blackbirdonline journalSpring 2009  Vol. 8  No. 1
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A Reading by Meghan O'Rourke
recorded February 27, 2008

Mary Flinn: It’s with great pleasure this evening that I welcome Meghan O’Rourke, who I met down at Sewanee a couple of summers ago and then two people who I absolutely trust, Ellen Bryant Voigt and David Baker, were telling me what a marvelous poet she was, and then her first book, Halflife, came out in the spring last year from Norton and confirmed what I had heard, certainly. She’s a born and bred Brooklyn New Yorker; she’s just been in Texas for a couple of months, and her day jobs are as the cultural editor with Slate, and she’s also co-editor with Charlie Simic of the poetry for The Paris Review. She’s written essays and reviews that have appeared in publications that I’m sure you would recognize. She did a wonderful review in The New York Times of Claire Messud’s book, The Emperor’s Children. So she’s an excellent essayist as well as a marvelous poet and it’s a treat to be able to hear her read at what is, I guess, the beginning of her poetry career. Welcome Meghan O’Rourke.

Meghan O’Rourke: Thank you Mary. I want to thank Mary and the New Virginia Review and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts for bringing me here. It’s a real pleasure to be here and it’s also really nice. . . . As Mary said, I’ve been out in Marfa, Texas for the past two months, which is a really tiny town—I don’t know if any of you have been there in what they call “far west Texas,” and it is far west—which has about two thousand people living in it and, you know, you have to kind of spend about twenty minutes every morning figuring out which restaurant—if you’re like me and you can’t cook—which restaurant is open, are you going to be able to eat anywhere, or are you just going to have to eat like Hostess cupcakes again for dinner. But I fell in love with it. I had grown up in Brooklyn and I spent a lot of time in small towns in New England as a child and just the kind of strangeness and openness of the landscape and the tininess. But it seemed very daunting to go back to New York after being there for two months. This is a wonderful way-stop and I’m really glad to be here, and I’m thankful to all of you for coming out tonight.

I’m going to read from my book Halflife—which came out i n the spring—for about half the time, and then I think I’m going to try to read some new poems which I’ll talk about a little bit more when I get to them but there’re sort of three different strands of them—three different kinds of poems that I’ve been writing, and I’ll try to read a little bit from each. Halflife, as the title suggests, is a book mostly set in and around a kind of imagined urban center in a place like New England and it moves in and out of the city, so you’ll hear poems that more or less move us out into the suburbs and poems that seem to be in a kind of Fantasia city. And many of the poems concern, in some way or another, ideas of partiality, ideas of the ways in which our experience of the world is not complete, or the ways in which we yearn for it to be complete, as well as just our own struggle to see and understand more. So I’ll start with a poem called “Meditations on a Moth.” It has an epigraph from Vincent Van Gogh, “How splendid yellow is,” and you’ll hear a reference to High and Low, which is a movie by Akira Kurosawa, which, there’s nothing you need to know about it. “Mediations on a Moth.”

[“Meditations on a Moth,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

This poem is called “Sleep” and basically addresses sleep. And it has a reference to Taxi Driver, to Travis Bickle.

[“Sleep,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

A lot of these poems take place at night, which I think was a factor of two things. One, I was trying to write them at night and I worked during the day, so there I was. And the other is that I was going through a period of insomnia. So, during this insomnia, I lived in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn, and there was a gentleman who lived across the street from me who kept his television on all the time and it would sort of become my nightlight in the dark. I could never actually see what was on the television, but you could just see this blue light emanating from it. Which began to seem to me a very kind of rich metaphor for life in the city and something that was always there and always changing and the content of it was maybe slightly inaccessible to you. And that’s where the title poem, in part, came from. “Halflife.”

[“Halflife,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

This next poem, “Descent,” was inspired in part by the French-German poet, Apollinaire, who’s a poet whose work I love very much. In addition to being a wonderful writer, Apollinaire was a fabulous liar and would invent very tall tales about his life, which made him a wonderful dinner companion. And one of his tall tales concerned his origins, which he made out to be far fancier than we think that they really were—involving counts and so on and so forth. So I tried to write a poem that would, in some sense, be a set of lies about my origins that would maybe amount to a kind of truth too. So, “Descent.”

[“Descent,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

So this next poem moves us out into the suburbs a little bit. “War Lullaby.”

[“War Lullaby,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

I’m going to read a few sections of—the book is kind of anchored by two longer series, and I’m going to read from the second series just a bit. The series is called “Two Sisters,” and it takes the form of alternating voices. The first voice is the voice of a living twin and the second voice is the voice of her dead twin. And I’ll just say “the lost sister” when I read the second voice. I’m just going to read a few sections from it. There’s an epigraph also which comes from Wikipedia, which has probably changed by now. So it is: “It has been speculated that the children born in such a pregnancy may have some memories of their vanishing twins.”

