Emily O’Neill: How I Wrote “without conferring, we both ask for a smoke & dagger”


A previous version of this poem was published in Cloud Rodeo. It was also published in a falling knife has no handle (YesYes Books, 2019).

smack me so hard I’m a toothache / enforcing
myself, a victor over savage time / give me
one glass of brut & everything else

give me nothing that might fin you or make this saltier
Gloucester / can you see the harbor
on me anymore / or that savage snifter

size of a lampshade / Shahir sparked
a strike anywhere match & singed
sense to a faint smell / my hair

so long now but still blue / we eat
& eat these animals piles then climb down
into the warmth of it / how much we tartare

how much we pretend no one sees us leave
raise our eyebrows / laugh as though
we’ve had each other for breakfast more times

than you drink / coffee to wake up / there cups until
you vibrate through the shift, laughing
one clipped shout / tell me to ask for cold brew

tell me Cynar or cider or whatever
fruit you spend on an empty afternoon / just yellow
peppers just Italy / along your lineless forehead

where have I been that you remember / what do you taste
when I round my mouth / kiss, a kind of chef’s table
your friends can see me faking / how I always shake

with two hands / a politician / you bite your lip
the Christmas orange / chug from a bottle
of chartreuse / ask who noticed our cab, our hands

our table / full of more plates than we can handle
confidently / I keep the secret by not speaking
the bartender brings bone broth in the most beautiful pot

then pours / the onions
& the chanterelles are still alive
when you swallow


Choosing a poem from a falling knife has no handle to show how it was built is a hard choice, because the whole book is full of meals I want to revisit again and again. But I thought it might be fun to go back to one of the first poems I wrote for the project and see what I could remember about the night that made me start writing it. Most of the poems for the book started as lists of things from a specific meal. This one—I met the person I was seeing at a restaurant in Brookline after finishing up at work in Fenway. I took the Green Line. It was mid-fall, and the wind was bitter cold. He was at the bar with a mutual friend of ours, one of the only people who knew we were dating at the time. They had eaten dinner already, and I hadn’t yet. The imperative “give me”s in the first few stanzas are me trying to order the right thing: enough food to keep me from getting too drunk, but not so much that everyone who’s already had dinner has to wait around for me to finish. I was worried about spending too much money, about ordering something someone was allergic to. Gloucester comes up, because it’s where I first tried to talk to the person I end up loving over the course of the collection about my feelings, a place where my timing was off and I didn’t get what I wanted. I bring it into the poem as a symbol of the fear of getting it wrong again. I wanted to remind the person I’m writing to of how many times I’ve tried to know them, how much I’ve failed at it, how I refuse to be discouraged.

The title of the poem refers to us ordering the same beer without talking about what we wanted first, and I thought of it as a road into talking about how sometimes desire is mirrored without desire ever being explicitly declared. Telling someone your feelings is such a huge risk, mostly because there’s always a wide chance they don’t feel the same way or aren’t ready to admit they do. Even though the poem is almost all nervous energy about waiting too long to discuss what might happen between interested parties, I wanted to generate what felt like a kind of ease. The speaker is making a pile of memories in common, asking the person at the other end of the letter to remember how much they already share, even though things still feel so new.

At this point, we weren’t telling anyone about us. We wanted to be sure the relationship would live long enough to call it a relationship. I have never been so cautious in my life when it comes to my heart, but I wanted to respect this person’s boundaries. I hung back and used all the energy I’d normally spend on being effusive to record all the specifics. I have endless lists of what our meals reminded me of, wine tasting notes, pictures of what I wore every time we met up. I poured my zeal into a kind of poetic scrapbook project. Instead of telling everyone about the new person who was becoming important in my life, I arranged and rearranged the details of our nights together. This poem begins at the bar in Brookline where we ordered the same beer, a place where I felt tentative and even a little foolish because of how much meaning I was assigning everything that was done or said. It lands at a bar just around the corner from my partner’s old apartment, a place we’d been going together for years as friends, where we went for lunch the following day. They were serving the most perfect onion and mushroom soup as a lunch special, and neither one of us knew what to say after we each took our first bites. Truly, it’s one of the best soups I’ve ever had in my life. Neither one of us could describe what made it so perfect, but we agreed that it was without even speaking. That moment felt like truest thing about us at that time—neither one of us was sure what would happen long term, only that we were witnessing something that would be big for both of us, a thing we were afraid to ruin by giving it a name.


Emily O'Neill

Emily O’Neill teaches writing and tends bar in Cambridge, MA. Her debut poetry collection, Pelican (2015), won YesYes Books’ inaugural Pamet River Prize for women and nonbinary writers, as well as the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series in Poetry. Her second collection with YesYes, a falling knife has no handle (2018), was named one of the ten most anticipated poetry titles of fall by Publishers Weekly and was recently long-listed for the 2018 Julie Suk Award from Jacar Press. She is the author of five chapbooks and her recent work appears in Bennington Review, Catapult, Hypertrophic Literary, Little Fiction, Redivider, and Salt Hill, among many others.

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