Reviews, Vol. 3.4, Dec. 2009
Cover art by Carolyn Marks Blackwood
Noble Swine Press, 2009
Paperback, unnumbered, $14
Review by Cynthia Reeser
Michael O’Keefe is perhaps best known for his work as an actor. Having been nominated for Golden Globe and Academy Awards, he has appeared in Caddyshack, Ironweed, Roseanne, Law and Order, House M.D., and in many other films, on Broadway, and in television shows. As a writer, he has penned lyrics for Bonnie Raitt, and now debuts with his first poetry collection, Swimming from Under My Father, from Noble Swine Press. An introduction by Michael Lally makes some bold assertions, placing O’Keefe in lofty ranks: “Not only does O’Keefe prove he’s as good a poet as many of the top names in the world of contemporary literature, but also, as with his acting and songwriting, he proves he has a unique voice—he doesn’t sound like anyone else.” This statement tells me as a critic to hold O’Keefe to the standard of the best contemporary poets. (You got it.) In his introduction, O’Keefe makes what can only be interpreted as either affectedly humble or as a pure CYA move, insisting, “I am no poet.”
Divided into three parts, the collection addresses first life and acting (Part I); then his difficult childhood with his abusive, alcoholic father, moving into his father’s end-of-life ailments and encroachment upon death (Part II); and finally, relationships and the adulthood post-father (Part III). The first part, titled “Entering,” shows some promise, which is largely untapped. The first poem, “Tolls,” opens well, but trails off into fairly mediocre territory, pushing nothing. “The Audience” concerns acting, and the importance of audience to an actor, but the potential audience/reader comparison remains unexplored. However, the art and life trope is present, though perhaps not as viscerally as it could be presented. Another piece from Part I, “Mission Impossible,” concerns (you guessed it) Tom Cruise: not exactly a subject encouraging strong poetry. Another, “Full Lotus,” is largely inscrutable interpreted in any context outside that of mere filmic imagery.
The second section, titled “Swimming,” contains poems with strong narrative qualities, as can be expected given their subject matter. However, they are among the most impacting thus far into the collection. Judging them on their own merit, more could be accomplished linguistically. Often, the verbiage could suffer paring down, but as a whole, the poems are stronger, and several, especially “Stilled” and “Inevitability,” have strong endings, though the middles often get bogged down in extraneous detail. The poem from this section that shines is the unfortunately titled, “Orange Juice and Milk,” whose strengths are in movement, concision of language, and management of the narrative within the poetic form.
Ultimately, the third section, “Emerging,” contains the most effective pieces. “What We Have in Common,” while a bit wordy, is the standout piece:
If I spoke French, I would tell her I came to Paris
with the intention of marrying someone,
and that I watched the woman I loved disappear like flash paper
in a hack magician’s act the moment I popped the question.
Since then, I haunt Paris wanting to learn a language
from scratch so that I can say something that would surprise even me.
Others are funny, like “The List of Lies I Told at One Time or Another,” while some are filmic, and others heartbreaking. Other works in the volume should clearly be short stories, and seem forced into poetic form—most notably “His Thumb Hooked Me” and “Wormwood.” The latter, for its narrative and imaginative characterization, plays out in the reader’s mind like a film.
I would hesitate interminably to compare O’Keefe’s work with that of “the best contemporary poets”—Seamus Heaney could write circles around him—but I would be interested to see where this multi-talented artist heads, not as a poet, but as a writer. Screenplays, anyone?