virtual blog tour: underlife, by january gill o’neil
I was so thrilled to have this book in my hands. I had been watching its progress and unfolding for months. Though I had known January online for a couple of years, Jill and I met her in person for the first time this fall in Lowell, Massachusetts. It was October, and she had with her two beautifully-printed options for the book cover. It’s a delight to see success come to someone who works so hard and very much deserves it. I am glad it’s in the world. It is a collection that shows more facets of its narrator than nearly any other I’ve read in a way that leaves you longing for more. Buy. This. Book.
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Even though Underlife is January’s first collection of poems, it reads as though her voice has always been part of me.
If I were to talk to you about the poems I like or what really works in the collection, I would go on forever. And then I’d worry that my praise would be watered down by the sheer volume of it. Instead, I think the best way for me to talk about Underlife is to cut to the parts that grab me by the throat. It’s an important way for me to go through the collection because it also happens to be how I experience January’s work: a gentle pace, a calm demeanor, a soothing rhythm, and then — the edge. It works beautifully, and I hope I am able to capture some examples.
Underlife very skillfully creates the experience of belonging and not belonging, of feeling misplaced and knowing you are right where you need to be. It’s an odd sensation, and yet it is so familiar.
It is present both in the tension of “She’s Closest to Breaking” and in the heat of the piece “What Mommy Wants” (proving this particular edge has many manifestations). In “She’s Closest to Breaking,” the narrator is at the sink:
It would be so easy to pick up a dish
and smash it against the counter
leaving the pieces for someone else to pick up.
she washes every last dish
In “What Mommy Wants,” a different narrator imagines being wife and mistress in one:
I want my husband to strip me naked
bend me over
leaving on just my Candie’s
as if he were cheating on his wife
and getting away with it.
By the time we arrive at the poem “For Terence,” an intimate piece about touching a corpse, we accept these dueling desires, allow the “should’s” and the “should not’s” to exist at once. We easily believe our narrator when she tell us:
When a man dies,
you must lay your ear
to his chest, feel the
non-beating of his heart, …
Slip your hand under his shirt.
Another theme in Underlife jolts me — in a good way — each time I encounter it. It is the narrator’s struggle between being merciful (gracious) and being harsh. We are a balance of both elements, I believe, but that doesn’t prevent us from grappling with the ugliest parts of ourselves. The poem “Drone” puts mercy and cruelty in the same place: the narrator’s interaction with a wasp trapped in the window. She says both “Today/ I want to hurt something” and “I am/ God’s missing mercy.” In other pieces, the opposing inclinations are separated.
Here is a moment of grace from the narrator of “How to Make a Crab Cake:”
Always, it’s a matter of guesswork
but you hold it together
by the simplest of ingredients,
for this is how the body learns to be generous,
to forgive the flaws inherited
And in “Discipline,” the narrator is much more aggressive:
Knock the shit out of it
Knock some sense into it
Knock it into the middle of next week
Because it asked for it …
Hit it because it loves you no matter what
Hit it because you can
As you can tell, the diversity of narrators and edges in Underlife is incredible, and it’s wonderful how the turns are both pleasant surprises and painful kicks in the gut. Read it. It’s so full and alive, it’s bound to have power for you, too.
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I had the honor this winter of judging a poetry recitation contest. While I was amazed by some of the students’ abilities, too many of them over-acted. Too many of them made the performance about dramatic devices. Only a handful of them nailed it when they let the words work their magic. It’s how I feel about January’s poetry. She has confidence in the story, the heart of it. And she lets the words work their magic. There is nothing over-the-top. There are no distractions. There are only well-crafted poems doing a bang-up job at claiming their space (having real presence), telling the world what they’re about and establishing connections with the reader.
Click here for info about January’s virtual blog tour, including its many other stops.