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January Gill O'Neil

January Gill O’Neil was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and received a BA from Old Dominion University and an MFA from New York University. She is the author of Misery Islands (CavanKerry Press, 2014), winner of a 2015 Paterson Award for Literary Excellence, and Underlife (CavanKerry Press, 2009). She has received fellowships from Cave Canem and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. The executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, O’Neil also serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ board of directors and teaches at Salem State University. She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts.

January Gill O'Neil
Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

By This Poet

11

Early Memory

I remember picking up a fistful 
of sand, smooth crystals, like hourglass sand 
and throwing it into the eyes of a boy. Johnny
or Danny or Kevin—he was not important. 
I was five and I knew he would cry.

I remember everything about it—
the sandbox in the corner of the room
at Cinderella Day Care; Ms. Lee,
who ran over after the boy wailed for his mother,
her stern look as the words No snack formed on her lips.
My hands with their gritty, half-mooned fingernails 
I hid in the pockets of my blue and white dress.
How she found them and uncurled small sandy fists.   

There must have been such rage in me, to give such pain
to another person. This afternoon, 
I saw a man pull a gold chain off the neck
of a woman as she crossed the street. 
She cried out with a sound that bleached me. 
I walked on, unable to help, 
knowing that fire in childhood
clenched deep in my pockets all the way home.

How to Love

After stepping into the world again,
there is that question of how to love, 
how to bundle yourself against the frosted morning—
the crunch of icy grass underfoot, the scrape 
of cold wipers along the windshield—
and convert time into distance. 
 
What song to sing down an empty road
as you begin your morning commute?
And is there enough in you to see, really see, 
the three wild turkeys crossing the street 
with their featherless heads and stilt-like legs
in search of a morning meal? Nothing to do 
but hunker down, wait for them to safely cross. 
 
As they amble away, you wonder if they want 
to be startled back into this world. Maybe you do, too, 
waiting for all this to give way to love itself, 
to look into the eyes of another and feel something— 
the pleasure of a new lover in the unbroken night, 
your wings folded around him, on the other side 
of this ragged January, as if a long sleep has ended.

The Rookie

America under the lights
at Harry Ball Field. A fog rolls in
as the flag crinkles and drapes

around a metal pole.
My son reaches into the sky
to pull down a game-ender,

a bomb caught in his leather mitt.
He gives the ball a flat squeeze
then tosses it in from the outfield,

tugs his cap over a tussle of hair
before joining the team—
all high-fives and handshakes

as the Major boys line up
at home plate. They are learning
how to be good sports,

their dugout cheers interrupted only
by sunflower seed shells spat
along the first base line.

The coach prattles on
about the importance of stealing
bases and productive outs

while a teammate cracks a joke
about my son’s ‘fro, then says,
But you’re not really black…

to which there’s laughter,
to which he smiles but says nothing,
which says something about

what goes unsaid, what starts
with a harmless joke, routine
as a can of corn.

But this is little league.
This is where he learns
how to field a position,

how to play a bloop in the gap—
that impossible space where
he’ll always play defense.