Thursday, February 7, 2008

Meghan O'Rourke's superb first poetry collection


HALF LIFE
Poems by Meghan O'Rourke (W.W.Norton)

Meghan O'Rourke,poetry editor for The Paris Review and a cultural editor for Slate,is also a poet with unique ability to get a nearly intangible notion, an inexlicapable sensation into words. Giving voice to hunch, making the half-idea a textured, tangible thing, hers is a poetry that completes sentences we cannot finish ourselves. Precision and morphological accuracy aren't the point, and the words themselves, the images they create or suggest, are more like strands of half remembered music that is heard and triggers an intense rush of association; any number of image fragments, sounds, scents, bits of sentences, suggestions of seasonal light in a certain place, race and parade through the mind as fast as memory can dredge up the shards and let them loose. Just as fast, they are gone again, the source of quick elation or profound sadness gone; one can quite nearly sense that streaming cluster of associations that make up a large part of your existence rush onward, going around a psychic bend, scattering like blown dust in the larger universes of limitless life. All one is left with is memory of the sudden rush, the flash of clarity, and the rapid loss, the denaturing of one's sense of self in a community where one might have assumed they were solid and autonomous in their style of being, that nothing can upset the steady rhythm of a realized life. O'Rourke's poem "Two Sisters" is a ghost story, or at least the attempt to write one; the narrator is struggling to find the words to describe what was lost with the passing of a sibling;


When you left, a world Came.
Rain, A morning, a weather That wouldn't end.
The windows closed like stitches.
Fingernails grew; nothing to pick at.
The tent of our mother's body went Wet around me and clung.
The wind tore through me.
I breathed with two split lungs.
When you left I stayed, I shook!
Like an instrument about To be played by the long,
Liver-yellow Fingers of the sun


One is less autonomous than the myths of hard-centered individuation has us believing; we come from a body into a world full of sensation and assault, we experience ourselves through the presence and shared skin of family, and when there loss, we have an gap in our footing that is never filled, never replaced. O'Rourke's narrator feels the intrusion of a world that had been formerly kept a requisite distance now running riot through her senses. The rain is constant, unending, driving her inside herself from an external existence that is hard, cold, chaotic. The body feels hallowed out, breathing is a chore, a burden, as if taking in breaths for two bodies with one set of lungs--The wind tore through me. I breathed with two split lungs--our narrator is shaking with a profound and only momentarily clear vision of what her relations have been and what they meant in her life. And now that is gone.

When you left I stayed,
I shook! Like an instrument
about To be played by the long,
Liver-yellow Fingers of the sun


A natural storyline emerges, and this is what we use to remember and mourn the passing of a sibling. Because the imagery is fragmented and sudden, and because the associations between them are sudden and only partially outlined, I get the feeling that these are qualities that come in a rush, triggered by some random thing--scent, sound, a phrase, a particular sight--that would cause the mind to briefly erupt with fast, overpowering emotion. It is the indefinite quality that attracts me to O'Rourke's slim poem. Elliptical as the elements are, the style does work at times, if only for a striking image or two; there are times that something affects you and you're able to isolate the reason, or even identify what internal matters a poem, a picture stirred. I don't know precisely what having to breathe with two split lungs means, or what was she was driving toward with the final stanza where she is about to be played by the "long, liver yellow fingers of the sun", but they do suggest a lot. They are perhaps lacking in information, but are rich in what they suggest. But again, it’s not as if one should linger too long over them, since this reed-thin piece is nearly non-existent as literary product. I imagine that mental flash, as if I light had been turned on and off in an otherwise dark room; what you remember are contours, suggested tones, all gone in an instant and barely registered in memory, I think it goes a little deeper than that, of course, but mostly what I like about the poem is not what it says at all but rather what it attempts. This is the art of what was almost said. O'Rourke avoids the requirement of confession to awkwardly confess grief in a long, gasping rant centering not what was revealed, but on what was merely glimpsed, for a moment. There is here a feeling that some profound knowledge had been suddenly bequeathed and just as suddenly removed, and how she gets this feeling is through the minimalism employed. She is crafty about the words used, and where they are placed on the page. In some ways this is less a poem than a totem of some kind.

”Meditations on a Moth” is a sexy, slippery poem about New York at night spoken from the viewpoint of an insomniac dawn patroller who is the midst of an endless argument with herself. It's an interesting marriage of personalities noticeable, appropriately enough, in two poets associated with the New York School, Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. It gets a sense of the mystery a city nightscape gives to us; every shadow is a primal formation, beasts and monsters and knights vying for the good of the innocent.This has that street level feel O'Hara's best work has, a the vista of a pedestrian walking across congested streets and between buildings, noticing every bit of impacted urban space and detail and the frayed sense of loneliness that permeates everything that glitters and shines and makes noise in the city.

