I am embarrassed to admit how long I've had January Gill O'Neil's book Underlife. I was lucky enough to win a free copy from January during a promotion on her blog, Poet Mom, when the book first came out. Sadly, the spring semester got crazy, then my summer went into the health dump, so the book remained unread until now. However, one great thing about books...no expiration date!
Underlife is a wonderful first book. The three notes I made in the back of the book were: plain language, feminine, and unshirking. All of these are compliments, not detractions.
First, plain language: O'Neil uses spare, straight-forward language, the language of the everyday, and this fits because these poems are a testament to the everday life of a woman, a wife, and a mother. The speaker, who holds constant throughout the book, tells it like it is. There is no pretentiousness here, no trying to impress with elevated and academic language. In fact, the first poem sets this up for the rest of the book. I love it so much, I'll include the full text here.
I am from hush puppies & barbecue
from chitlins & fatbacks
hog maws & hog jaws & grits & scrapple.
Outside stands a dogwood tree we have let
overgrow from laziness
& a driveway cracked
with blades of grass.
I am from Rosemary & Stanley,
the last model in the series.
Around our house honeysuckle blesses the air,
seasons the heat of summer into a main dish.
I am a plum black garnish to the day.
Wafts of smoke from pots on the stove
steam the kitchen.
Salt & Pepper stand at attention
next to the potholders on the counter.
Dinner is ready--no time for parsley.
Second, feminine: O'Neil celebrates here all that factors into being a daughter, then a wife, and finally a mother. While these are poems of domesticity, they are not overly sentimental, and they always pack a punch. There is wisdom here and a sense that the speaker has earned that wisdom through a life well-lived.
Third, unshirking: O'Neil doesn't turn away from the beautiful or the less than beautiful parts of being alive in this world of ours. She broaches subjects I myself have shied away from, afraid perhaps of revealing too much. Another favorite of mine, one that shows this brave approach, is "What Mommy Wants," which has an epigraph "after Kim Addonizio." It's a bit longer, so I'll just give you the opening.
I want a pair of Candie's.
Make them cheap and tacky.
High-heeled wooden stilettos
(stiletto, from the Italian word for "dagger"),
white leather upper with silver studs along the sides.
Open-toed pumps, with just enough wiggle room
for my toes painted No, I'm Not a Waitress red.
It's a little odd, how this blogging and Facebook world has brought me more closely into the private lives of many poets. From January's blog, I know that her children are older now than they are in the poems that are clearly written about them. I also know that the marriage that is often mentioned in the book has now ended. I was able to separate the biographical from the poems, of course, but it also makes me wonder what the next book might hold. I know that I'll be watching to see what this set of keen eyes and brave mind might bring us next.
(Aside, check out this poem-video of "How to Make a Crab Cake," another favorite of mine from this book.)
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January Gill O'Neil
CavanKerry Press, 2009