by Emily O’Neill
YesYes Books, 2015
112 pages, $16
Reviewed by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
Through her sixty-two poems that navigate the deeply psychological and physical world of a woman battling her inner and outer demons, Emily O’Neill guides her readers through a coming of age and power that twists out into the crevices of the gritty city and back toward the inner-workings of the familial unit. O’Neill’s vision of her speaker’s world is so relatable while also diving into the mythical that I found my adult self and my inner child recognizing the speaker as if a lost friend, someone I wanted to both call to comfort and call upon to embody myself, for her power to speak the truth, to “dare/the dark to eat me fiercely.”
Pelican reads as a confessional, but with the spin of an incantation. O’Neill shifts frequently between the abstract and the ordinary, giving the ordinary an otherness to it that makes the reader want that vivid magic to translate into their own life, their own memories. The poems delve bravely into the abstract, exploring themes like silence with the magical realism, something the reader can feel physically while exploring the seemingly untouchable, because, after all, “you cannot ask silence to grow hooves,/to gallop across sand with you…” And God is “A Halloween ghost draped in a sheet.” Hope is, “A tree fallen in/the forest/is not dead. It is still green, blanketed with tiny green shoots” in “When God Dies He Hands Me the Keys to the Castle.”
There is a natural progression in Pelican: from the homestead, where the speaker notices her changing body—a reflexive, if not painful, breakaway, both figuratively and literally from her “Inheritance”, where the speaker says, “I tried on Mom’s gown at fifteen; already/too small to zip past my hips.” And again, “I left my tomboy body //on the blacktop/with a sore to pick and now she bleeds/into the present tense” (“Suckerfish”). After this attempt to break away from the childhood-body and influence, the speaker allows us to follow her into a somewhat darker version of exploration of the body—a darkness that the reader will come to know intimately, where one can wonder about its origin. In these explorations, we find a woman-girl unable to fully connect to the world around her, as in “Virage”: “Another week of cake for lunch daily with a boy I loved/who loved me. But I have no sweet tooth//& it’s better to burn than be touched,” these poems tend to pull away from, and lean in toward, danger. The speaker relapses back into the mystery of her childhood, pressing the wounds there to allow the reader to watch and see what bleeds through. Next, from the movement of the coming-of-age-search is a movement into a city-scape and the sexual awakening that happens there, an awakening that keeps, again, reaching for the past: “Here we are in the city/now. […] / […] No heaven when the wind combs us/clean. If only I could show you/where I was alive” (“Wishes for the Future Moon”).
And the reader searches for the spaces the speaker feels alive. Back to childhood, but not in the home, not quite, where “Everyone looks happier://[her] mother, beaming,/hand on her swollen belly,/[her] brother/in his underwear.” The reader feels a longing for escape from even her origin of birth. O’Neill uses the landscape of myth in many poems as a way of creating a legend, as in the legends we tell ourselves in order to discover darker truths, as in “Nursery”: “On the floor, the blonde-skinned, tiny eyed sea dog/thrashed in a puddle, gills gasping, nose pointed /towards the ocean. As if it could smell / where it has not been born.”
In “Mated” the reader enters this sort of literary landscape again, imagining a Biblical setting in the belly of a whale between the speaker and what seems to be an old or unrequited love interest. He sees her through the fog of his glasses and a kiss happens only through “his fingers as a thick swell of water rushes down the whale’s throat, knocking [them] off [their] knees.” In the mess of it, in the belly of the whale, the speaker, as she is in so many of these poems, is separate from that which she desires, already the object consumed by a power greater than herself (a father-figure of sorts which she comes back to often). Previously, in “Rusalka”, the speaker writes that “water eats/women.//I offer me up”, as in a sacrifice of self, identity, a desire to move into that place of loss, again, and again to find her power, having found no satisfaction or match among her peers, familial unit, or everyday landscape. “When I deny that I’m wild/a once green part of me goes gray.//Who told me to hide from the fierce spaces that built me?” (“We Are All Wolves”).
The way O’Neill explores her rocking back and forth between themes—coming of age, sexual-awakening, abuse, mental illness, the pains of discovering empowerment despite the world around her, pressing in—is so gorgeously paced that to read through the entire book leaves one spinning, in a push-pull so strong that, as a reader, I felt time suspended, felt as though I had to keep coming back to it, as the speaker does trauma and desire, in order to understand what I had just experienced. The best example of this overall movement within the entire book is the poem, “Born to Die”:
We tumble past heart-shaped sunglasses, blue ribbon
anything. Outrun our shadows until we meet them new
on the other side of a wasted night
when the truck seizes & I pledge
allegiance to my dad with every whiskey swallow.
Gold coins of light. Trip sevens. Las Vegas, like hell,
is just south of now. How many times
can we die embalmed in stars?
O’Neill’s speaker is brave, willing to explore the psyche in ways the reader only wishes they could. But we go along with her, knowing our own wounds need pressing into, our own power needs “an excuse to try each verse a second time, // […] avoiding the long return to where/we never planned to stay” (“Twice, Praying”).