Pelican by Emily O’Neill
YesYes Books, 2015; 112 pp
Reviewed by Carleen Tibbetts
Emily O’Neill begins her first full-length collection of poetry, Pelican, with a quote from Guillaume LeClerc on the nature of the parent-child relationship among pelicans. He writes, “When the young are born, the parent bird devotes all his care and thought to nourishing them. But the young birds are ungrateful, and when they have grown strong and self-reliant they peck at their father’s face, and he, enraged at their wickedness, kills them all. On the third day the father comes to them, deeply moved with pity and sorrow. With his beak he pierces his own side, until the blood flows forth. With the blood he brings back life into the body of his young.” Using the motif of the pelican, O’Neill’s speaker navigates a tumultuous relationship with and loss of a father figure, issues of gender identity, sexuality, and destructive romantic partners, to name a few subjects.
O’Neill’s speaker addresses shame and other complexities and aftermaths dealing with sex itself, sexual violence, shame, and gender. In “The Ballad of Sexual Adventure,” O’Neill discusses consent surrounding one’s first sexual experiences:
The answer to every opening
must be yes & so I said it
& fell open like a flower
one day closer to the dead
These are not breezy topics, but her style in handling the gravity of this level of confessionalism is nothing short of graceful. The speaker in “When I’m Bad, I’m Better” admits to not being present the first time she was called a slut, rather, “somewhere wet/being a mermaid.” In several other poems this speaker experiences volatile heterosexual relationships and the miscarriage of a child who “Could’ve been bad/as the bastard who never knew I bled his baby.” O’Neill also writes of romantic encounters with women. The speaker is “quiet in a language” in kissing a close friend that this friend’s boyfriend “would never speak,” refers to her lady kissing her cheeks and embroidering her golden, and speaks of a girl whose name cannot begin a story without fracturing it.
Pelican’s speaker is very much attuned to her fighting spirit, her strength, her passion, and her wildness—in addition to both its literal ups and downs. In “Suckerfish,” O’Neill writes:
I can pretend I am an animal
but it’s mostly a lie. I do have busy, feral hands.
I am sorry. Finding my way towards rot is a constant
accident, and stories come out of my mouth
before I have time to dress them
in more acceptable clothes.
In “Manic (Unbridled),” the pace of racing, manic thoughts is measured with constant use of the ampersand, unlike most other pieces in the collection. The speaker’s body wakes her “against reason because there’s furniture to move/& clothing to discard & three weeks of dinner to cook then freeze & . . .”
O’Neill’s image of the pelican and its myth—its beak brimming with stories, its cycle of perpetuated and reciprocated violence toward its parents and its offspring—presents itself throughout her poetry—a pelican “desperate for its dead kin,/piercing its own heart.” A father who cannot tend to his young properly. A daughter in “a nest of graceless/children” who begs for the kind of affection and relationship she was denied, and how she processes the loss of a parent who has loved wrongly. O’Neill’s speaker asks, “Forgive my stumble./All I know of falling is finding the ground,” yet these poems have nothing to apologize for. Her poetry is that of grit, discovery, and triumph.