[“Two Sisters,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

One of the things that happens when you start to put all of your poems together is you realize your own—I was going to say your own kind of pet images—but also your own lazy habits, which for me was just to put color everywhere. And I really like color so you’ll hear quite a lot of color in the book, in the poems, and I actually had to go through and take a lot of color out if you can believe it. So I was trying to bring the Technicolor down a bit. But you also realize you have an affection for certain words. Like for me, the word was “rise.” All of my verbs seem to involve things rising so then I had to think well, maybe they should fall, or maybe they should drift. And actually, I know some of you are students, I think, of poetry and you may have come across that great Robert Lowell kind of rule of thumb that every time you have a verb you’re not sure about you just replace it with its opposite. But there’s not—I mean fall doesn’t really work for rise. This is one of my color poems. “Hunt.”

[“Hunt,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

 “Thermopylae.” So Thermopylae was the site of a battle where the Spartans—a small band of Spartans—tried to hold off the Persians and all died. And in Herodotus there are some quotations that I’d long loved. And just after I’d finished the poem and finished the book, the movie 300 came out. And to my horror—or my pleasure—the lines were being quoted by this like very brawny CGI guy with total washboard abs and I was like “uh . . . I don’t know if I can read the poem anymore.” So you may recognize one of the lines from it—probably not from Herodotus. “Thermopylae.”

[“Thermopylae,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

So a lot of the poems in this book are about the sense of apprehending something only partially and of feeling some kind of presence to be near to you that you don’t have language for, that you don’t have a framework for. And that happens in different ways. In this poem, “Spectacular,” I was thinking a lot about what it was like to live in a city where so much has been built under it. But in New York you move around and you very much have the sense of a kind of silent city underneath the skyscrapers. And there’s a wonderful biography, so to speak, of New York City a few years ago called “Gotham,” and in that book the authors describe the fact that the earliest streets in New York were built out of the wooden ribs of ships that had come to dock in the harbor and were deemed unfit to go out again so they would break them down, they would lay the ship’s ribs down in the street and then over time that became the street. So this poem, which was about this sense of New York, began with those ribs and then actually, over time, the ribs got kind of written over so they don’t actually exist in the poem except as the originating idea. “Spectacular.”

[“Spectacular,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

This poem is called “Inventing a Horse” and it’s about what you have to do if you live in a city and like horses as a child. “Inventing a Horse.”

[“Inventing a Horse,” Meghan O’Rourke, Halflife, W. W. Norton, 2007.]

So I’m going to read a few newer poems. What can I say about them? They—there few different strands, there’s one strand that’s kind of about mothers and daughters and there’s another strand that’s sort of the strand of Americana—I think sort of my Americana poems. For some reason I’ve been spending a lot of time in the West, not just in Marfa, but other places and wanted to write about what I saw there. And they’re all kind of like slightly extended sonnets, basically, so I’ll read some of those but I’ll start with one or two of the mother poems. “Mothered.”

[“Mothered,” by Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

[“Once,” Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

This poem is called “Preparation” and it has three sections.

[“Preparation,” Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

This poem is called “Ariadne,” and it just refers to the myth of Theseus and Ariadne. The speaker of the poem is Ariadne in some sense, but sort of a modern Ariadne. And she, of course, she was the daughter who gave Theseus the thread and the swords that he could go into the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur, who was her half brother. “Ariadne.”

[“Ariadne,” Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished]

So these are some of the travel poems. The first one’s actually set in Africa. And I’m just going to read a few of them. “On Safari.”

[“On Safari,” Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

It’s always the difficulty of reading new poems, you haven’t really memorized them yet. But usually that shows there’s something you want to change. “Pikes Peak.”  This is set in Colorado and features the “Centipede,” that video game. “Pikes Peak.”

[“Pikes Peak,” by Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

And this one is “Calistoga Mud Baths.” It’s also a place in northern California—very kitschy and kind of 1950s. I don’t know if any of you have ever been there, but that really old signage that you find somewhere in some old towns, and particularly in the West, in kind of California, a lot of those towns’ signage just has not changed at all since about 1955. “Calistoga Mud Baths.”

[“Calistoga Mud Baths,” Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

And I’m just going to read one more poem. It’s another series that I’ve been working on. And it’s ten very, very short, tiny parts and so I’m not going to name the different sections, I’ll just pause for a second because they’re very close together. It’s a kind of allegorical poem; it takes place in an imaginary kingdom. When I was thinking about the poem, I was thinking about when you go to a museum and you’ll see kind of ancient Greek artifacts or ancient Roman artifacts—those old amphoras—the jugs that you’ll see. And sometimes they’re fractured, and you just get little slivers of what would have been a story that would have been told around the amphora. And this poem is supposed to be kind of like one of those fractured amphoras. So there’s this story and these scenes that we’re getting, but there’s a lot that the speaker is leaving out about the experience of her life in this kingdom and we don’t know what’s left out exactly. So I guess that’s one way of thinking about it. It’s called “My Life as a Subject.”

[“My Life as a Subject,” Meghan O’Rourke, unpublished.]

Thank you all so much for coming out tonight.  end

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