Expecting Something Else by A.M. O’Malley
The University of Hell Press, 2016; 79 pp
Reviewed by Robert Torres
Expecting Something Else by A.M. O’Malley indelicately explores the rocky boundary between mother and daughter. The prose poems are unpunctuated, reflecting the unrelenting effort by a child to create a self separate from its parent. It is a clattering of two identities fighting to define themselves and each other—the narrator and her mother—two foci in the ellipse of womanhood.
To serve as chapter breaks, O’Malley employs black out poems made from pages of My Mother/ My Self by Nancy Friday. Through black circles of ink, she distills language about mother/daughterhood from psychoanalysis to contrast against rectangular poems about double-wide trailers, Kraft American cheese, and denim jackets. On page 12, she writes:
My mother took a tab of acid before
she knew about the baby Then she
thought she was having a boy—she
dreamed of a tall dark-haired boy
Padraig would be my name his name
The book, as a whole, succeeds at invoking in turn both pity and angst for narrator and mother. Poems in the cycle “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Something Else” evoke scenes of mother and daughter coming together, often around the time of the narrator’s birth and a childhood of poverty. The mother picks boyfriends poorly, wears dentures, and leaves annotations in her daughter’s diary. On page 36, O’Malley writes:
Christie baptized me in the kitchen
sink when my fever spiked Blasphemy
is easy in love She anointed my head
with canola oil washed away my sins at
the tap Father O’Neil wouldn’t baptize
a bastard baby . . .
The cycle “Blasphemy is Easy in Love” mostly follows the daughters “elopement” through bars and shitty jobs where she inescapably projects elements of her mother. The language moves faster here and at greater distance.
Packed light I threw things away I
kept notes I burned notes I said I was
fifteen when I was twelve I said I was
eighteen when I was fifteen I kept
So reads page 27. The cycles fold into each other, crossing back and forth over years and memories in a way more akin to the formation of an identity than to the telling of a story. Rather than settling on a mood of forvgiveness, the book moves in such a way as to hold many truths together at once: mother is to be forgiven; mother is the source of woe; daughter and mother are one; daughter and mother are irreconcilable forces of nature. A third cycle, “A Mother is Hard to Have,” mostly approaches from the mother’s perspective. Neither tender nor grostesque, it is mother’s story told through the lens of a daughter seeking some kind of mythology. From page 46:
My mother was a welder She tied
herself to the outsides of buildings and
made arcs and sparks The men on the
job grabbed her ass and then tried to
kill her . . .
It is a rare treat to find a book that treats masculinity as a marginal presence, but O’Malley’s book is unwavering in its focus on womanhood in context of itself rather than in contrast to manhood. A couple of poems near the end bring back a male element but more as caricatures or props than characters. From page 73:
Boyfriends stacked up in a woodpile
outside the back door They littered
the yard like engine blocks The
Boyfriends still send dolls at
Christmas They don’t remember my
There are many books about women in search of their identity. Few so adeptly create a relationship between mother and daughter as O’Malley has done in this work. The sparse language cascades on and on, falling in layers the same way memories fold over each other regardless of time or place. Although O’Malley has been a prolific force on the Portland, Oregon poetry scene, this marks her first full-length publication. We should all hope it is not her last.