Upon the first turns of the page of Songs From the Shooting Gallery, I got the feeling Tony O'Neill's world was crumbling. He came to Los Angeles to play music but his dream quickly derailed due to heroin addiction. He also smoked crack and ran from one failed marriage to the next. O'Neill supplies a view of Los Angeles that is seldom reported in the news or in the movies. He hangs with prostitutes and failed drug dealers. Throughout the book, it is unclear how he ever managed to scrounge up the money to pay for his addiction, but there are a few times in the book where he explains hustling for a few bucks like conning his parents into giving him $300 to go to the dentist. Although it is made clear, he never went to the dentist.
There isn't much in the book about where he grew up, although this excerpt explains it plainly: “in my school/intelligence/was looked upon/with the same/surly suspicion/as terrorist sympathies/or homosexual tendencies/and the only way out/of the factories/or the Council houses/were drugs/or music/and I loved them both.” And it’s good that the poet doesn't focus too much attention on how he grew up, it makes the reader imagine the worst. What would drive a man to heroin and crack addiction? In this day and age, what wouldn't?
In Another Failed Suicide Attempt, the poet remembers how he was contemplating throwing himself from a freeway overpass. He explains a 5 day meth binge, and how he just wanted the inner chatter in his mind to stop. Whoa. That’s quite the predicament. Towards the conclusion of the poem, the poet writes, "I stopped myself/because I didn't want to give my story to you.” And it appears this is the lowest point in the book. However, keep reading. You will be surprised at how much lower it can get.
In the book’s title poem, O'Neill likens getting high to praying at church and receiving communion. He laments that “the devil is in my blood,” a few lines before this. And it is clear there is a battle going on inside his mind. He loves getting high, as if it is a spiritual experience, but knows he is not doing the right thing. Or does he? It may be unclear at this point in the book. It appears he does what he does out of habit, it’s what he knows. How does one shake a drug habit? This poet tried rehab, but later explains he left rehab and immediately went to the nearest bar and drowned himself in whiskey. O’Neill later explains, for the uninformed: “there are things that break/an attempt to get clean:/bad music, stuttering Christians,/ice-cream trucks, Walt Disney…”
Later on, O'Neill quips, “You don’t live in America/you survive America.” And this is about as politically aware as he gets in this collection of poems. It’s not that he doesn't care about politics, it seems, but that he knows it’s a trap. He knows it’s a facade. He knows what a mask looks like and it is easy to see that politicians wear many of them. This poem is titled, “America (A Love Letter),” in which the poet observes that America’s youth are “sucking on death/before they have even tasted life.”
Towards the end of the book, it is unclear whether or not to feel hopeful. He writes about a friend who said she wanted to “live fast and die really/fucking old,” and he observes that she never took her own advice. We get some description of O'Neill being a regular guy: a father and a husband. It seems clear that he’s left his old life behind. If there is a slight lack of hope found in the poetry, knowing Tony O'Neill story is what restores it. On the last page of the book, there is a photograph of O'Neill sitting with his daughter on some steps. The text beneath the photograph explains he is still writing and “generally tries to keep out of trouble.”
This collection of poetry is some of the most powerful I've ever encountered. And I don’t know that it should be a function of poetry to give a sense of hope. Am I wrong in this assumption? If the poetry tells the story honestly, and leaves no stone unturned, giving opinions, facts and anything in between, isn't that enough? Isn't it enough to stand in another’s shoes and see the world through their eyes? Tony O'Neill gives you his story without holding back; you get the bright days and the dark ones. However, I would advise you to read this poetry in small doses, because it does get bleak at times. I would definitely be interested in reading more from Tony O'Neill to see what other topics he finds interesting now that he’s clean and on the straight and narrow.
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