06 May 2010


Honesty in reviewing note:  I am an on-line acquaintance of January Gill O'Neil, knowing of her work through her blog, and collaborating on a couple of projects here and there.  I am in her acknowledgements page of this book, and she blurbed my forthcoming Gods & Money.  I'm writing this review as an additional stop to the blog tour of her book.  Take it all for what all that may be worth.

When first handling January Gill O'Neil's amazing debut collection, Underlife, I was immediately taken with the physical beauty of the book itself.  The publisher, CavanKerry Press, Ltd., designed the book with a very old school eye, while being environmentally aware in using recycled paper.  In this age of cheap Print-on-Demand book publishing that even small presses have opted for cost saving, CavanKerry's book designers clearly love the book itself.  The soft-cover jacket wrap-around and the heavy-weight endpapers wink at cloth-bound editions; there's a heft to the book, along with the paper's warm tone, that suggests that this is a book that's going to stay around.  The choice of a sans-serif font gives the layout a clean post-war feel, thus not making the book production a little too precious.

I had ordered Underlife as a text in my "Poetry and the Other Arts" class at Florida Gulf Coast University--I was coupling this book with Denise Duhamel's Kinky to explore dynamics of popular culture in contemporary American poetry.  The students' reactions were mixed, mostly favorable, and January's poems gave us opportunities to talk about issues of accessibility and narrative poetics.  The strength and weakness of her work reside in those very qualities, although I would argue that the book demonstrates a considerable range with formal experimentations, with sophisticated moments of disassociative improvisations.  The book has a villanelle, abcederian, loose couplets and tercets, goof-ball lyrics, and broken rhythms (her poem, "Drone," is an especially dexterous mix of imagistic fragments and reflective meditation poured into a narrative frame).  But in the main, her poems are laid in clear, simple, precise language, working within memory-locked narratives.

One fairly smart student, who's a very hep, voracious reader of disassociative poets, complained of the neatness and linearity of Underlife.  I couldn't argue against his point, that readers who can't get enough of Dean Young and Rae Armantrout won't get much out of January Gill O'Neil (that's how I put it, not the student).   And then just after that comment, one student defended O'Neil by saying that he didn't like much poetry until he read O'Neil's work, because it was so accessible--as Natasha Tretheway says in her introduction, that O'Neil "gives voice to personal experience with compelling honesty."  At this point, I am hearing all the arguments over the last 40 years about the navel-gazing and smallness of contemporary American poetry.  I am also cringing slightly with the idea of someone who doesn't like poetry, because of its difficulty, championing an accessible poet a little too enthusiastically.

I would argue that Underlife isn't necessarily so neat and lineal, not necessarily so reassuring.  Many of her poems have a terrifying and thralling edging to them.  "Sugar" is a good example.  The poem starts with the most ordinary of personal observation, kick-starting a narrative meditation with this pedestrian, domestic act:  "I pour a tablespoon of sugar on my kitchen counter."  This rumination, at first goes inward, slightly confessional with the association of sugar to a husband's kiss.  Yes, at this point, the poem is heading into 1980s poetic disaster.

But then O'Neil unleashes a Whitmanesque phrase, "I myself a creature," and we are no longer standing on the terrain of the self-absorbed, self-important poet of small experience, smaller ideas.  O'Neil goes big.  The poet here turns to her audience:  those accusatory pots, pans, soup cans, cereal boxes, all domestic, humanly produced goods.  She says, "every human narrative / requires an act of nature."  The poet's final act is ritualistic, touching the flatness of her tongue to gather a grain of sugar, matching each self-evident truth she regards.  On one hand, this poem ends on what could be seen as a conventional note of affirmation.  But it's also a difficult, even self-accusatory, moment of defiance.  She's hep to the fallacies here, the easy logic, the comforting appearances (why else would the soup cans and cereal boxes turn "their labels in disbelief" to her own story?), and the poem ends on an act of consumption, of taking in.  She's hep to the pointlessness.  Even so, she presses her tongue.

There's more to say about O'Neil's humor, her very deep sense of play, but I would instead encourage you to follow this poet and her career as you can, while you can.

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