Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Review of January Gill O'Neil's "Underlife"

 CavanKerry Press, Ft. Lee, New Jersey. $16.00

Here we are at the last stop in this book tour. Maybe the last stop of the last book tour ever since ReadWritePoem is closing down. Though many wonderful , deeply insightful comments have been written about January O’Neil’s debut collection by reviewers on the tour so far, there is no lack of further thoughts at this last stop. Indeed, there are so many good things to say – we could go on for many more stops.

As a teacher and a poet with an extensive collection of poetry books, my first question about each new book I encounter is – What is it about this collection of poems that found favor with a publisher? Why was this collection published? So very many submitted, so few published. There are times when the answer is difficult to find, but not so with O’Neil’s collection.

Her poems are open, honest, fresh, and unafraid. Some are the most sensual poetry I’ve ever read. There is no posturing, affectation, pseudo sophistication. These wonderful, welcome poems touch us at the very center of how we experience life in a way that uplifts us and teaches us to find new meaning in our daily existence. Nothing more than that can ever be asked of poetry.

How do we know good poetry when we see it? Emily Dickinson said “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.” Although it’s not coldness that overcomes me when I see good poetry, I understand what she’s saying. We each experience something that tells us – this is a great poem. That shiver of delight that recognizes good poetry? I get it with every poem in O’Neil’s collection.

It’s a disservice to quote only a snippet of O’Neil’s poetry. You should read the entire poem, all of them. But I want you to see what I mean by fresh and unafraid. From the third of four sections, “The Ripe Time”: In “Sugar”, the poet spreads a tablespoon of sugar on the table, and sees in each grain

“ ...a moment,
a seed resting on tilled earth
the words forming in my husband’s mouth as he says
kiss me, and I am reminded again and again
of the first, the beginning, the newness of his mouth,
his plump lips deciphering the arc
of my teeth; his tongue a new species born
in my vast ocean. I myself a creature,
made of sugar and water,
capable of dissolving right out of existence,
salvation and destruction in one sweet instant...”

These are much-needed poems about love, marriage, motherhood, race: topics rarely approached with such honesty. O'Neil's use of  imagery is as sharp and surprising as the truths revealed. It’s a poetry collection I have added to my favorite three that remain beside my bed, to be read frequently with the pleasant expectation of discovering something wonderfully surprising with each reading.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Wanda—this is great! Thanks for the review!

    I've had to juggle the schedule a bit so you are not the last review, but certainly appreciated nonetheless.

    So sad about RWP. I keep hoping for a stay of execution.