Monday, December 28, 2009

Review of UNDERLIFE, by January Gill O’Neil

Review of UNDERLIFE, by January Gill O’Neil of Massachusetts, CavanKerry Press LTD 2009, Fort Lee, New Jersey, 74 pages, $16

By Barbara Bialick

Underlife is a smart debut collection published on beautiful recycled paper. O'Neil has a fine, imagistic lyrical voice well worth reading for its many layers of meaning as hinted at by the title, Underlife. You can easily divide the title up into two lists: under, referring to the burial ground, sexuality, the child under the power of the parents, the man under the power of the woman, the woman under the power of the man, African-Americans’ historical anger being under the thumb of “white” society. The word, life, referring to the natural world, children, the steamy side of sexuality, and motherhood. The poet says “Protect your strange and beautiful/underlife…”

Starting with “early memories” O’Neil establishes her ethnic identity from the top: “I am from hush puppies & barbecue/from chitlins & fastbacks/…Salt & Pepper stand at attention.” In “Early Memory” the author admits to having thrown a fistful of sand into a boy’s eyes—this after being called names for so long. “There must have been such rage in me, to give such pain.” Those are old images. She really stuns in the poem, “True Story #2: Missing”—where she tells the story of a young woman “missing” at home:

“First a foot, then the whole body/found wedged upside down behind/a tall bookcase./a young woman missing in a home/she shared with her family/most of her life./Eleven days misplaced/…simply, as if she disappeared/to that land of lost socks and/missing keys…”

In the section called “Ripe Time” she dedicates her love poems to her sexy married relationship. She needed something to write about: “So I reach back to when/the writing came easy, when poems fell like tree branches…” (“Something I needed”)
The poem “Rough Country” is a testimony to the imagination: “Sweet Baby, I have imagined your death/since the day we met, a horrific tragedy…My senses begin again to commit you to memory/only to be reborn back into the same rough country/weighing inside my brain like an anvil.”

O’Neil works as a senior writer and editor at Babson College. She is also a fellow with the Cave Canem Poets, co-hosts a literary series in Arlington, Mass., and has a blog called “Poet Mom.”

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