It’s Sunday morning, and Emily O’Neill — author of Pelican, poetry editor at Wyvern Lit, creative writing instructor, and winner of Gigantic Sequin’s second annual poetry contest — is live-tweeting Ally McBeal. I’m scrolling through O’Neill’s Twitter feed because I want to know how this lithesome girl with a piercing violet ombre works and how she managed to curate one of the most stunningly feral collections of poetry I’ve ever read.
Pelican, which won YesYes Book’s 2014 Pamet River Prize, is a poetry collection that captures loss, illness, youth, and loneliness. It’s a delicate gathering of memories that reads with raw musicality and is crafted fiercely, genuinely. It’s aggressive — it wants you to take it seriously, and you should. The book begins with the poem, “Kismet,” which introduces you to a speaker with a “knife pressed to my bare thigh,” and dares “the dark to eat me fiercely.” There is no turning back.
And you wouldn’t really want to. The torso of Pelican focuses on the wizened relationship between the speaker and her father, a man who struggles with an incurable disease. The odyssey is strenuous, exhausting. O’Neill takes us by the sweaty palms and leads us through hospital gift shops, Matty’s van, North Amherst, one room after another room. The speaker’s father’s death is a sluggish, treacherous one, and she wants us to know this. In the prose poem “The Right Words,” O’Neill writes, “They warned his heart would burst my freshman year. He lived through graduation; I refused to walk. I am a monument to a shrunken god.” The poem is followed by “March Fourth,” a meditation upon the dead. The speaker asks, “Nor the chips of bones in that heavy bag of ash. / Can you kill a ghost with fire?” O’Neill grieves her ghost as she meanwhile examines the humanity in death: when will the mourning cease, and how many forms will it take on until we’re through?
After the death of the speaker’s father, she engages in a dazzling kind of recklessness and decided despondency that seems almost Sylvia Plathian. In the poem, “Conditional,” which details a miscarriage, O’Neill states, “I would’ve kept the bastard in my bed / if he had grown beyond a seedling. I’d be wrong // to think my recklessness a rescue.” The language brashly sings a catharsis, a way for the speaker to reflect upon her marred young adulthood.
There is so much to love in Pelican. The expertly devastating language. The preciseness of form. The honesty of story. The way O’Neill juxtaposes tender familial moments with violence and aggression. In “Under Fresh Growth,” the speaker describes the scene:
my mother, beaming
_____hand on her swollen belly,
_____in his underwear,
my grandmother’s heels,
_____my face the same
as my sisters
The structure of this poem resembles that of matryoshka dolls — characters unfold out of one another, illuminating the unburdened togetherness O’Neill wants to portray. “The past few years have been / straight summer,” she writes, and unveils a stifling, oppressive household —because under fresh growth is a warmth only mildew knows. “The lawn mower has been broken / for weeks,” and there is “never snow on Christmas.” While this poem depicts a brief time before O’Neill’s father becomes sick, it too, has an ominous and foreboding quality to it.
What makes Pelican stand out is its preciseness with memory and how this intangible subject is treated, marinated, rubbed —as it should be in good poetry. Memory is used as a tool in this book to showcase sorrow, inexplicableness alone-ness. In “Proof,” the speaker begins with, “When you’re too young to know it / your body is already deciding // what gets abandoned. Not every night / will end up memory.” These couplets, filled with smart bravado, encapsulate the human experience so richly and perfectly, and they follow with an anecdote that is teenage to its core: “Once I was auburn / and swisher sweet, ankle deep in pool water // telling Amanda boys don’t know how to kiss / until she said prove it so I did but.” Other memories, especially ones of her father, are straight forward. Rough, yet lyrical. Always anticipating death, hopelessness. “Roadkill,” for example, portrays O’Neill’s first lottery: “All hope // hung on a receipt.” Like her father’s seemingly endless illness, which she describes as “the pot I watch, / knowing it will never boil,” the receipt represents a future the speaker seems to always be waiting for, but never wants (or is never ready to have).
It’s almost hard to believe that the same human woman who tweeted, “OH MY GOD ALLY MCBEAL IS ON NETFLIX THIS IS NOT A DRILL” is the mother of Pelican, because Pelican is not funny, is not a light-hearted testament to what losing feels like, is not a thin illustration of a girl’s emotional massacre. Pelican is gut-wrenching, and it doesn’t fear flesh. But have it be known: personal strength is not undeserving of praise, and even in the most darkest of moments, a girl can be transformed: “By September none of my cells will remember / this city the way he taught it: a rabbit crushed // into a bottomless satin hat. / Now you see it. Now it’s hope.”