Voices: Lost and Found

by Jan Duncan-O’Neal

About the author:

Jan Duncan-O’Neal, born and raised in Kansas City, has lived most of her adult years around the Midwest and in southern Colorado.  She attributes her love of stories and poems to her childhood when her Grandpa would recite them to her while she cuddled up in his lap.  Her grade school teachers encouraged her writing, but at ten, she discovered writers make little money after trying to sell her own newspaper around the neighborhood.

Jan majored in English and theater in college and received a Master’s Degree in Library Science at the University of Iowa where she later taught storytelling and children’s literature classes.  She has authored 11 professional books (published by Libraries Unlimited) and conducted workshops nationally for teachers and librarians.  As a professional storyteller, she encouraged others to pass on their own stories and retell the world’s great folk tales.  Upon retirement, Jan turned her energies into writing poetry.

At age 50, she met her future husband, the love of her life, on an escalator in the Atlanta airport.  He reads the first draft of everything she writes.  “Bill’s a huge reader with the largest vocabulary of anyone I’ve ever met, the perfect match for a writer,” she says.

Jan’s poems have appeared in such publications as Coal City Review, I-70 Review, Kansas City Voices, The Mid-America Poetry Review, and in the May 2011 issue of Touch: The Journal of Healing.   She has attended the University of Iowa’s summer writing workshops, and is an editor of I-70 Review.

From the author:

I’ve always felt the urge to create, to look at the world in new ways.  Writing poetry challenges me to recreate my experiences with clarity, to use sharp images.  I want readers to participate, to enter into the heart of my poems.

$15 US
Chapbook - 20 poemsChapbooks.html

Table of Contents

Lost Voices

Mother’s Voice

The Uncles

Neighborhood Crone


Hold Me, Pa

Dancing with Bob


First Love


Finding His Voice

Requiem for a Prodigal Daughter

The Great Sphinx

Lament for a Bookstore

The Blooming of Peonies

Second Chance



New Enlightenment

Bittersweet Season

From the critics:

In Voices: Lost and Found, Jan Duncan-O’Neal’s poems offer a landscape of voices that are energized and brought to life by her vivid imagery.  She says of her uncles,”…their Irish tempers raged like the rumbling before a summer storm blows in.”

However, she doesn’t stop there. She makes sure we see the complexity of their personalities with the lines, “they… kissed Grandma good-bye and drove / their freshly waxed cars into evening.”  In images and details both intricate and subtle, Duncan-O’Neal draws a portrait that reverberates in our minds.  She does the same with a slowly dying man who “let newspapers pile up like snow on his front step,” and with the many other characters she illustrates with an insightful pen.

But the voices the author brings us are not always those of people.  She gives places and feelings a voice as well.  When she describes Iowa fields, she writes, “Farmers sculpt this land, lay out contours like Amish coverlets.”  Showing us the demise of a bookstore, she says, “a dirge moans down aisles….”  And in “Introspection” she gives voice to inner thoughts, “…our ragged seams exposed like a nightshirt pulled inside out.”  Duncan-O’Neal’s words carry us along, and we can’t wait to see where they will take us.

Tina Hacker, author of Cutting It

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As a career librarian, Jan Duncan-O’Neal devoted herself to preserving our collective knowledge, art, and memory to share them with others.  Becoming a poet seems a natural extension of that passion.  So even while she laments many losses in her life, from her mother’s voice to Sundays with the seven uncles “each with his own version of the truth,” she is actually giving her memories to us to keep safe.

When Duncan-O’Neal sees the Great Sphinx, she writes, “Wonder if anything created in my lifetime will survive four thousand years,” yet she reminds us that we can all choose in part what will survive us.

Voices: Lost and Found refreshes readers’ own nearly lost memories.  These poems remind us that we often find or gain more than we lose (“Finding His Voice,” p. 22).  Jan Duncan-O’Neal offers us “New Enlightenment” (p. 33): “Out of the wilderness of not/knowing, dark rolled up and / we were gifted with light.”  Most of all, readers will be delighted and entertained by this talented storyteller-poet.

Alarie Tennille, author of Spiraling into Control

~ ~

Before her “last walk before winter,” Jan Duncan O’Neal takes her readers on a walk through a life with family and loved ones in her poetry collection, Voices:  Lost and Found.  She shows how life changes after the loss of Mother.  Her Father starts spending “his days/cutting up family photos/to make paperweights” and blocks everyone out.  She eventually loses him as well and her siblings.  She offers portraits of seven uncles in “starched white shirts” who “swoop up teensy/Grandma in their strong arms.”  Her Grandpa “cracked black walnuts/with gnarled fingers limber/enough to carve the shells/into little monkeys he/slipped into [her] hands.”

