I have a crush. Yes, I am admitting to it today. I am a married woman, but I have a crush. I know what you must be thinking, but let me assure you, this is not typical. A mutual acquaintance introduced us, and at first, I wasn’t sure that it was going to be a good match. You never can tell with these things. I was surprised by how quickly things happened. Lean in, and I will tell you about it. Now just a little bit closer…
It was a rainy pre-spring day, and my husband was out of town for work. I’d returned home after a grueling day and was looking forward to some quiet time. I quickly scanned the mail and found a mid-sized manila envelope addressed to me. Inside the dim confines of the wrapping was Underlife by January Gill O’Neil. I flipped through the first few pages and instantly wanted more. My plans for the evening shifted. Instead of watching tv and going to bed early, I ended up eating take out and reading through the book from cover to cover.
The tone of the book first captured my attention. It felt like sitting down with a friend and sharing her stories. The poetry world is full of confessional poetry, but a lot of it comes across as whiny or laden with blame. That is definitely not the case with O’Neil’s writing.
The language in Underlife is intentional and direct “I am from hush puppies and barbeque” is the opening line of “Nothing Fancy” the first poem in the book. From the beginning, the reader is able to discern that the speaker is not going to beat around the bush. The straight-forward language does not detract from the complexity of the work. Instead, it invites readers who may not think of themselves as poetry readers into the poetry world nonetheless.
Poems throughout the book deal with difficult topics, but do so with a certain thoughtfulness and a reflective innocence. In the poem “Early Memory” (also the title for the first section of poems) O’Neil writes about throwing sand into a boy’s eyes during childhood. It makes the reader think about how anger lurks and erupts in different ways. There are poems about afros and permanents, food and sex, writing and children. O’Neil even addresses true stories that could be taken as urban myths, but will stick with you long after you close the book. There are poems that speak to the relationship of father and mother, and the different sides of each parent. The poems unfold and mature tracing a path from childhood, to adulthood, and motherhood. During all of the transition, the common threads of who she is and where she came from are woven into the book and tie everything together as a whole. Reading through the poems, you feel like you have become intimately involved in the lives explored between the pages.
Her easy conversation of words and images wooed me into a crush with her book. By the time I finished, I was smitten. It is not a secret and I am not ashamed. My husband even empathizes. I have a crush on Underlife. Read it for yourself, and you will understand.