William O’Daly is known as one of the preeminent translators of the poetry of Pablo Neruda in the United States and a cofounder of Copper Canyon Press. Astonishingly, for all he has done over many decades of service to poetry and its communities, The New Gods is O’Daly’s first full-length collection, though he has authored four chapbooks and translated nine books of Neruda’s poetry. In his foreword to this collection, Peter Weltner writes: “Like Neruda, O’Daly possesses an incarnational imagination that aspires to the infinite.” And indeed, by marrying the physical world to the eternal in these lyrical, deeply-observed poems, O’Daly shows us the new and ancient gods who are living all around us in the rocks, rivers, and trees, as well as in our own hearts and bodies. As the poet reminds us, we are “exhalations of God,” and “our prayer is sweat souring creases, elbows, and clothes.” This corporeal, daily act of living and engaging with the world is how we pray and praise.
Weltner also quotes O’Daly as saying that a poem can express “an uncommon common language by which humanity and God or goodness, sublimity or beauty, might speak with one another.” What a profound role for the poet to play as intermediary between the sublime and our quotidian human lives. O’Daly rises brilliantly to the challenge in this beautifully-designed book, brought forth by Beltway Editions.
In your hand
the knife joins dried fish and bread,
bread and wild onion. We are born,
a seed splits. Our blood salts its praise
for what we make possible tonight.
O’Daly reminds us of the communion that living is, that loving is, that poetry is, or can be. Our small acts of attention and care are how we mend what is broken in the world and in ourselves, or at least how we try to, as he writes:
Could clasped hands preserve
the common world, we might break the charge
of death, hush the groans of the ebbing tide.
Set in the Sierra Nevada and along the coastlines of California, many of these poems are reminiscent of Gary Snyder in their attentiveness to the natural world, but they employ a language far more lush and metaphoric, more informed by the passionate symbolism and imagination of Neruda.
They say when we enter
the violet gates of heaven, the body flames
in a marriage of spirit and action
so close to pure purpose
every word blossoms erotic.
It is this eros of the blossoming word arising from the marriage of body and spirit that ignites in these poems. They serve as windows to frame our view of what is around and within us, so that we can truly see it and live it, the world as spirit made flesh. “The river’s psalm incants / the flesh of the spirit, the dance of the extinct.” The natural world is the sacred enrobed, given voice and movement. And it attends to us as we attend to it: “Listen . . . the wind is scattering our names. We are / the question the stone and the river ask.” We discover in these poems that many of those questions are unanswerable. There is a pervasive sense of what we cannot reach, mend, or solve, mirrored in phrases such as, “longing that flares out of reach,” “the forgotten path,” “an equation / neither eyes nor lips can touch—motion that can’t be solved / or written on the tongue.” We dwell amidst ineffable mysteries.
Time and again, this poet returns to love as the salvific and balm of life, admitting that “The more I love, the stronger I become.” Yet, he also acknowledges the challenges of intimacy, whether with a lover, spouse, a friend, or a child. In “The Unwritten Letter,” he writes:
K, let me tell you
my coursing fear,
how some days
we live far from ourselves and
O’Daly gives voice to our unanswered wants, our fear and longing, our hesitant touch, and what we cannot know in another or ourselves. And he does so with vulnerability and humility. He writes to a young child who is playing a saxophone: “I blow a kiss to the mystery / of who you are / as your fingers discover twilight.” O’Daly knows the mystery is all around and within us, what we can never define. “No cloud, no chord, no stone / no poem will ever be like yours,” he says to that same child.
This loving also makes him alert to impermanence and loss:
When we awaken
among the sparks
and shadows in our blood,
I fear everything
we must let go.
So, there is wistfulness mixed with wonder here. There is a recognition of loss, of missed chances, and also of the devastations of violence; like Neruda, O’Daly has a political conscience that speaks in his poetry as well. He writes in his poem “To the Forty-Third President of the United States of America:
If we are to establish peace
and security for our nation, must we not do
everything in our power to end
the beginnings of war, must we not allow
our imaginations to craft a lasting peace?
The poet turns to the powers of imagination to craft the world. “My friend, imagine, with our hands / with passion and wanting we built this life.” And he asks that same friend, and us as readers:
where we will be a hundred years
from today? No answer but laughter
singeing our hands and feet,
our throats open to the falling stars.
Fire and burning are repeated images throughout this collection, as life is depicted as burning in and through us, as the poem “Origin” describes:
Long ago you and I struggled to be born
among the standing stones,
underground fire, mineral rain,
furrows of imagination yellowed by the sun.
Our immobile blood burned blue
even as the wind shaped
our serene incarnation.
We are born of Earth and burn with the fire of imagination, of love and longing for both the incarnate and the infinite. Further on in that same poem, we read:
Our still-closed eyes strived to name oneness,
to behold the mystery of our bodies
falling in a rage of flame, in the rhythms
and textures of our appetites.
We are consumed by our own desires, passions, and emotions. And throughout our lives, “we labored to learn that how / we live is what we leave behind.” Our daily acts are our gifts to the world. In the poem “Hestia,” he writes: “What you create—the bad? the good?— / creates you, sows the grace of song while you / tend the kettle.” For, it matters what we do with our small lives, how we choose to spend our days, what we choose to create. We will be shaped by it and shape our world by it.
About the Reviewer
Maxima Kahn is a writer, teacher, and firekeeper who lives in the mountains in Northern California. Her first full-length collection, Fierce Aria, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2020. Her work has been featured in numerous literary journals, including the Louisville Review, Wisconsin Review, Sweet, and many others, and she has twice been nominated for Best of the Net. A former teacher of creative writing at the University of California, Davis Extension, she has taught privately through her own creation, BrilliantPlayground.com, since 2004. She is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships to the Community of Writers and the Vermont Studio Center. She is also an improvisational violinist, an award-winning composer, and a dancer. www.MaximaKahn.com