celeris by Emily O’Neill (Fog Machine, 2016)
Reviewed by Blake Wallin
There’s a famous Cat Power breakup song from her album The Greatest that interrupts its own declarations of love to reflect on “horses galloping,” asking someone to bring them to her (presumably when they’re done galloping, the lyrics are unclear). O’Neill calls her second chap her book about horses, and given the central galloping/charging motif present, as well as several of the titles involving that animal, it seems to be true. Power’s song “Where Is My Love” is important to keep in mind for Emily O’Neill’s wonderful second chap precisely because it represents everything O’Neill subverts in her book celeris, out since March on Fog Machine.
The capital-R Romantic affection for horses from Cat Power’s song yields to a fierce motif of romantic vengeance for exes who have done immeasurable relational damage, which O’Neill hints at but, tastefully and powerfully, never fully divulges. It’s important at this point to remember the rippling muscles of horses’ legs and the showstopping power of their running, unbridled and yet controlled. Like the veins of the racehorses, survival etches itself into the language of the poems; survival from the controlling relational trauma at the heart of family, romantic attachments, and even religion.
In celeris, like Jericho Brown’s first full-length collection Please, there exists at the beginning, around 10 pages into the collection, a poem riffing on The Wizard of Oz. O’Neill’s injunctions in “Different-Colored Horse” are choppy and immediate. O’Neill uses the language of Oz to emotionally appeal to the reader and bring them into a space of nostalgia before delivering some seriously brutal lines: “She wants Emerald City but sees only sand;” “Empty handed, she folds like a poppy in snow.” The first lines in the poem announce the theme of borrowed nostalgia well:
She says we are going to Oz, but it hasn’t
been painted yet; pockets the cones from my macula,
won’t let me see color (16).
Later, the speaker “can smell when she [Dorothy] is wrong” (17). O’Neill brings into this space of seeming childhood certainty creeping elements of doubt and social commentary. This retelling is one of the first hints of subversion in celeris, and the poet makes use of dashing readers’ expectations early.
However, subversion has its limits, and O’Neill certainly uses horses’ ineffability/ connection to ancient myth and astronomy as a jumping-off point for her themes in celeris. The first three titles announce mythic grandeur as a central theme: “Year of the Horse”, “Altar to What I Won’t Relinquish”, and “Gideon’s Bible.” There are hints at normalcy throughout the first half, although the second half’s dip into larger themes dashes them effectively. In “What’s the Price of Scarcity”, O’Neill tells someone they “aped transgression flawlessly./ Called it medicine.” (19) and that they can “dream it all/ mended, rabbit” (20).
If “Different-Colored Horse” presages a subversion of the usual tools of normalcy, then “Dead Star” uses cruel realism mixed with astronomy to conjure a picture of an extremely abusive and painful relationship. The subversion of normalcy has brought the reader to a place where she can better understand and deal with a painful relationship and the resultant breakup, presumably mirroring the coping of the author throughout the poem. This form of coping involves taking past situations and not transforming them to fit emotional needs, but rather looking at them fully in the eyes. After all, “romantics need to believe in becoming/ constellations, not cautionary/ tales” (36). The formation of personal narratives is important here however, because the last stanza ends with the speaker waking up on fire, “which is to say/ drenched in a way I prayed for/ but never expected to arrive” (37). Here, a lie becomes justified through its use in a game the speaker is playing with the reader, both complicit in the overturning of staid narratives we tell ourselves in order to “cope” with things. This happens until true coping occurs of course, and it is this in between space that the poem navigates so well, especially the fraught middle.
The highlights at the tail end of the chap include “Forever Doesn’t Count” and its far-reaching imagistic obscurity before the more direct and emotionally resonant final five poems. Of course, this is Emily O’Neill, so the turns in them are brilliant, unexpected, and entertaining, and the poems seem to take on a life of their own: “our horses will keep walking/ without us” (43) in “Forever Doesn’t Count” and a fire burns at the end of the chap like an absolvement of all that has preceded it. But, of course, it’s an absolvement that leaves every experience intact and prepares a space for true coping to occur. And nothing beats the end of the penultimate poem “Even The Alphabet Betrays Me”:
“I’m all of the above. injured. buried.
singing. vacant. home is where the start hid
home, where the spark bit. home.
misspelled as hold me. i’m only just
beginning to tell it. home is where
celeris is my favorite O’Neill book thus far, because while it doesn’t showcase a long-form star-making performance like Pelican or punch quite as hard as Make a Fist and Tongue the Knuckles, it is a poet operating at her peak for a controlled, finite amount of time. And it is that same poet working with the themes carried over from her full-length collection and exorcising new demons through the medium of horses and other forces of nature. Pelican is a more perfect thing, but celeris brushes up against itself in more interesting ways, like the knees of horses hitting their stomachs in full stride. Painful, but you get there faster. Where Is My Love? Does it matter?
Buy this book: Fog Machine // Indiebound
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