What I love and admire about O’Neill’s poems is where they take me. Often, she starts with an image—such as the image of the “world’s smallest woman” in the opening poem—and this image quickly twists and leaps and transforms, bringing me to places I would never have guessed. The world’s smallest woman transmutes into images of tangerines, stockings, mirrors. It is O’Neill’s associative structure that creates these leaps, surprising turns, and an inimitable voice.
On a craft level, what allows for this wildness is movement within the poem itself through O’Neill’s use of repetition. Her anaphora at the start of phrases—repeating small fragments such as “when,” “if,” “your,” “can’t”— provides a framework on which the poem can hang, a place of return for the reader before traveling elsewhere. The sense of motion is really incredible, considering particularly the shapes of these poems. Often, as a writer and reader of poetry, I am attracted to poems that play with form more, that use the white space across the page. While O’Neill’s poems don’t wander from the left-hand margin, I don’t feel unsatisfied while reading. There is enough movement lyrically, in the language itself.
O’Neill builds other patterns to ground us through her landscapes, which shift constantly. The poems occupy everywhere from Florida to Wyoming to Texas, from cities to mountains to deserts. But there are constants built into O’Neill’s world, such as the “you and I” relationship across these poems. The speaker in Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles is feverish and sexy, in an endless push and pull with the “you.” The speaker wants and wants unabashedly – her phrases often begin with imperatives, such as in the concluding poem, “Not So Fast”:
Drive a spike into the ground. Wait for it to draw a spark.
Fill the bathtub with water. In case of unseasonable heat,
knot the curtains back. Take the doors off their hinges.
Drink cobweb gin where you can get it. Say it wasn’t easy
laying down in dirt…
Don’t answer me. I won’t stand still long enough.
The directives, both towards the you of the poem’s narrative and the reader, produce urgency, an insistence, as if we must respond and respond now.
I was wholly invested in this speaker, particularly during “Need to Know,” the long poem at the center of the book. A poem in five parts, “Need to Know” pushes forward through a series of “confessions” about sex, young love, and the power dynamics of a relationship. It moves in somewhat of a fixed form, like a broken villanelle, the final line of each section used as the first line in the next. Each refrain speaks to the complex desires explored here, refrains like: “I’m really the sugar in how you say my name,” “without wanting elsewhere. Without losing you,” and “I won’t breathe a word until you’re done with me.” The return to these images has an effect of circling, obsession, containment. The first line, “I’ve burned the dress I never wear & taken back my summer,” is repeated as the final line, keeping the reader, like the speaker, trapped within the poem, as if on a continuous loop.
The act of return occurs throughout the entire collection, as O’Neill is drawn again and again to a set of images—of food, of clothing, of caves and of bodies in desire. As expansive and sprawling as the poems are, O’Neill coheres Make a Fist & Tongue the Knuckles through form, aesthetic, and a voice that craves painfully, sensually and says: “Give me a choice better than razor or grave. Better than singe. Leave marks or I won’t learn.”
MAKE A FIST & TONGUE THE KNUCKLES
By Emily O’Neill
Nostrovia Press, June 2016
Paperback, 30 pp. $5.00
Emily Corwin is an MFA candidate in poetry at Indiana University-Bloomington and the Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Winter Tangerine, glitterMOB, Hobart, smoking glue gun, and Word Riot. Her chapbook, My Tall Handsome, was recently published through Brain Mill Press. You can follow her at @exitlessblue.