Rachel O’Neill, One Human in Height, Hue & Cry Press, 2013
Rachel O’Neill‘s debut poetry collection sent me searching for a new word to signal the kind of writing that takes flight within its pages. Yes, this is poetry that finds life in sentences, so you fall upon little prose poems (like embroidered pocket handkerchiefs on the page), but that seems barely adequate. Yes, these exquisite sentences have toes in the surreal, but again that falls short of the way each piece pivots upon an axis of the real. I think I have opted for poetry prisms.
I was reminded of an extraordinary mix of things as I read: Anne Kennedy’s debut novel, 101 Traditional Smiles, Lyn Hejinian’s sentences, Fanny Howe’s sentences, Richard Brautigan, Gertrude Stein, Gregory O’Brien’s early poetic slants with magical drops, Gianni Celati’s Narratori delle pianure (for a start).
These poems are poetry prisms because they are shape-shifters (not on the page as they maintain the uniformity of squares and rectangles). They are kaleidescopic, anecdotal, twisty, askew, stream-of-consciousness-like, uncanny, colourful, incantatory, shiny. Each poem shifted in the light as I read, so the anecdotal world became less settled, more surprising, yet never loosing its anchorage in the real.
One of the first poems, ‘Waking early in the marigolds,’ is the perfect entry into the book. The poet takes an idea and then playfully jams with it in slightly off-beat ways (the poem is about waking up in surprising places — ‘I came into the world with nothing bar a capacity for waking in unexpected places.’). It is almost (oh, at a stretch!) a metaphor for how these poems work; as perhaps these poems awake in surprising places, a little to the left of right of expectation. I loved the ending, where the poet yearns to be lying in bed ‘with some authority despite being out of my depth.’
The collection’s subject matter seems to be driven by both real life and the imagination, by a poet who is mindful of the world about her, but who is willingly to filter that world through imaginative excursions. Thus, you get transported from behind the eyelids of a man to what you tell and don’t people to someone arriving at a family reunion by parachute to a compass that is dropped and multiplied 200 million times.
Rachel’s sentences have a pitch perfect economy (‘The sea’s pale back’) that generate musical tones. The quirkiness, the off-beatness, the flashes of the surreal, however, are not embedded in skewed syntax or word choices but in the anecdotal revelations (fictional or otherwise). For me, Rachel’s graceful language heightens the narrative twists and turns.
Endings can be the ruination of a poem, but Rachel has a light touch, a surprising touch. She concludes ‘My father’s memories’ with this: ‘He shunted past me muttering, “My father’s memories,” as if every year he bore them on that stretcher down to the water.’ Rachel’s beginnings are equally nimble and fresh: ‘She sits down at the kitchen table to wait out the remainder of April.’
This is a glorious debut. These poems show the way you can hold any occasion, object, person or place in your mind and, like a prism, watch it shimmer and shine with little stories that hook tufts of truth and fabrication, self and knowing, illusions and strange kinks, and everyday bric-a-brac. I am in love with this book.
Thanks to Hue & Cry I have a copy of this book to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.