O’Neill knows how to listen to language, to tease out all the possibilities it has to offer (after all, she claims to owe her poetic education to the Cantab Louge in Cambridge, home of the Boston Poetry Slam, and what better space is there to learn how to load each word like a weapon?). Her list of publications and awards then comes as no surprise: Pelican won the Pamet River Prize from YesYes Books, and “de los Muertos,” included in the collection, was selected by Jericho Brown as the winner of the Gigantic Sequins’ second annual poetry contest. This debut collection does confirm that hers is a voice to watch, a voice urgent and impressive in its accuracy.
Death and loss permeate each and every poem in Pelican, but Emily O’Neill doesn’t do maudlin: she gives new edges to an anguish that’s visceral. No time for intellectualizing or sentimentalism, for covering words with the veneer of profoundness: she wields her poems like knives, with a precise flick of the wrist that has each blade landing squarely into its target.
Taking its cues from Guillaume Le Clerc’s medieval Bestiary, the collection draws its name from a bird that has been time and time again linked to death, rebirth, and, within Christian imagery, self-sacrifice. Variations exist of course, but there’s always one constant: the pelican will strike itself with its beak to let its blood flow and feed (or possibly resurrect) its young. It’s a vivid, gripping image, which O’Neill superbly refracts throughout her poems. The pelican itself only appears by name in three pieces, all located within the second half – “On the Day You Decide You Are Quitting,” “Icarus,” and “Questing Beast.” As a counterpoint to these rare sightings stands a presence that looms larger and more sorrowful still – the father, or the pelican made human.
From “Kismet” to “Questing Beast” (and isn’t this wonderful, how each title echoes the other, opening and closing the book with the harshness of the [k] coupled with a hiss), the collection builds an arc that takes us from the image of the dying father to that of his daughter whose poetic gift demands a sacrifice: “feed me/starve yourself / so I’ll always be / singing.” Each poem is then an exercise in metamorphosis, the speaking “I” taking a stab (sometimes literally, as in “Knife Play”) at language in order to reconstruct or to unravel certain connections. The word kismet itself harkens back to the notion of irrevocable destiny, a string of fate that unravels until it is cut off, precisely, by this last appeal to keep singing. In this arc, things are not straightforward (“Kismet” opens with “But.” as a full sentence), life is messy and violent, and the daughter must precisely negotiate the terrible death that takes place in the first poems and then comes back, again and again, tirelessly. Her fate is to affirm her voice, chisel it against the counterpoints of feral grief, sharpen it against the layers of memory. In this respect, Pelican as a whole feels like a fugue – even the layout, with the words splintered all over the page, the indented lines sinuous and dynamic, propels us, compels us to rush forth.
Fate is irresistible, and so are these poems, ferocious and physical. Pelican has us grappling with our most visceral anxieties, exalting the poetic power of everything that’s raw and bloodied and still fighting within us.
AK Afferez is a French-American writer, translator, grad student, avid traveler, and sporadic blogger, with a fondness for aliases, lists, and good tapas.