“who knew it wasn’t real”

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These notes are part of my “read 100 poetry books in 12-ish months” effort. Far from an official review, they represent first impressions and provide some context for what I brought to the reading of the text.

8 of 100: Misery Islands by January Gill O’Neil (2014, CavanKerry Press)

Quick, personal thoughts:

  • I have always admired January’s work and have been following her journey since we first met back in the early- to mid-2000s via an online writing community. When I do my not-so-annual poetry goals, I do so in the spirit of January’s poetry action plans. She works extremely hard and is an inspiration!
  • I was incredibly moved by the short poem “November 4, 2008,” which describes the narrator’s experience at the polls, when she was able to vote for our nation’s first Black president. Misery Islands was written prior to the now-infamous 2016 election, but I cried at my polling place on November 8 of that year. (I also cried that long night and for many days following, but that’s a story for another time.) Our hope in 2016 that we would have our first female president proved not to be true, but I will always hold dear those moments of believing. They still hold power.
  • Other poems in Misery Islands also brought me back in time and made me weepy: “Vivarium’s” final line “We are just too young to get old” & the story told by “You Get Up” (about finding it after the divorce because the children need you). I should confess that as I read, I am about to collapse into my PMS emotions *and* I’m coming off a 2-month long illness which has left me feeling vulnerable. But I don’t think that’s entirely why the emotions are at the forefront as I read this collection, which describes events that echo some in my own life. I think it’s also because there’s so much tenderness in this book, and that’s such a surprising response to these lived experiences (illness, betrayal, divorce, racism, etc.). I know there’s also rage. It’s not just backdrop for the poems but in a couple of instances it’s front/center. However, overall I receive these poems as tender blessings.

Lines I want to remember:

  • “I am hope by way of heart. / I am conjoined twins named Progress and Excess. // … I am a nation in foreclosure. // I am pawn shops and payday easy-loan shops, /  … I am every child who won’t come home tonight. // I am every sex shop and tittie bar / named Golden Banana and XXX. // I am every mill town and boarded-up factory, the assembly line disassembled, the layoffs, / layways, and laid to rest.”
  • “The giant ring was an 8-foot cage / that barely contained the likes of Andre the giant, / ‘Nature Boy’ Rick Flair, Hulk Hogan / … Who knew it wasn’t real? Anybody could see / there was something inside that / hurt so much it wanted it out.”
  • “Here, I am most proud of my life: / the blessings of words, the way they shape / this house and the hours that move inside it. He knows I go to answer some grim wisdom // his body has pressed into me,”
  • “Showing me his toxic orange belly and his / come-hither-and-I’ll-kill-you bullshit stance. / That’s cold-blooded, my friend. / … but I hear what you’re saying. / The night is long and slippery. / … We’re all in this together. / … Let’s heed the call and rise / out of the trance of ourselves, / secrete our souls into the world. / We are just too young to get old.”
  • “I’m tired of all this beauty — / forsythia blooming as if to apologize / for the long, hard winter. / … but something in me refuses / this ordinary magic, distrusting / the muscle memory of kindness / even as the wind knocks buds / to the ground, without grace, / in the inexact language of April.”
  • “I take off my two rings from my left hand, / place them side by side so they touch / to create the number eight. / … Two islands floating in choppy waters. / … I want to know the animals that have burrowed deep, / fed their young, killed their enemies, / survived the snow and ice naother year / and for what?”
  • “They may look into your coal-black eyes / and demand you / choose your color, / yet we know black or white / is not that simple. / You are the best of both. / It’s your choice to choose / or not to. I say, / let that be your first / fuck you to the world.”

What others have said:

  • Major Jackson on the book’s back cover: “O’Neil candidly writes about family … of single-motherhood and of love, and in doing so penetrates the exquisiteness of the everyday while also highlighting the challenges of living as artist and mother. Indeed, there is fine balance of imagery and story and song that makes this a fine collection to own, to read back one’s own solitariness, one’s own joy.”
  • Hannah Stephenson’s Part and Parcel HuffPo column: “In this book, yes, there is misery and suffering, but we aren’t shipwrecked. What I love most about the book is that it doesn’t wallow. Each of these poems is an island, a sanctuary, a place to wait out the storm (even if we have to change course)… I was struck by the vulnerability of these poems.”

Where some of the poems from this collection live online:

Have you read this collection? If so, let me know your thoughts in the comments!

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