What goes down stays down, the street at three a.m. a fantastic absence of color. Outside the studio window the sound of a river sliding along its dulcimer bed, aquifers and accordions and Alcatraz. This has a the stark clarity of a high contrast black and white photo, and all that's needed is jazz on the background, a set of foot steps coming up the w way , loud as they tread on wet cement, O'Rourke's narrator here is someone who sounds as if they're noticing the small matters of city life against her intentions; things get noticed that would otherwise have remained under the radar.

Here look No, look.
I am trying to rid myself of myself;
to see past the familiar clouds.
All evening drums rumble in the park.
The mafia reconvenes when the cops leave.


This is a micro world where matters are changed forever because they were noticed, noted, given names and assigned places on a mental map of where more things are; they have entered our consciousness. Though far more colloquial than Ashbery has ever been, O'Rourke shares with him (in this piece, at least) an abiding obsession with the unfiltered perception of things and objects of this world, an interest in the phenomenology of the mundane. There is in Moth, as in Ashbery's central (and long) work Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror a musing on what is encountered on the journey the next day, concrete, specific and unadorned details on matters large and small in their seeming exactitude, and then an argument with the perceiving self, a string of associations drawn from personal history or other encounters, a survey of responses to place and things that are finally the meaning a specific place or people's lives can have. O'Rourke's question sounds rhetorical, since she might as well be asking why it is that she's seemingly lured to the streets in the far reaches of the late night/early morning. The activity here is no less neurotic than what a ritual-locked specter would suffer from. This wonderfully condensed musing on what over-alert senses bring to you on dark, wet nights comes from the sort of agitation of the soul that is too familiar with the terrain, and one finds themselves wrestling with ambivalence, to make the move to new climes, or to look further and harder at where one has been for years, seeking another nuance of light or angle of skyline that rewards the soul just a little more than the agony of not changing punishes it. I like the Robert Stroud reference, and my guess is that this is something going through O'Rourke's mind when she wrote this. Fortunately, she left the reference oblique and mysterious, and let the vaguely evocative syllables give the poem's musicality just a passing clang of dissonance. I see it as a color as well as tone, like it were a layer of point that one barely notices, if at all, once the other shades and hues are applied and worked in, but which gives the finished a look and allure that might otherwise be absent were it not there at all. O'Rourke's language, vivid and filled tangible things, maintains the sealed meanings of these things all the same. She resembles another poet, Elizabeth Bishop, for her skill at keeping the inner workings of mind private in a public sphere. Suffice to say that I think O'Rourke, in this poem, has composed a verse as good as the writers I've mentioned already, less because she meets their standards or thinks as they do, but more with equaling in originality, style and mastery of technique and material.

It's a rare event when a poet can write in a surrealistic mode and not have it read like a studied classroom assignment to mimic a past master, or a stiff parody of a style whose signifiers are lost on contemporary audiences, yet O'Rourke's mastery accomplishes just that, a fresh set of images in arresting, nerve rattling stanzas. "Descent", prefaced with "After Apollinaire", gets the pulverizing velocity of a drug addict's degradation.

"Descent"
after Apollinaire

I was born a bastard in an amphetamine spree,
lit through with a mother's quickenings,
and I burrowed into her, afraid she would not have me,
and she would not have me,
I dropped out down below the knees
of a rickrack halterdress, sheeted,
tented knees, water breaking, linoleum peeling,
and no one there to see but me,
I woke on the floor as if meant to put her back together,
to try to hold on to her
like a crate to a river, as if I'd been shipped down
to stand straight while
in the misgiving
she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks floating down a river and a dog who couldn't swim and I could not swim,
I slipped from her grip in a room
where two orange cats stared like tidy strangers
at a world of larger strangeness,
and I had no name.
I was there at her breast
and I thought I could see her,
the swag of her hair, the jaw,
the fearing, but I barely saw,
I went sliding down the river from a house
in which it was sweet to sleep
and the cool of the sheets was never cool enough,
the imprint of the bedded bodies two geese diving at once.


"Descent " is an update of the myth of dead souls crossing the river Styx, lovingly and pun-fully alluded to ("she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks /floating down a river and a dog who couldn't swim/and I could not swim, I slipped from her grip/in a room where two orange cats stared like tidy strangers/at a world of larger strangeness,/and I had no name")This is also an expanding of the Rolling Stone's fuck-all anthem "Jumpin' Jack Flash", Mick Jagger's succinct catalog of hard knocks, fights, poverty and gleeful nihilism fleshed out into a jittery, theatricalized speech. There is the danger that some would take this poem as glorifying the speed freak's life of curbstone squalor, but there is an element of this debacle that attracts us all, users and those who would condemn it, and O’Rourke, less presenting this as romanticized diorama where each broken brick and bit of torn blue jean is studiously arranged than as a mis-en-scene that gets the feeling of the rush. There is empathy here , but no desire to join the descent.