Each time I try to articulate why it is I admire Meghan O’Rourke’s poetry so much, I start typing “Her imagination” and then delete the words. No one says “imagination” anymore, I keep telling myself. I have no data on this—so it’s anecdotal, and should be taken with a grain of salt—but it seems to me contemporary poetry reviews almost never discuss the imagination, let alone single it out as a poetic virtue. Reviews will address image, the richness of the language, thematic coherence, or narrative clarity (or the lack thereof), but imagination rarely comes up. It’s almost an antiquated word, a term that’s more likely to be heard in, say, a seminar on British Romanticism or, oddly enough, a kindergarten class, than in a review or, for that matter, a creative writing workshop. Maybe that’s because when people say, “Writing can’t be taught,” the imagination is really what they’re talking about. Syntax, meter, image, idiom, each can be learned, crafted, and improved upon, at least to some extent, while imagination—that faculty that, as Coleridge puts it, “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate”—is like grace: you either have it or you don’t. In other words, it’s talent, the ability to be interesting, and it’s exactly the quality I admire most about Meghan O’Rourke.
As O’Rourke’s 2008 debut collection, Halflife, established, hers is a poetry of rich imagination. To read that book is to see a young poet darting in and out of objective and subjective realities. Again and again, she perceives and recreates. “I am trying to rid myself of myself; to see past the tumbling clouds,” she writes in “Meditations on a Moth.” The poems are strange, and if not always knowable, they are certainly enjoyable as experiences through language. At their finest, as in “Inventing a Horse,” they show a mind in action, creating, in a Wallace-Stevens-type manner, a world out of thin air.
Once (2011), O’Rourke’s second poetry collection and a more focused and clearer book than her debut, is overtly autobiographical, as many of the poems reckon with the death of the poet’s mother. In this book, O’Rourke’s imagination keeps going, despite her grief, and the poet reacts to acts of the imagination as though they were slightly indecent. After such an overwhelming loss, the imagination shouldn’t keep creating. “I wanted the world to be a fact,” she writes, “The time for metaphor was over.” There’s an ambivalence to creation itself, which we see in “Seven Months Later,” where the poet addresses her mother directly: “I don’t feel you in the air. / Maybe you grew tired of the earth, maybe / the dead do.” From here, the poet updates her late mother on what life is like seven months after her death, closing with this observation:
_____The other morning,
I sat in your chair reading.
Next door the mower started up.
I startled at the noise.
Nothing should be growing.
Though “Seven Months Later” isn’t the final poem in Once, it articulates the final concerns of the book and depicts a poet who’s stunned by her imagination’s persistence in making meaning.
In Sun in Days (Norton), O’Rourke’s forthcoming collection, the poet suffers what she calls, in “Self-Portrait as Myself,” an “inevitable accumulation of grief,” which she details in these lines:
_________________I want a daughter, but
the daughter I’ll never have I can’t imagine
more than I already have. I’d like to say,
these are the stories my mother read me,
and she is gone . . .
This is a speaker who’s very much uncertain. Notice the way the “but” teeters on the edge of the line. And then, in the next line, O’Rourke breaks the line on “imagine,” as if to suggest, one, that she can’t imagine her unconceived daughter, and two, that her imagination itself is failing. This crisis of imagination is added to the litany of griefs the book describes: her struggle to conceive a child, her mother’s death, and as we’ll find out later in the book, a debilitating idiopathic illness. Though the mother’s death and the poet’s health are the most pressing issues she faces, this crisis with the imagination seems to be equally devastating.
Throughout the book, O’Rourke’s speaker searches for ways to cope with her grief and ill health. Essential to that process is her ability to understand and articulate both (she is, after all, a writer). The imagination, Coleridge’s unifying power, should help her, but it can’t. “Even now I can’t grasp ‘nothing’ or ‘never’,” she writes in “Ever,” a poem in which she tries to get her head around the finality of her mother’s death. She sees those two words—nothing and never—as “unholdable, unglobable.” Yet, she is a “thing that keeps on thinking,” despite everything she’s lost. Her struggle with illness is just as daunting. “The thing is, my pain in others / never looked like mine,” she writes in “Human-Sized Pain,” a poem about, among other things, the isolation one feels when dealing with illness. “Poem (Problem),” a three-liner, explores this idea further: “I kept trying to put the pain into a poem, / but all I did was write the word ‘pain’ / in my notebook, over and over.” The poet’s illness and grief have shut down her ability to imagine ways of communicating. “The sick body is always having speech seized from it,” she observes. Friends and doctors doubt her pain. “You don’t have a bad disease,” her doctor says. “Everyone’s tired,” a friend tells her.
