We tell ourselves stories in order to live. Joan Didion told me that a long time ago and I’m still coming to an understanding of exactly what that means. I was a lot younger when I first read that sentence from The White Album and I think I thought it meant something about convincing one’s self of things. That was also before I reread Great Expectations and realized the ending was the most devastating refutation of romance that I’d ever encountered. It was before I realized Love In the Time of Cholera had a lot to do with marriage. Recently I read that after Rome fell the Palatine hill became overgrown and “Dark Age cattle” grazed through the ruins. I’m thirty-seven and that’s practically the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
What I’m saying is I’ve grown up and now I think Didion is saying something about the actual act of telling, the obsessive act of looking at something from so many angles and saying it again and again to yourself as means of, yes, staying alive but also not losing your mind. You tell the story at the computer. You tell the story on Facebook. You sit at weekly pasta dinner and tell it again. You tell the story as the sun comes in from the balcony in Los Angeles and then you roll over and look at the wall and say, “Get out. I want to be alone.”
Here’s a story. A girl loses her mother. That’s my story and it will be your story if it isn’t already. It’s Meghan O’Rourke’s story too. And of course that isn’t even a sliver of the story for any of us, is it? This month I’ve chosen Meghan O’Rourke’s second book of poems, Once, because I’m interested in how she has managed to take the most inevitable story in the world and make us understand that it is deeply and privately and horribly hers. I’m interested in this because Meghan O’Rourke has the great fortune or misfortune (depending on what story you tell the room in and the light that’s coming through) to be a very public figure. She is the author of the formidable and deeply moving memoir, The Long Goodbye. She writes for the New Yorker and has edited for the most prestigious journals in the world. Which is to say she is also a canvas that people place their dreams and fears and sadness upon. Which is to say she’s a story beyond herself. How has she managed to write such a good pair of books that are so deeply different from one another? I want to understand that. What are the stories that can only live in poems and what is this vast wilderness of prose she managed to form into a forest she can name her own. Is it possible that she is teaching me something like Didion did? That memoir is a formal practice as much as anything else and the act of remembering and refrain leads both the writer and reader to an entirely new subject by the end of the book.
I think I may be onto something:
From “My Life as a Subject”:
Because I was born in a kingdom,
there was a king. At times
the king was a despot; at other times,
not. Axes flashed in the road
at night, but if you closed your eyes
sitting on the well-edge
amongst your kinspeople
and sang the ballads
then the silver did not appear
to be broken.
Such were the circumstances.
They made a liar out of me.
Did they change my spirit?
Kith in the night.
The cry of owls. A bird fight.
And here’s something else I found:
From “Inventory (after the Texas Revised Inventory of Grief)”:
I opened my mother’s jewelry box:
pins and rings and tangled necklaces,
a Sloan-Kettering appointment card,
Puck the cocker-spaniel’s Purina ID,
the one I wore on the string around my neck
for a year after his death;
a pair of plastic skeleton earrings,
a dull gold medal, a folded blue ribbon,
a pencil drawing: house, flowers, the sun and the cat,
A mess of a box, a private crypt—
I dump it on my bed
onto a sheet like the one
she lay under
when they carried her out the living room door,
a sheet of clean sky.
Weep for what little things could make them glad. That’s Robert Frost and a different story. Not really, though. We’re really lucky to have Meghan O’Rourke’s book for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club a few weeks before the rest of the world does. She’s going to come talk to us online on October 11th if you want to join the club and come talk. This book is going to be what is in known in fairy tales as “A big fucking deal.” I’m excited that I’m getting to talk about this book with you and with Meghan O’Rourke in the brief moment before the pageant, when so much has already happened but the banners haven’t been unfurled. I think we have a lot to learn from her about practice and how she is and isn’t like us at all.
In that amazing book Forests that I was telling you about, Harrison explains that forests were actually a construction of the British monarchy. A forest had clear boundaries and it’s own laws (forest law…seriously, I die), which were dictated by the king because the forest was his private domain for resting and hunting. If you weren’t in his forest you were in the wilderness.