Emily O’Neill’s debut collection Pelican orbits around the loss of O’Neill’s father, yet its orbit is anything but regular. At times, the poet takes a wide arc and soars toward the outer limits of that particular loss, almost seeming to escape it altogether. Liquor, lovers (some better than others), and the moon in various phases fill O’Neill’s pages, occasionally providing reprieve from her father’s passing, yet escape proves impossible. Poem after poem, the speaker is wrenched back to difficult meditations on her father as he was in both life and death. “Grieving leaves me curiously / deformed,” she explains. “Drinks are never strong enough.”
Even so, the most striking attribute of O’Neill’s voice is its capacity to endure and move toward pleasure and joy, insisting that there is something beyond grief:
Even if the milk in the sky is sour
it will not always be so. Cast
your lot with the living.
… Call the monster,
the dark, by
its temporary name.
Here, O’Neill pulls her monster into focus in order to possess and disable it. As with elsewhere in the collection, the speaker shifts the emphasis from a potential threat onto her own capacity to alter her world through lyrical means. By so doing, O’Neill moves into a position of control, which affords her the ability to harness her arrayed monsters, lesser and greater. Sites of loss, injury and damage are exposed and transformed by nascent life, song, and desire.
“When God Dies He Hands Me the Keys to the Castle” is one of several poems that proposes song over silence, that “half-blooded thing” that “You cannot ask … to grow hooves, to gallop across sand with you on its back.” In the poem’s closing stanza, O’Neill confronts the old aphorism about the tree that falls in the woods, asking not whether it makes a sound but instead insisting on the singularity of the tree itself, which, though fallen, is alive with new growth:
I wake in the morning with no one there to record it. A tree fallen in the forest
is not dead. It is still green, blanketed with tiny green shoots.
The poet acknowledges her own grief if only to propose a triumphant emergence from that grief. Rather than rotting or desiccating away, O’Neill’s fallen tree undergoes a state change instead, thriving in its fallen state, covered in a verdant blanket of not one, but many small green lives. A single damaged life becomes host to a colony of beings. In a sense, the poet is just such a host; with each fall, her voice springs back to life, newly rich in timbre and strength.
In the opening poem, “Kismet,” we are introduced to the logic of “But.” This logic operates through selective conjunction, insisting that unions of any kind, rather than working through a simple additive logic of “and,” carry instead implicit exclusions, exceptions and contrasts; it is one that demands persistence in spite of adverse conditions. The conjunction appears four times over the course of the poem, and with each appearance, its tone and hue shifts. The first “but” opens the poem as a single defiant line and sentence; the second “but” seems to veer away from the moody-sullen character of the preceding lines (“Nothing so warm / stays that way”), and the third and fourth occurrences also verify and even insist that there is something beyond sorrow and personal suffering:
But: a gifted grace.
I sing sorrow turned to syrup, skinny
dip in the chilly Atlantic, drink tallboys,
dance with the bouncer. Flounder.
But broken skin knits together
and without itch & scab flakes off
my sudden feathers.
Much like the fallen tree blanketed in shoots, the speaker’s skin displays a singular agency that seeks to recompose itself, knitting a covering out of its own near-ruin. Forces of reinvention and recreation intervene to reclaim injured body and spirit.
Whether dipping from avian heights into subterranean regions, or splashing the surface of unconscionable depths, these poems remain active and lively. Liminal spaces, brutal juxtapositions and tonal shifts provide both vitality and texture to O’Neill’s work, forging a relationship between language and the appearance of live-ness.
Her poems are full of skin and, perhaps especially, teeth; whether twisted into a snarl or rotting inside the meat of gum, teeth fill an array of double roles. As ready to conceal as reveal,
Each molar holds a secret:
how truth and spite flower from the same bitter root.
In “Sea Gate,” the speaker describes her sleeping father, “his parted teeth, a gate unlocked,” going on to venture that
when we die
it is liquid. The ocean falling
out of a man’s mouth.
Here, teeth are cast as a gate, evoking containment and enclosure. The gate metaphor illustrates the deftness with which O’Neill creates resonances between the body and non-corporeal structures, somehow managing to remain deeply conscious of its vulnerabilities. In these lines, the figure of the gate provides a useful sketch of the body as a set of necessary boundaries.
Elsewhere, teeth enable the expression of the primordial forces that exist between and within human bodies. The tooth with the capacity to damage and that which serves as a vector of desire are one and the same: a single form with an array of functions. Sometimes teeth create or demand separation, as in “Stitches,” which reveals a moment—seemingly one of several—of collision between the speaker and her father:
My sister said I was wrong to hate Dad
that way: out loud, to his face, teeth bared.
In “Litany for the Waning Moon,” her teeth appear again: “There can be no discoveries,” the poet insists, “lip snarling / away from teeth.” These opening lines might at first suggest snarky yet feeble resignation. As the poem unfolds, however, we realize that the poet, far from resigned, is a provocateur of the present who’s got beef with the past. All fist, guts and teeth, she ignites in the poem’s closing lines, daring the dark to swat her back, to smack out her light:
… There is no hurt dancing
towards me, only inky darkness full of sparks.
Flint where I am guilt.
Fire where I am guilty.
Light where I am guilty.
I’m ready to be smacked out of the sky.
Pelican, by Emily O’Neill. Portland, Oregon: YesYes Books, February 2015. 112 pages. $16.00, paper.
Knar Gavin is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in literature at Syracuse University and recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry, Burnside Review, and Caketrain. You can visit her at tropopausing.com.