Often, in contemporary literature, grief becomes clichéd; O’Rourke, however, avoids sappiness or melodrama. Instead, her poetry probes at the actualization of grief, revealing a startling emotional depth.
On a Friday night in March, I picked up The New Yorker, perused its pages and stumbled upon the excerpt from Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir about her mother’s illness and death, The Long Goodbye. Reading O’Rourke, I was hesitant. Maybe even shy. There is so much grief in life already. Why expose myself to more? I should read David Sedaris or something. However, I kept reading and before I knew it, I was enveloped within the words, fixated, maybe even tearing a little. Although I was aware of O’Rourke’s presence in the poetry world (former poetry editor of The Paris Review), I had never read her poetry. I was excited to review Once, interested in whether her poetry would possess the same captivating, haunting quality as her memoir.
Of course, I expected her poetry collection to address her mother, however, I found that the collection traveled further, explored our relationship with language, our relationship with the self.
In “When It Went to Her Brain,” O’Rourke contemplates her relationship to the ebbing maternal, stating “Mother, you don’t always know my name.” The loss of identity, O’Rourke’s name, associated with the waning mother figure, and the wind functions as a motif in these poems. Later, in “Extraneous,” she refers to herself as “A delinquent; nobody’s darling,/ a daughter in the way of the wind—” In “Extraneous,” O’Rourke recalls her mother’s question in the previous poem, “Is that our wind I hear?” (emphasis O’Rourke). By emphasizing the “our,” O’Rourke indicates that the wind behaves as the connecting force between her and her mother. However, later O’Rourke is “in the way of the wind,” this abstract force. The transition from wind as a binding force between O’Rourke and her mother, to the wind as a force that O’Rourke impedes strikes me as O’Rourke’s contemplation of nature’s unravel-ment of her mother. Although the poem begs Chodrowian analysis, on a purely literary level, O’Rourke is describing her shifting relationship with her mother’s illness through wind as a metaphor. The meditations within these poems offer a quiet examination of grief. Often, in contemporary literature, grief becomes clichéd; O’Rourke, however, avoids sappiness or melodrama. Instead, her poetry probes at the actualization of grief, revealing a startling emotional depth.
O’Rourke becomes more playful in “Appeal to the Self,” a contemporary Prufrockian dramatic monologue. She writes:
Have the dowagers of delusion visited you again
in their fat pink shoes,
creeping softly over the Persian rugs
of your creaking, boarded mind?
[…] Outside, cell phones buzz like digital cicadas,
and the air green, green. But you have come up here
to rave inside the tower you call a brain.
She could very well be talking to J. Alfred himself! The alliterative rhythm and vivid imagery in these first few lines captivates. She speaks to the intellectual in today’s society, externally surrounded by technological noise, but isolated within her own mind. Interestingly, the mind is “creaking” and “boarded,” as if it has been shut, become old, rampant with delusions. O’Rourke attempts to create an image of the mind, and thereby the intellectual who utilizes the mind, as a isolated, antiqued entity. Additionally, despite the “cell phones,” a mode of communication, present below, the speaker in this poem has come up to “rave” inside the brain, indicating a schism between external technologically available communication and the internal. However, O’Rourke declares:
No one will ever notice
The difference between what you say and what you mean.
Again, here she alludes to Prufrock’s declaration, “it is impossible to say just what I mean!” Even within the mind, the brain, the self, where O’Rourke’s speaker has traveled to, even without the distractions of modern communication—cell phones, gchat, Twitter, Facebook, old fashioned email— she enunciates a dichotomy between what is actually said and what is actually meant by the words said. There is a difference that cannot be reconciled. While this difference can be easily attributed to the technology, O’Rourke seems be stating that this difference is fundamental, intrinsic to communication itself. While O’Rourke seems to be evoking a Saussarian argument about the dis-utility of words, she later states:
What you lost is what everyone lost […] Who are you to mourn it?
We should not mourn the inability of language to properly convey meaning, instead:
So come sing with me and be my love
There is no one else but you, the voices in my head.
Despite the failure of language, that she discovers O’Rourke decides to embrace and “sing with” the “voices,” what exists within her mind. The universality of language’s inadequacy unites us, and we move away from speech into song.
A post-modern peculiarity that arises within O’Rourke’s later poems is the cross-outs. She writes:
and done again.
What does the strikethrough signify? To me the strikethroughs encapsulate the language of loss and its abstractions, and in a sense echo O’Rourke’s meditations in “Appeal to the Self.” As a poet, O’Rourke is indefinitely concerned with the presence of words and their simultaneous inadequacy to properly convey meaning. Though the words are there, present on the page, they are also not there, striked-through. At the same time, they mean everything and mean nothing.
In “Ophelia to the Court,” O’Rourke addresses identity, speech, and the impossibility of words:
I wanted (if I may speak for myself) was: more.
[…] You see I cannot speak without telling what I am.
Although here, speech seems to be linked to identity politics, earlier in the poem, O’Rourke’s speaker declares: “my words are smudged.” Despite their role in conveying her identity, despite their criticality in revealing the essence of O’Rourke’s speaker, and despite O’Rourke’s speaker’s own desire to convey and reveal, the words remain “smudged,” mangled and imperfect. By contrasting the necessity of speech for identity and the flaws of speech, O’Rourke evokes the insecurity present in any social situation where performativity is required.
Despite O’Rourke’s own examination of the incompetency of language, she exercises and manipulates language:
The mind is an unforgettable red space.
O’Rouke’s poetry is an unforgettable red space, searingly incandescent and dazzling. By questioning language, she celebrates language. Her verse will startle readers.