Family, though, is not her only focus.  Duncan-O’Neal also touches on first love that begins at the school hop “decorated with construction paper leaves.”  Her imagery pulls the reader into the story:  “Lux soap drifted on the dance floor/so we could glide like Fred and Ginger/wearing bobby socks and penny loafers,” but as so many teenage girls experience, she feels the threat of the more endowed woman who makes young men swoon.

The strength of Jan Duncan-O’Neal’s poetry is the solid imagery and details that bring characters and places to life.  She captures compassion for a dyslexic boy others ridicule because “the letters played/tricks on him.  Turned upside down,/crosswise, backwards, made ugly faces/like the kids did.”  Her son, late to talk, has a voice so light he “could have floated away/like kites without strings,” and a prodigal daughter “kept spilling out,/losing parts of herself.”  In remembrance of a favorite place, she laments the loss of a bookstore “where books/used to snug up to one another, flash/their shiny covers.”

These poems give the sensory details that pull the reader into the world she describes.  Although a sense of loss pervades the collection, Duncan-ONeal captures vividly how her characters face life and how the human spirit overcomes whatever they encounter.

Maryfrances Wagner, author of Red Silk and Light Subtracts Itself

The last stanza in Jan Duncan-O’Neal’s opening poem, “Lost Voices,” sets the stage for Voices: Lost and Found:

    Mother once held us together

    during dark times when we were little,

    filled our rooms with her voice

    warm as a soft velvet night.

This endowment, the memory of her mother’s voice, invites the reader to trust the author’s foundation, experience what holds her together, and connects her voice to twenty poems with a strong theme.  Titles are important and can draw readers before the cover of a book is opened.  Loss or Lost belongs to the experience of living and leaves its imprint on the ebb and flow of generations to come.  The word, Found, can be applied to support the power of the bonding process.

The second poem, “Mother’s Voice,” continues with the mother’s presence in the author’s life,  “I always knew she loved me / Her words spread sunshine.”  After the mother’s stroke, the last line in this poem defines and supports what can be lost.  Change follows illness.  Bits and pieces of who we are can disappear without warning and reappear like the “Sounds from a stranger’s voice.”  What was once the voice of a song bird lives on; but only in memory, a reservoir that keeps and discards at will.

“The Uncles” gives a glimpse of the author’s genealogy.  Her seven uncles provide a presence of hardworking men with Irish tempers and passions.  They offer a great contrast with their male presence holding “teensy Grandma in their strong arms.”  One small detail shows the author’s ability to draw characters with few words: “and drove / their freshly washed cars into evening.”

“The Neighborhood Clone” is a poem in the collection that best illustrates the author’s gift of observation and her ability to use imagery and language to tell a story.  This character-driven poem delivers the idea that children are like clay, molded by more than family and influenced by other adults met along the way.

The poem, “Demise,” portrays the inevitable course of a long life:

    He began to give away things:

    brass candlesticks, a dusty etching

    from the living room wall,

    pictures of Jesus, a dictionary,

    duct taped at the spine.

This first stanza describes an old man of faith: “pictures of Jesus.”  He is a curious soul seeking meaning or perhaps the correct spelling of words from “a dictionary” well used and protected with “duct tape to the spine.”  Brass candlesticks were useful in bringing light into his nights.  With one stanza and few words we see this man, perhaps the author’s father or grandfather.  Death finds him.  The old man is “slumped into the arms of his easy chair.”  One word, “easy,” defies the logic of thinking that life will end with ease.

“Hold Me, Pa” shows the impact a grandparent has on a child.  The poet describes how this relationship follows her into adulthood with the lines: “I feel Pa’s arms enfold me, / hear his stories, more magical than finding a whole forest of fairies.”

After the poet introduces us, via memoir, to her family we move forward in the narrative poem, ”Dancing with Bob,” about her first date.  One line allows the reader to remember the angst of first love and growing up: “left me a torn petal among the wallflowers.”

The remaining poems of this collection focus on the poet’s adult life, anchored by marriage, love, and a philosophy which bears up under the constraints of heartache and joy.  She wonders “if anything created in my lifetime / will survive four thousand years.”

