blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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Platform: An Introduction to Meghan O’Rourke

Poet and editor David Baker has commented that Meghan O’Rourke is “one of the brightest new voices in contemporary poetry,” and, in an interview he conducted with O’Rourke for The Kenyon Review, Baker expresses admiration for the “intensity and spareness of [her] language” and her style, which, in his estimation, “leans toward . . . brevity, concision, the elliptical or elided.” In this same interview O’Rourke recounts having traveled a circuitous path toward the wiry lyrics in Halflife through a landscape populated by figures like Walt Whitman, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Anne Carson. Interestingly enough, O’Rourke admits she “didn’t actually consider spareness a virtue for many years.” The poet goes on to describe how the pieces in her first collection represent what remains of her initial efforts “to write big poems that overflowed the vessel in which they were contained,” like the ones she loved and admired by these writers. But O’Rourke sensed that her own poems were telling or explaining too much, that they required a good bit of trimming, so she turned to other poetic models like Sylvia Plath, and, crucially, William Carlos Williams, noting how Plath often compresses “an awful lot of torque into a few short lines” and extolling Williams’s “superb sense of line, his energy, his strange swerves.”

Another important poetic influence that O’Rourke mentions in the Kenyon interview is Ellen Bryant Voigt. If there is an undisputed master of the contemporary poetic sequence it is Voigt. She has a musician’s ear for lyric arrangement and an impeccable sense of how poetic themes (like musical ones) gain resonance through subtle modulations of tone and well-timed (or well-placed?) repetitions of image. O’Rourke points out that it was Voigt who helped her perceive the structure underlying “The Lost Sister” sequence in Halflife, noting how the piece started out “as a series of distinct poems that I couldn’t finish. . . . I was attracted to the music. But when I tried to clarify who this speaker was, the voice died.” Voigt read these disconnected fragments and suggested to O’Rourke that they were “part of a series: two sisters, one living, one dead, in dialogue.” As soon as she heard this advice O’Rourke knew it was right and “went on to finish the series very quickly.” The poet also acknowledges that Voigt was instrumental to her process of gathering and arranging the poems into the larger configuration of the finished volume, helping her “see threads of connections” between the disparate pieces that make up the book. “Once that happened,” O’Rourke explains straightforwardly, “I saw what needed to be filled in, and I began to work with more sense of purpose.”

This disarming and delightful straightforwardness is characteristic of Meghan O’Rourke’s poetry. It becomes evident even before you crack the spine of her debut collection to begin reading. It scintillates out from the gnarled trunks and acid-colored foliage of the trees and the blurred chartreuse surface of the satellite dish in the photo which adorns the book’s dust jacket. This depiction of a landscape which appears blighted somehow by the very brightness which renders it visible is the background against which the poet deploys the solitary word of the volume’s title. And it serves as a perfect illustration of O’Rourke’s imagistic and rhetorical obsession with illumination—with its sources and with the mechanisms by which it is created and perceived.

In the opening line of the book’s opening poem O’Rourke’s speaker whines, almost plaintively, “My poor eye. It has done / so much looking—” inviting us to consider first “the street at three a.m.,” its “fantastic absence of color” and then “the brute, blind glare of snow in sun” that comes with the rising morning. From the blindness created by total darkness we are drawn into the blindness born of too much light. Clear creative vision is impossible at either extreme. The poet proves this time and again through her obsessive exploration of that zone where the anatomical “eye” of the onlooker turns inward, and all that it has absorbed as mere electromagnetic phenomena on the surface of the retina is transformed into the luminous, self-aware “I” of the human ego in all its bruised and beguiling loveliness. As in “Hunt,” where she asserts, “The light of the mind is red. It is a red street,” and then employs the conceit of a foxhunt to interrogate the myth of domesticity and its concomitant abstractions. In midstream the poet notes, “Everything natural to us must be learned. / The broken laugh, the branching glance . . . ” At such moments O’Rourke’s language might appear willfully abstract and didactic, but there is a shocking, almost clinical accuracy in her observations.

