Pelican by Emily O'Neill

Sex, Whiskey, and Freedom from the Demons of Her Past

reviewed by Kelsey Hoff

            In Pelican (2015, YesYes Books), Emily O’Neill crafts a fragmented narrative of a second-coming-of-age: already a young woman, the speaker’s life continues to change throughout the death of her father, a miscarriage, bouts of depression, battles with violence towards the female body, and her continuous search for comfort in the forms of sex, whiskey, and freedom from the demons of her past. These poems strike beautifully bittersweet chords, songs that “sing sorrow turned to syrup, skinny / dip in the Atlantic.” The concrete images produce a texture that blends seamlessly with emotion, the body, and the narratives the speaker uses to make sense of her life. In the poem “Manic (Unbridled),” O’Neill writes, “but as I braid & unbraid / my dirty hair, the kitchen smells like apples / & I’m crying over an appaloosa (a name that’s been wound / round my tongue since I was a fizzing child) & the rain won’t come.” Each detail in these lines is packed with meaning that builds on itself throughout the collection. The poet recreates a viscerally engaging and spellbinding experience that I wanted to linger in throughout many re-readings.

            The parent-child relationships in this collection are complicated by anger, pain, rebellion, and also separation and nostalgia. An epigraph at the beginning of the book from Guillaume Le Clerc illustrates this and inspires the title. Le Clerc’s image—ungrateful baby pelicans pecking at their father’s face until, in a rage, he kills them all—becomes a recurring metaphor in O’Neill’s book for the pain she causes her loved ones and the pain she bears in return. “On the third day the father comes to them,” Le Clerc writes, “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.” This conflict is repeated when the speaker has a heated argument with her father in “Stitches, and she extrapolates that “He lost his vision, his legs, // the impulse to treat us like colts—all his violence to time. / When I was old enough something wild bubbled ugly in me and I slung it at him, every chance.” The speaker’s recollections of these exchanges are informed by the pelican vignette, and this recurs throughout the book in an organic representation of the ever-presence of her father in her thoughts and the ways that their relationship changes over time.

            O’Neill evokes a vivid sense of place with a similar love/hate dynamic manifested in the speaker’s relationship to her rural surroundings, which makes for beautifully gritty imagery and figurative language fraught with internal conflict. In “Salting the Earth,” the speaker muses

There are cornfields I’ve pissed in

west of here. Highways that know
my body better than my bed.

Fall in a city does not
smell the same. I prefer

the furrows of shit.

Though she has painted an anti-pastoral boredom, and even repulsion, with country life, it is still comforting and familiar to her because it is her home. She reflects on one experience with leaving the familiar location: “Last I heard my coast say come home I kept driving. / The horizon is a donkey when it kicks us in the teeth.” The speaker has found that she can’t run away from her problems, but the cliché is completely circumvented by the texture, nuance, and deep relation of this sentiment to the speaker’s life story. She contemplates running again in “Rusalka,” reasoning that “If I want to run / I give up my tongue. Gut, clean. If I want to run / I must stop this retelling.” This paradox illustrates another way that the speaker is bound to her environment: though it makes her uncomfortable, it gives her a voice with which she can tell her own story.

            O’Neill develops a voice and sensibility that I find very relatable as she details the speaker’s personal growth and gradual changes of identity. I read this as a paradox of the speaker trying to escape from herself in order to achieve self-reliance in a new, adult version of herself. Addressing her anxieties, she states “I left my tomboy body // on the blacktop / with a sore to pick and now she bleeds / into the present tense.” In their haste to perfect their own identities, she and her friends experience “that slippage from other people’s children into our own / perfected monsters, the kind to beg back memories as if we loved / only in other, already-dead lives.” Even in her quest to become her best self, she must look to a nostalgic past for warm memories, though she feels a deathlike detachment from them. Each poem in this collection holds a piece of the speaker’s identity at stake, which effectively brings her to life one page at a time.

            I felt more and more invested with these poems as cycles emerged and the speaker located herself within them. Her efforts to escape from these ruts, complicated by nostalgia for the recklessness and innocence of adolescence, bring to life a resilient, yet tender personality. Though there are a few love interests in this book, the self remains at the forefront, and it was a refreshing experience to read a narrative in a young woman’s voice that deals with romance and sex on her own terms, silently refusing to be defined by her relationship status. Perhaps this is where she breaks her cycles, sticking to her guns while telling her friend Amanda “boys don’t know how to kiss / until she said prove it so I did.” Nothing comes easily, she learns again and again, just as “we learned / to kiss how I learned to drink my coffee black.” However, life goes on, and like her summertime obsession with Jaws, she can enjoy herself if she learns to love it, “Tape trapped in the VCR—rewinding.”