Not only is the poet’s agency threatened, but her old way of thinking, her old way of imagining the world, what she calls “an unappreciated coherence,” has turned out to be horribly wrong. “Nothing seemed real to me and it was all very alive. / It took that long to learn how wrong I was,” she writes in “Unforced Error,” the collection’s opening poem. A bit later in the poem she writes, “I used to think pressing forward was the point of life, / endlessly forward, the snow falling, gaudily falling. / I made a mistake.” This mistaken perception makes the beginning of the collection absolutely desolate. The poet has lost her beloved mother, and both her body and her imagination are failing her, too. The poet’s struggle to reorient herself, to somehow dig herself out, is gut-wrenching but also beautiful, in the way that human struggle can be beautiful.
Perhaps the most ambitious and moving poem is “Sun in Days,” the collection’s title poem, a five-section transposition of the poet’s past life onto her current. It’s a bit like a Wordsworth’s Prelude, but in miniature, as O’Rourke explores “pockets,” not spots, “of time.” “I tried to live that way for a while, among / the trees, the green breeze, / chewing Bubblicious by the edge of the pool,” she writes in the opening section. Childhood seemed an eternal place, where she “could stand in that self for years / wondering is it better to / anticipate than to age.” In this poem, O’Rourke juxtaposes her idyllic childhood with her life after her mother’s death. Take these lines from the last section of the poem, where O’Rourke remembers visiting a grocery store in Brooklyn:
on Montague, the linoleum tiles dirty and cracked,
the dairy case goose-pimpling my skin.
Those tiles are still there.
She is dead now and so is he.
I know it seems bare to say it
bare to bare linoleum tiles.
That line—“She is dead now and so is he”—is, indeed, bare, but also devastating when contrasted with the serene life described before it. (The “he” here, by the way, is her mother’s father.) By the end of the poem, we see, if not reconciliation, a kind of grace, as O’Rourke remembers her mother handing her lilacs one summer in Maine:
where she leaned __close __said Smell
the planes buzzed _a purple light _fingers
sticky if I could only hear it
again _you could say forever _the fisherman
the empty mills ____the veterans on the corner
tonguing the sweet grains
you could say forever __and not be lying
A poem doesn’t bring the dead back to life, but a memory has a touch of immortality: it’s a sort of recompense—forever isn’t exactly a lie, even if it’s not completely true.
The title poem mirrors the arc of the book itself, by both exploring personal desolation and a crisis of the imagination, and ending on the idea of imagination as recompense. At the beginning of both the poem and the collection, the speaker can’t conceive of nothing and never, but by the end of both, she is able to imagine and accept forever. It’s a convincing gesture because we know this speaker isn’t one to accept happiness without scrutiny. Ultimately, Sun in Days is a beautiful collection by one of our best poets, a book that will help us rethink both grief and illness and how we treat those who are dealing with either.
At its core, though, it’s also a book about the imagination’s resilience and a reckoning of its limitations and its needs, needs it receives from the world. In one of the last poems, the speaker addresses her newborn son. The imagined children that were not birthed “were made of longing,” she writes, but this child, this real child, is made from the real world—that is, from “grapefruit and Rice Chex” and the speaker’s body—and built “without trying.” Her body is now working with her instead of against her, and her imagination, meanwhile, does not have to do everything. The poem closes with these lines:
__Lugging my freight down the street,
I thought about what I wanted for you—
(love love and more love)
but you were already you, not
an outgrowth of my mind,
just your own strange, remote harden
The same speaker who “used to think pressing forward was the point of life” and learned “how wrong [she] was” now places herself and her child in an “open parenthesis,” an image that recognizes life’s finite nature but also its possibilities and also hints at what’s in the actual parenthesis five lines above: “love love and more love.”
Photograph of author © Sarah Shatz.