In poem after poem the poet reminds us that Genesis was only possible after someone shouted fiat lux. And her approach is like that of a photographer assessing the quality of all the available light and its capacity to render her subjects at the right exposure. In Halflife, the radiation streaming down from on high is always in translation away from or toward some highly wrought, reflective surface of the poet’s inscape: “In the bedroom the moon is a dented spoon”; “In the morning the sun was a cutout in the smog.” Such fragments, though, belie the urgency that echoes through many of O’Rourke’s best passages. As in the closing section of “Still Life Amongst Partial Outlines”:


My eyes hurt. A translucent sheet
has grown over them.
Twilight intrudes at the edge of the bay, and the room

goes gray—so that one can make out only edges,
the back of a couch, the light at the mantel ledge—
concealing from us the things that have slipped

from our loose grasp—girls combing their hair
with Goody combs, boys running
with baseball gloves outstretched—

and have drifted away, a wave of light
moving out into the last trough of the ocean; a path
that appears to be a way forward,

but is not a way at all, is nothing
but a tendency of light
traveling through the great, cremated distances of autumn.

The vatic quality of the poet’s voice here is solidly grounded in the nuances and details that the soothsayer of this amazing sequence (which forms the entire second section of the book) chooses to reveal. In this poem O’Rourke explores the intersections of memory and history as she meditates on the bizarre and haunting coincidence of the rape of another young woman named Meghan O’Rourke in the small Vermont town near where her family used to vacation. The poet is often preoccupied by the patterns that inhere in such apparently random occurrences, sensing at some deep level the truth in Emerson’s assertion that, “There is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature,” fascinated, in her turn, with “the way that small facts can become great symbols. . . .”

O’Rourke has admitted that her “favorite literature has always been that which deals with the individual’s search for truth, for transcendence, for spiritual peace outside of the conventions of society.” But she goes on to observe how “this particular desire for transcendence, in Western literature, is strongly identified as a male quest. In such texts, in fact, the female almost always represents an obstacle” to be somehow overcome or neutralized. In Halflife, O’Rourke knew she “wanted to tackle that tension, and to self-consciously comment on it.” The word “half-life,” after all, refers to the measure of time it takes for one half of a substance, like a drug or radioactive atoms (or a bad idea?), to be eliminated or disintegrated through natural processes. For O’Rourke the word also connotes something the dictionaries do not tell us. It has something to do with the manner in which her intensely lyrical utterances, often delivered by speakers at some remove from the poet herself, still manage to trace the entanglement of various strands of her own autobiography with the loose threads of history and literature. In the process they illuminate the unresolvable, ongoing predicaments of the jostling crowd of others (often female) who beset the poet with their urgencies and their desires to be seen (and heard). What results is a palimpsest of sorts, like the one the poet describes in a poem by that title:

So the days go by, and the singing at night continues.
The summer passes like horses.
Wisdom arrives on a piece of paper, blown
through wide glass windows:
“This page intentionally left blank.”
I talk to my friends more than I used to.
I sleep less. This is the point of life:
you really care. The tendons slacken,
the fat honeycombs beneath the skin,
a fox paces in the town courtyard,
until, passing a mirror, on the phone,
laughing, you see yourself again
as you are, as you are not.

Here we meet br’er fox again. And “comb” must be one of O’Rourke’s shibboleths, though this one is attached to some “honey.” Still, how can we ever be certain to which half of any given life we truly gain admittance? The half the poet has lived or the half she has imagined?

Perhaps the jacket photo and O’Rourke’s title are meant to warn us that some caution should be exercised as we approach these creations. The light they emit, like the “blue square” from a TV set whose sempiternal signal the poet describes in the book’s title poem (“the cathodes, the cordage, the atoms / working the hem of dusk”), may indeed “go on longer” than any one of us, may even be transformative to some extent. But such exchanges almost always entail contaminations of one sort or another. The lines from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which O’Rourke reproduces in the epigraph to her collection, seem to put us on notice that, despite appearances, what we take to be our “deepest feelings” may, in fact, prove to be no more than “the sudden incursion of unreality into the real world, certain effects of light in the landscape spread out before us.” The poet reminds us that what we are about to read, however energized by her meticulous considerations, is subject to the same inevitable processes of decline and obsolescence that dog the hottest nuclei. Her flashes of brilliance are just as contingent, just as evanescent.  end

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