Poetry Shelf review: Rachel O’Neill’s Requiem for a Fruit

Requiem for a Fruit by Rachel O’Neill, We Are Babies, 2021

Rachel O’Neill’s second collection Requiem for a Fruit continues a preoccupation with prose poetry that resonated in their debut book One Human in Height. The opening poem, ‘It’s an interesting time’, epitomises the delight that poem compression offers. Revelation jostles alongside the unspoken. The image of a ‘rusted coat’ startles, and then pokes and prods as ‘amour’.

In an endnote, Rachel acknowledges readers who are at home in their imaginations. They quote a grandmother’s line from a poem: ‘life is a great mystery, and then that mystery ends’. Mystery, Rachel suggests, is the magnet tug of storytelling. Storytelling reflects and feeds who we are, our origins, where we are going, with an imperative to listen. Listening helps us to ‘reason and act with humanity’, they suggest. This feels overwhelmingly important; this need for us to bend in and listen, to keep recounting who and how and where we are, past present and future, no matter the genre or subject matter.

‘From the homely catacomb in the living room my mother can see the stars.’ from ‘I dream I bury a machine’

And yes, mystery matters in Rachel’s prose poems. The real shimmers then moves to become off-real, startling and strange; and then slips and slides back to the everyday, the usual, the humdrum. I read each poem and see it as a startling painting, or a short film where the mise en scene trembles and quakes and expands the set with mystery connections. There is anecdote, revelation, fantasy, wit, confession. In ‘The commonplace’, a woman is dressed in a ballooning skirt, and she may be part woman and she may be part boulder. The aunt invites the woman/boulder to help herself from ‘the earth in the bowl where the potatoes should be’. What an image! Mystery in the commonplace. It’s also where the seeds are, according to the uncle. The aunt needing to locate the commonplace with its seed bounty: ‘Where’s that?’ What delicious ripples. What a way to be held to a page.

You can move through the book tracking the mystery whiffs, debris, clues. You can also pick up a thread and follow different routes through the narrative maze. Try love for example. Or the mother. Try wit. You can revel in the character festivity. Track and stop awhile with wives husbands love interests mothers fathers a Church of England clergyman children a companion a guest. In fact you are a guest in these poetry alcoves, bringing your own disposition, your own craving to absorb and expand, hum and ah ha.

Put this book in your tote bag or leave it on the kitchen table. You can pick it up and read a single poem, then let that poem drift and settle as you move through the day. It’s magnificent. Electrifying. I recommend it highly as Bernadette Hall does on the back of the book.

‘The relationship is new, yet the love is a stone.’ from ‘The love interest’

Rachel O’Neill is a Pākehā storyteller who was raised in the Waikato and currently lives and works in Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Kāpiti Coast. Rachel enjoys collaborating with writers, artists and filmmakers on publications, exhibitions and works for screen, and they are a founding member of the four-artist collaborative group, All the Cunning Stunts. A graduate of Elam School of Fine Arts (BA/BFA) and the International Institute of Modern Letters (MA), Rachel was selected for the 2017 Aotearoa Short Film Lab, received a 2018 SEED Grant (NZWG/NZFC) for feature film development, and held a 2019 Emerging Writers Residency at the Michael King Writers Centre. Their debut book, One Human in Height (Hue & Cry Press) was published in 2013. As a queer non-binary storyteller Rachel strives to represent the longing for connection and the humour and strangeness that characterise human experience.

A version of ‘Almost exactly the love of my life’ appeared on Poetry Shelf

We Are Babies site

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