Friday, January 23, 2015

Misery Islands By January Gill O’Neil

Misery Islands

By January Gill O’Neil

CavanKerry Press

Fort Lee, NJ

ISBN: 978-1-933880-46-4

78 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Some islands bask under an equatorial sun, massaged by gentle trade winds and tickled by turquoise water. Others offer stony, unforgiving shores, dangerous channels, and wreckage of grander days, with only the icy winds of desperate hope and final survival to mitigate the landscape.

It’s these “other” islands and their human iterations that January O’Neil dwells on in her dolorous but passionate new book of poetry, Misery Islands.

Opening the collection O’Neil audaciously fleshes her persona out in Whitmanesque fashion as everyman and, even more emphatically, everywoman. She identifies with those left behind and challenged by difficult circumstances, those storm tossed isles navigating daily life. Her persona drops words onto the page from a whirlwind of transitory motion. The poet says,

I am every mill town and boarded-up factory,

the assembly line disassembled, the layoffs,

layaways, and laid to rest.

I put the depressed into depression

I am America reconstructed; I am a force at work.

I dig a ditch, I fill a ditch.

My collar is white, my collar is blue.

I am missing 23 cents out of every dollar

a woman is supposed to earn

but doesn’t.

I am every God damn it and Lord have mercy.

O’Neil’s poem Rent To Own follows the routine of an older guy with bad knees as he cleans used furniture, removing the unsightly detritus from the bottom strata of human life. Her bigger theme that we are all just passing through in this life bolts up, volcano-like, through the messy details. Here’s a pretty telling section,

You’d be surprised how many people

pick their noses and leave the evidence

under the arm of an armchair, he tells me.

Roaches, bed bugs, pet hair, dander—

you name it, it’s there, in the fibers,

the polyester pillows and dense cushions.

Steam vapor removes almost anything,

even tar from a chaise owned by a guy

who works at an asphalt company,

working his ass off in 10-hour shifts

to afford his slice of America.

Tension between the roles of mother and child settles into an intimate and singular series of motions. The business-like care giver unfurls not only a washcloth but a sense of profound gratitude and love. O’Neil conveys the scene with affecting sentiment and dignity. Individuals, islanders, in other words, do make a difference. I really like the piece. The poet concludes this way,

She reaches around for the cloth

with slow and deliberate movements

as if not to admit pain, not to convey need—

the caregiver needing care, the care taker

not taking as she usually does. Not today.

I want to tell her I love her

but I don’t. I cover her with a towel

and some small talk, try not

to notice what’s missing.

No words, yet I listen

like a stethoscope

for her to say something. 

Putting into words the carnage of a marriage breakup confounds many of the best writers, most especially over sensitized poets. I can think of a recent Pulitzer Prize winner for instance. O’Neil handles this subject with just the right touch as her warmed up words chill and disappear into a midwinter’s frigid air. Her sentiments court despair with humor and astonish with tight artistic control. The poet aches out her feelings in an touching conclusion,

I can’t compete with the failing light

from your voracious heart

burning us both into nothing.

Something has left us.

Every droplet of joy evaporates

to sky. When will melt come?

How could anyone blame you

for wanting to escape

the coldest month of the year?

Like Homer’s Penelope, O’Neil weaves heartbreak and metaphor into one composition. Her title poem, Misery Islands, opens with a narrative description of two wondrous and tenuously connected islands off the coast of Salem Massachusetts—Great Misery, and Little Misery. Both are now uninhabited. Each island has its own personality and its own geologic traits. The poet also splices in other historical, tidal, and climate particulars of the islands which strangely magnify the emotional discomfort of the interwoven and parallel marital distress narrative. Consider the following juxtaposition. First the historical, set on Great Misery in the “roaring twenties,”

Imagine a pier, a club house,

a swimming  pool filled with salt water,

guest cottages to the horizon line,

a tennis court and tournaments,

a nine-hole golf course with caddies

dressed in pressed white linens.

So elegant, so glamorous a setting,

You can almost see a couple

Looking out over a balcony,

Hands entwined, the moon

Hanging over them

By the thin thread of midnight.

Now the equally compelling glory days before the marriage collapse,

I loved. You loved. We loved

with our whole selves—

lips first, then the tumble of skin

pulling each other down,

caught in the tangle and swirl,

closer to terror, closer to ourselves

the way we became something else

as soon as we were in it

the way our bodies displaced truth

through the depths of anger,

the way it changed us

and we were changed by it.

We were poor swimmers

Too far in the rip to be saved.

Late in the collection, another favorite of mine, the poem A Mother’s Tale appears. The poem whispers easily a harsh truth—life’s ephemeral nature. The poet’s persona speaks to her son and offers an interesting antidote to the human condition and its concomitant isolation. She says,

I tell my son

that the best poems

are written in the sand

and washed away with the tide.

I say the moon controls the waves,

uses the wind to rake the shore.

It is an open invitation to fill

The world with words…

O’Neil clearly follows her persona’s sage advice. She fills the world with her extraordinary poetic words, and we get to read them.

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