Emily O’Neill’s Pelican is a thing of beauty. I’m talking both about the book as a physical object and the poems contained in it. Here’s the cover:
If you’re going to buy one book of poems between now and the end of the year, consider this one. Why? Because the poems are elegant — carefully carved with not a spare word, full of visceral imagery and strong line breaks.
I’ll be honest and say I got this book because the cover really caught my eye. YesYes Books, based in Portland, OR, make beautiful books. But the content of the book is equally intriguing. Take this passage from “de Los Muertos,” for instance: “The language you slow and keep, passing it between your hands, / nearly ripe fruit. The sleep of apples. A city of florists missing / the right blooms. Skull with a marigold mouth.”
These poems are intimate, like letters from a very close friend or those odd, deep conversations that we have sometimes with a partner or family member. In her review at The Rumpus, Gina Veynshteyn focuses on the theme of death and losing a father, which is invoked from the very beginning of the collection via a quote from Guillaume Le Clerk about the self-sacrifice of the male pelican for its young. However, there’s more going on here than can be captured through that theme.
I chose the title for this blog post because so many of these poems are about the body: the speaker’s body, the other’s body, the growth and change of the body, control of a body, and the experiences we can only have through our bodies. In “When I’m Bad, I’m Better,” the speaker declares “You aren’t / welcome. My body isn’t yours.” And in “Sense Memory,” the speaker tell us “My skin blooms / with lost proximity — bruises smaller / than new purple irises. The memory of eye teeth / in my shoulder.”
There’s also the series of (abrupt, major) physical transformations in “Wedding Soup”:
When I was a girl
and you were a girl
we were floral
and ungiveable. Squash
Then we were men.
It got easy — we ate curries
on Thayer, wore hats in summer
[…] When I was a woman, I wasn’t.
Wasn’t flinch or furnace.
[…] I waited for you in the wrong skin.
[…] Me, a boy
on skinned knee.
Backwards and thorny
as a Bible Belt prayer.
In an instant, in the kitchen,
we are girls again — snow-damp,
wilted. I am cherry-stained
teeth. You are
the absence of yes.
This poem is less than two (book) pages long, yet the speaker changes from girl to man to woman to boy and back to girl. This affects her relationship to the person she’s talking to, and who does not take part in all of the transformations. And as a poet I have to say, I love the line-break on “cherry-stained” — gorgeous.
There is a peculiar, interesting tension between devotion and violence that permeates the collection. Just as the dream-like childhood friendship in “Wedding Soup” is subverted, invaded by threat through “the absence of yes,” in “Rusalka” the speaker both considers killing the other and offers herself up. She confides “My body turns / wrong. I find it inland. / […] I turned wrong, am stuck in his beak / too big to swallow whole. Skinny violent myth. / Knife his heart & I’ll get back / my sisters.”
Change is the one constant in this collection, like the loyalty / love of the pelican father. In “The Age of Instability” we are introduced to a handful of the speaker’s friends who share her experience of instability. In “No Older,” meeting a former lover makes clear how much has changed between him and the speaker. The poem starts very matter-of-fact:
“I saw his girlfriend’s breasts on the internet.
They’re lovely — larger than mine –”
Emily O’Neill’s poems in Pelican have a strong, consistent, appealing sense of voice, and the poems work well in synergy and on their own. If you’re still on the fence whether this book is for you, read a few of the poems here. I for my part thoroughly enjoyed this book.