December 13, 2019KR Reviews

On A Falling Knife Has No Handle by Emily O’Neill

Portland, OR: YesYes Books, 2018. 88 pages. $18.00.

I read A Falling Knife Has No Handle at the tail end of winter in Boston. Winters in Boston are relentless. The cold seems particularly cruel—even as the light is starting to return, everything is still all grayscale, coated in mud, salt, and ice. Emily O’Neill, the author of A Falling Knife, lives in Cambridge, and the poetry community in Boston is small enough that we’re all somehow aware of each other without much actual interaction. I can easily picture her sitting alone at the end of a bar, making a daily and solitary practice of writing these poems. I can picture the bar because all Boston bars look more or less the same and because these poems take place in bars, in home kitchens, in Somerville apartments. Something about knowing exactly where and how O’Neill wrote these poems makes this book all the more intimate. These poems invite the kind of intimacy of a multi-course, homemade dinner and too many bottles of wine shared with friends, with a new love, as you find some kind of joy and get through another Boston winter. The warmth of these poems comforted me in those cold days.

O’Neill’s first book and winner of the inaugural Pamet River Prize from YesYes Books, Pelican, deals with pain and finding oneself amidst pain. In that book, O’Neill addresses grief over the loss of her father, miscarriage, violence towards women’s bodies, and personal isolation. Though her voice and style are the same, the tone and narrative of A Falling Knife is from a completely different palette for O’Neill. The book is cohesive in style, image, and substance, and it offers an antidote to pain and isolation, or as O’Neill writes, “see me failing a loneliness.” Through these poems, a portrait of the author develops as she works in the service industry, overcomes grief, falls in love, and eats and drinks well. These elements of the life behind the poems come together to explore how to find fullness or sensual pleasure, personal joy, love, and freedom.

The poems take place in bars, kitchens (both home and restaurant), or the liminal spaces of one’s bed or familiar streets, and they illustrate a life of working in the food industry. If “bread is about the air trapped inside it / the flavor of a time & place” then the integrity of the food industry provides the air these poems hold. O’Neill doesn’t allow food industry workers to be overlooked; instead, she shows the meaning, dignity, and depth in the culture and life of these workers. She and the people moving through her poems have rich lives of building relationships with each other and with regulars and fully enjoying the food and drink they work to make. The food industry culture deepens the theme of finding purpose:

service, a dance of clawing forward without leaving
where you begin
more charcoal on the fire
so many mouths arriving, unfull.

In several poems, O’Neill includes how food is made with tenderness and appreciation for its sources, for example, how a man doesn’t force-feed his geese foie gras and, “they stay & eat because he’s never built a fence so their livers hold more lemongrass than fear.” Refreshingly, as she celebrates the food industry, O’Neill challenges the poetry industry. In “It’s Too Dangerous to Tell the Truth All at Once,” O’Neill critiques “people begin with this poem is & I want to interrupt them” to ask, “how many parking tickets is it worth to risk saying what you mean & being heard?” These poems are direct and beautifully, refreshingly anti-establishment.

The food industry is both a situational challenge to traditional beauty norms in poetry and a source of great joy in all the food and drink it produces. Every poem overflows with flavors and scents, such as those in an Old Fashioned, the bright smell of a citrus garnish, chocolate, olives, good bread. O’Neill’s language is sensual in the true meaning of the word: all five senses are stimulated as the words pass under your nose and roll over your tongue. Just read this aloud and tell me your mouth isn’t full of flavor:

into relentless Tuesday
saffron not a spice
but marigold stamen
pansies soft & edible

sunflower starfish plowing over circular bones
what you might eat
could it be spineless
is there a veal season
did we call it to the table.

These incredible mouthfuls form a sensual landscape in which the author falls in love and finds personal fulfillment—taste and touch are deeply intertwined. For example,

I bought a bottle of rye tonight
some dark salted chocolate, a plate of linguini
a seat
for three hours after hearing you sigh from Chicago.

It would be a mistake to call these “love poems,” even though they brim over with the headiness of falling in love and allowing oneself to feel worthy of love. O’Neill hesitantly falls in love with a bar regular, often addressing him directly, as in

I’ll meet you at your house I stop
myself from saying I’ll meet you at home
because I mean I’ll meet you
at you.

Through these poems, O’Neill learns, “what there is to trust in filling & how / long it took me to deserve care,” which is learning how to love and be loved, especially after pain and grief. As the poems progress through the collection, O’Neill becomes more comfortable with the vulnerability of love and bravely finds new freedom and happiness within herself. Her tentative joy moves to passion, “I know how I am greedy / what work starving takes.” Hunger and fullness take on new dimensions in O’Neill’s portrayal of love. And after reading the entire book in one gulp, I felt sated, I felt full.

As I trudged through the tail end of another Boston winter, on the opposite side of the Charles River from Emily O’Neill, I read this collection and felt like it was pointing the way toward building one’s own warmth in a cold world. The title poem ends with some words of guidance about living and loving so fully: “you’re supposed to take the blade & say yes / to let it fall /without reaching for catastrophe.” The lines, and the whole collection really, remind me of Louise Glück’s poem “Snowdrops,” which ends, “afraid yes, but among you again / crying yes risk joy / in raw wind of the new world.” The poems in Emily O’Neill’s A Falling Knife build a practice of saying yes.