line lengths. Nor are the mythological poems in the classical Greek Sapphic stanzas that might suit them. In this way, O’Connell emphasizes the way these ancient myths illuminate and comment upon contemporary events.

O’Connell is especially skillful in his use of sound, meter, and detail. Examples abound. Here is one from “Minotaur,” which evokes Theseus in the labyrinth:
            I’ve known a nightmare that begins this way: the walls
            of writhing flesh, the fog that’s slashed by blood-
            red laser light, the acrid burn of sweat and smoke/

I  particularly admire in this excerpt the sensual images, the iambs that surge forward into surprising line breaks, the abundant but subtle alliteration. Notice also the crisp diction in the opening lines of “Sgt. Bradley Talks Emegency Procedures” (below):
            We come to when he says raise
            all shades, when he says snipers
            will take high ground, will be
            our eyes, and when it starts,
            he says, stay down, says

Notice the single-syllable words, the deliberately abrupt line breaks, and the
subtle repetitions, all to create the immediacy of mortal danger.

Two or three poems add little to the thematic strength of the collection. The poem on 9/11 is deliberately flat, a risk that doesn’t pay off. Some few poems depart from plain language, drifting into a more ornate, decorative diction. However, the subjects of these poems can bear a higher diction. Some references in the collection are vague; and a few lines could be eliminated. But these are quibbles. A Better Way To Fall will stick in your mind for a long time.

Richard Merelman writes poems because language is the only medium through which he can hope to achieve beautiful expression. Poems of his have appeared in Main Street Rag and Measure. Recent poems have appear in Bumble Jacket Miscellany and Verse Wisconsin. He taught political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison until 2001. His volume, The Imaginary Baritone, appeared from Fireweed Press in 2012.