“Introspection” is a poem that draws us closer to the poet.

    We crawl in this swamp,

    our ragged seams

    exposed like a nightshirt

    pulled inside out.

And the last three lines of the last quatrain in “Introspection”:

    Our scars heal. We yearn

    for unity, stand in shadows,

    but walk toward threads of light.

This poem would have made a fine selection as the last poem. How we yearn to know that our scars heal.

Judith Bader Jones, author of Delta Pearls,

Moon Flowers on the Fence,

and The Language of Small Rooms

What is it about stories that makes people gather ‘round after a holiday meal on a brisk autumn evening or in front of the crackle of a low burning wood fire on a stormy winter night to listen to words woven into images and emotions that have been handed down from mouth to mouth?  Like the gift of stories inherited from generations before, the gift of the best storytellers lies in their genetic code, and with it, they teach us and remind us of where we came from and who we are.  This is why we listen.

Sometimes a storyteller’s gift lies dormant.  Like an heirloom enclosed in a glass case or an old photo album, it is brought out only on special occasions to be experienced with loved ones who share a common history.  Sometimes, through education, study, and the pursuit of a career in literature, the gift will be honed and tuned into images and sounds that extend beyond a family’s history to encompass a shared human experience where the commonality of life, love, struggle, and loss binds us together. 

The poetry of Voices: Lost and Found was built on a foundation of storytellers, as much as its poetic pen was honed and tuned over the course of a lifetime of study and storytelling by its author, Jan Duncan-O’Neal.  Drawing from a rich history, she enfolds us into her loving arms as if she were an endeared older aunt then lifts us to snuggle into her lap while she shares the stories of her life, her family, her losses, and her lessons learned.  Though they are hers alone, her stories portray experiences and bonds that share a common thread.

While all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end, the best stories don’t start at the beginning.  Rather, they open at a pivotal moment sometime later on only to shift back to the beginning, then move forward until they bring us to the present and by doing so, they teach us what is behind the why’s and when’s and how’s of life’s lessons.  In this tradition, Voices: Lost and Found opens with a tragedy, the poem “Lost Voices,” set during a pivotal time in the poet’s adult life.  Through its foreboding title alone, readers prepare for a significant loss.  The impact of the poem is universal as it opens with, “Since her stroke,” and we brace ourselves for what is to come.

The next poem, “Mother’s Voice,” carries us along the span of many decades in just a few short lines.  While it

From the publisher:

begins with a mother’s lesson to her young daughter, “Women should sound mellow like a song. / Give words feeling / then pause for effect. / Voices should flow with meaning,” its progression and closing helps us to recognize how significant a role the mother played in the child’s development.  The sequencing of these two poems mirrors life in that we often remember and reflect on our past after experiencing a significant loss.  The collection continues in this vein of reflection as it portrays not only loss but the insight that can be gained through change; and that by taking the lessons we’ve learned to heart, we can persevere and gain momentum to move forward and upward.

From the memories and trepidations of a first dance and a first wished-for kiss to creating a new life for herself among the fields of Iowa, Duncan-O’Neal transports her readers from her city-born birthplace to her life as a young mother.  We learn of the challenges faced by her children and the changes that take place in them.  Nowhere do we learn more of the triumphs gained through perseverance in overcoming adversity than in the poem about her son, “Finding His Voice.”  We cheer right along with the crowd when we read, “But, at thirteen, he debuted on stage, / spread his new deep voice over / the audience, left them breathless, / bowed to a standing ovation.”

From a life lived to the fullest while pursuing a literary calling comes the ability to create poetry from a perspective of maturity that is nowhere more evident than in the poems that conclude this collection.  With subtlety and grace, Duncan-O’Neal recognizes the tenuousness of our existence as she contemplates “The Great Sphinx,” mourns the disappearance of the printed word in “Lament for a Bookstore,” affirms the return of love later in life with “The Blooming of Peonies,” “Second Chance,” and “Honeymoons,” and reflects on the lessons she’s learned in “Introspection” and “New Enlightenment.”  In closing, she leaves us with “Bittersweet Season,” a poem that reveals that even as we enter the winter of our lives, there is still beauty left for us to discover, if we only take the time to look.

What is it about the telling of stories through poems that draws a reader to them?  For Voices: Lost and Found, it is the lessons learned from the shared threads that weave our human experience!

O.P.W. Fredericks, Editor

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The Lives You Touch Publications

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