January Gill O’Neil’s Underlife (Cavan Kerry Press, 2009)
January Gill O’Neil’s premiere collection Underlife details the different roles a woman plays, flows with the unseen current of a river that pulls us toward an ocean that we cannot always see. This exploration of the uncertain aspects of our lives threads through the entire collection and forces the reader to confront the uncomfortable in the familiar, the all-too-relatable in the new, the knowledge that just existing can be considered a dangerous endeavor.
Even the woman’s legs on the front cover are those of a mannequin, well-lit and shadowed to give the appearance of reality. In this “underlife,” nothing is necessarily exactly what it seems. Nowhere is this more evident than in the mid-collection poem “True Story” where an innocent cactus plants harbors
a nest of scorpions writhing
in the afternoon sun.
those hothouse babies,
hidden under the cactus’ tough, sharp spines,
waved their feelers,
bowed their heads,
as if they were guilty of something.
The collection begins with childhood and highlights the tattoos that early experiences ink onto our consciousness even as we age. O’Neil recalls difficult experiences with other children and family, but can still, looking back, be
grateful for that old dog of memory –
for what it lets you keep,
what it lets you throw away.
And though O’Neil deftly handles topics as diverse as race, sex, aging, and motherhood, the poems that stayed with me the most were the ones that bridged the topics of motherhood and creativity, where the struggle to have the second “underlife” of a writer informs her life as a woman. “Contrition” is one of these poems; “Something I Needed” is another.
My favorite poem in the collection, however, is “The Kerning.” This poem turns one of those exasperating experiences that most mothers can immediately recognize – having to scrub crayon off of a child’s teeth- into a beautiful reflection on the speaker’s own love affair with language and all that she wants to impart to this child who literally has begun to swallow words, to understand
how sloppy and brutal the imagination can be.
As a woman trying to balance my “underlife” as a poet with a full-time job and a family, O’Neil’s call to :
the abstract, ever-present danger
that calls all things to an end
like a letter, or a poem
makes me feel less alone in the struggle and makes me want to read more. Go read Underlife – you will find yourself somewhere in the pages, even if January Gill O’Neil has never met you.
Tour stops for Underlife
Apr. 13 :: Kelli Russell Agodon :: Book of Kells
Apr. 15 :: Donna Vorreyer :: Put Words Together. Make Meaning.
Apr. 20 :: Joseph Harker :: Naming Constellations
Apr. 22 :: Sarah J. Sloat :: The Rain in My Purse
Apr. 27 :: Kimberlee Gerstmann :: Scraps and Sass
Apr. 29 :: Wanda McCollar :: Piping of Plenty
May 1 :: Carolee Sherwood :: Carolee Sherwood