Heather Aimee O’Neill:: Memory Future:: Gold Line Press
Many of the poems start at one seemingly simple point of departure but branch into elegant, complex ruminations. “Mars May Have Been a Land of Lakes,” begins in a proposition and assumption about the “other”:
we’re trying to define. You’re
impossible. That’s what I’ve decided,
that’s how I’ve defined you.
then quickly accelerates:
Mars may have been a land of lakes,
but the satellite orbits us, and the photos
can’t reveal such distant history.
And why should they? We can’t
even be honest with each other,
let alone believe the billion years
it took for us to happen: first water,
then body, voice, and faith.
The poem leads the reader through personal isolation, epistemology, space, evolution, history, image, and language. O’Neill makes these leaps seem easy and graceful. The connections are believable in large part because of the self-reflective, dialogic syntax. O’Neill’s poems turn back on themselves, as in “I’ll Cave In, Gently, as You Divide”:
Return to where you disappeared,
to where you disappeared again.
Is it terrible to keep inventing
O’Neill struggles with memory and connection. The first poem begins with a series of questions, introducing the self-reflective voice in the collection. Part I revolves around a search for connection. The second section follows the speaker on a journey with the “other.” Part III returns to the speaker’s past.
Much of Part I centers on the struggle to maintain connections within the strains of the modern world. This struggle is not an uncommon theme, but it is the speaker’s uncertain voice that makes the work believable and engaging. In “Restoration” the poet waits with her other in “morning traffic, ramps / and bridges crowded with the rush. The piles,/ of steel and tires, hours, tunnels full..” There is a fight and silence between the couple, and the speaker recovers—partially—through memory:
…Remember when our feet
Hung over planks of wood, the dock beneath
The green and gray pond water, clouded with
Our shadows, thick, the fall of darkness, rise
Of light. Our morning fight was nothing, just
A pocket of rare stolen air. There was
A moment there. Cicadas sing above
Our pond—surround me here, foretold, now gone.
Past becomes present here as the memory of the pond envelops the speaker. The speaker is in the present, but the past continually emerges, sometimes infringing on the “real” life (and sometimes illuminating it). This paradox of memory is the basis of the poem and this part of the collection.
Part II poses a similar question of transience and memory. In this part, however, O’Neill locates an answer in personal and cultural history. These ghost sonnets take the reader through the other’s past and culture. The use of repeated lines in this section create an echo and more direct “turning back” to previous scenes and stanzas. Section V ends with: “In sleep, we find a warmth beyond our growth.” In section VI, the line returns: “In sleep, we find a warmth. Beyond this growth…” The figure of Ouroboros comes to mind with both the concerns and structure of this section, the snake of time circling back and repeating, swallowing itself. A tenuous answer is given to the questions of temporality with this circular pattern. O’Neill’s ruminations on the other plant the speaker on more solid ground. The last poem ends, in part, with a sense of timelessness:
has no finality, her motion keeps
one season brushing up against the next.
The final third of the chapbook arrives at the poet’s childhood/past. The poet brings us to recollections of family and places that have their own presence. There is “The bay outside” that “remembers / me hours later, remembers to ghost itself through my hands…” and “The Queens that raised you…” There are, too, clear and distinct image-memories. At the end of the poem “Summer,” the speaker positions herself in the earth, solid: “My feet burrow into the peppered sand, planted.” The last poem of the collection ends with surprising images from the speaker’s childhood. The visceral details of another child with a “high brow and sunken eyes” and the last description of “gum balls sweating colors” suggest the surreal, Proustian nature of memory.
This may be the intent of the poet after all—to lead the reader through these questions of time, perception, and image. O’Neill suggests that some images hold their own answers and arrivals.