Cup Your Body into Someone Else’s Longing
In Emily O’Neill’s Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles, (Nostrovia! Press, 2016) the boys are sweet even when they are leading you by the hand to the back of the bar and the girls always know better. These poems are intimacy laid out on a conveyor belt—all parts are deconstructed and rebuilt. The intimacy is cataloged from kissing a stranger on a porch, to admiring a lover’s freckle colony, to justifying one’s job when meeting a date’s parents for the first time. O’Neill’s imagery travels around the block a few times and doesn’t apologize for it: her poems are harsh, gritty beauty.
O’Neill begins her dark walk with the poem “World’s Smallest Woman.” Her words are almost like those of an instruction manual:
“You can’t explain surprise
to yourself. Somebody else has to.
In the mirror your hair gets longer but
your eyes remain the same depth. Keep that
gulf to yourself.”
How many faces do we have to show others? To ourselves? O’Neill’s speaker knows about crappy first jobs, sharing drugs at work, making out in cars, knowing more about her own exit from a relationship than the other person in it. She isn’t afraid to expose skin or call it like it is. One of the first poems that displays this distance in connection is “Your Boy Came By.” In the third stanza, aloofness plays a part but people still strip down the ankles at the end of it.
“Didn’t buy you a drink because why bother
bartering. Your boy, for free of you
won’t risk it…”
O’Neill’s speaker can only “fly away from the fire before (she’s) finished.” (From the poem “No Flinching.”) The details in racking up relationship bodies are staggering. Knives are a repeated image. Some knives are imagined as being planted in dirt and then growing trees on top of them. Let something lovely grow from weapons meant to cut. One knife is placed in the speaker’s hand by a shirtless boy who recites Coleridge. There is also blood (“I’m sure I’ve bled on sadder men,” is one memorable line from the poem “How To Whistle.”) In contrast, there are also multiple images of shoulders. We carry burdens on our shoulders and each poem in this collection is fighting a fight. We don’t know who wins but that doesn’t seem to matter. The fight feels important.
O’Neill never writes about intimacy in a clichéd way. In the revealing and almost confessional “Need to Know,” we witness exquisiteness. We recognize the exchange here between two people:
“I took my dress off for you—an invitation
to keep seeing what you shouldn’t take.
You won’t just take and I like that.
You hesitate and I bite harder. I want you
stuck like river bending in a valley…
Here, my fingers. Little ghosts. Here,
your fingers troubling me like rain
haunts the freeway in a dream.”
In such a hunger driven, spiny collection, this subtle moment is beautiful and haunting and gives the reader a glimpse into O’Neill’s softer side.
Here are some of O’Neill’s knowledgeable lines that are written like a manifesto, like we should be taking notes:
“Can’t be poor when you’re a killer.” (“Lucky Like That.”)
“Give me a choice better than razor or grave.” (“Always a Sinner.”)
“Leave marks or I won’t learn.” (“Always a Sinner.”)
“You were falling asleep on camera as I was waking up on camera.” (“Orioles.”)
“Never liked men with guitars. How they need constant noise keeping them still.” (“Last Year’s Blues.”)
“Shoes make the man aware that he can leave at any moment.” (“How to Whistle.”)
O’Neill’s speaker instructs us on how to survive, but it’s tough. In “Poem for Brunch with Your Family Where They Asked When We’d Be Married,” there is a whole world of characters revealed throughout the two page poem. Here is an example of the inner psyche of the speaker here:
“It wasn’t that they asked what I did for work and choked
at the utterance of waitress or your mother’s insistence
on grad school as unfortunate or your uncle demanding
a second glass for the beer in front of me…”
We witness O’Neill’s speaker as a prisoner at this uncomfortable table. We feel her skin
crawl at being judged by these people who do not know her and may never know her well. We empathize. We also want to run away. The speaker confesses:
“Yes I have parents. No, you can’t meet them.
My father is dead and my mother needs coaching
on how not to kill what she loves.”
Then the poem takes another glorious turn with these lines:
“The disappointment I am for not dropping everything
to stand by my man…Part of womanhood is waiting for
your turn to speak and they wouldn’t give me one and that
tells me everything about weddings…”
This poem is a novel of voice and vigor and slaps us across the face, and we still want more. Whereas so many of these poems circle around the speaker’s relationships, there is a transience to the language and the actual fleetingness of the intimacy. Its breakneck pace is powerful and does not let up. (It is, “O’Neill writes “the dance nobody teaches:” (From “Need to Know.”) We cannot go to O’ Neill for answers though, even though she has already told us how to live. She reminds us in the last line of the very last poem “Not So Fast,”
“Don’t answer me. I won’t stand still long enough.”
Luckily we read her words, hold them, tread on them softly, because she deserves no less and we cannot stay away, even if we end up following her into the cold, dark night.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and now lives in the DC area. She is the author of eight chapbooks and two full length poetry collections forthcoming from Yellow Chair Review and Stalking Horse Press. Her chapbook “Clown Machine” recently came out from Grey Book Press this summer. Recent work can be seen or is forthcoming at Jet Fuel Review, Lime Hawk, The Birds We Piled Loosely, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Inter/rupture, Poor Claudia, concis, and decomP. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.