July 15, 2008

Review by Greg Weiss (email)
Halflife by Meghan O'Rourke
HALFLIFE
by Meghan O’Rourke

W.W. Norton
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10110
ISBN: 978-0-393-06475-9
87 pp., $23.95
www.wwnorton.com

When you Google-search “Meghan O’Rourke,” the first result is the transcript of a 2006 interview with David Baker, the poetry editor of The Kenyon Review. The interview was occasioned by the publication of five of O’Rourke’s poems in the Fall 2006 issue, and Baker’s questions range from accommodating to gushing. He never quite plumbs the depths of obsequiousness that housed courtside reporter Ahmad Rashad’s postgame questions to Michael Jordan—questions like, “Mike, that was an amazing game you just played”—but he’s no Tim Russert, either. The second Google result is a May 2007 article from Gawker.com, the media gossip blog, entitled “Why People Hate Meghan O’Rourke.”

O’Rourke, who serves as the culture editor of Slate and poetry editor (along with Charles Simic) of The Paris Review, evokes strong opinions. In relation to her poetry, these opinions are almost universally positive–Halflife, her debut book, is graced with blurbs by John Ashbery, Billy Collins, J.D. McClatchy, and Mary Karr, who compares O’Rourke favorably to Elizabeth Bishop. In April 2007, the New York Times Sunday Book Review treated Halflife to what could only be described as a rave. People hate Meghan O’Rourke because she accomplished—or was given, depending on your point of view–all of this by the age of thirty, ostensibly because she is connected, Machiavellian, and pretty.

I preface my remarks with this information because it is difficult to write a review under such polarized conditions that does not amount to joining either the bandwagon or the backlash. So let me be upfront: Before reading Halflife for the purpose of reviewing it, I knew nothing about Meghan O’Rourke beyond having read a few of her poems in the New Yorker. I liked them. In regards to her It Girl status—both the positive and negative sides of it—my immediate reaction is that I’m jealous (which doesn’t distinguish O’Rourke from millions of other people), and that she’s getting a raw deal.

The poems in Halflife are short, spare, and elliptical. O’Rourke’s most obvious influence is Ashbery, but she also, in the Kenyon Review interview, lists Plath, William Carlos Williams, Apollinaire, Wallace Stevens, and Louise Gluck. She specifically mentions Williams in relation to her poem, “War Lullaby”:

Wet daggers of grass
cast shadows over one another
beneath the porch light—

the boy stretched on the lawn,
fighting sleep,
fingers the tournament ring:

inside the house,
his mother shouts, blinds
slap in the breeze,

and upstairs the smallest stir
as they sleep, eyelashes like
tiny whips against their cheeks.

The dogs bark, a door slams,
the boys breathe deep,
then shudder—

I have seen them
sleepwalk
out of the arms of mothers.

In a period in which war poems seem to multiply themselves and tend increasingly towards polemic, the understatement of “War Lullaby” makes me shiver. O’Rourke employs a similar, Isherwood-esque detachment in “Still Life Amongst Partial Outlines,” a nine-poem series that takes a newspaper article about an unrelated rape-victim named Meghan O’Rourke as an entre into a consideration of sexuality and violence. The directness and simplicity that O’Rourke is able to put to such striking use in her treatment of weighty subject matter is underlined by her excursions into the language of children’s books. Dr. Seuss is invoked a number of times, and “Pilgrim’s Progress” appears to be an adaptation of Goodnight Moon. This uber-simplicity has the effect of weirdly darkening the tone of O’Rourke’s weightier poems, but can at times shade her more personal poems from whimsy to triteness. “Pilgrim’s Progress” falls prey to this brand of sentimentality, as does “Inventing A Horse,” which begins:

Inventing a horse is not easy.
One must not only think of the horse.
One must dig fence posts around him.
One must include a place where horses like to live…

More than most books, the successful and unsuccessful poems in Halflife seem to fit into two distinct categories. The more successful pieces depend on spare and surprising insights into dramatic events in which O’Rourke is not directly involved, while the less successful filter O’Rourke’s personal life or history through Ashbery-ian obscurity, but to little illuminating effect. In the Kenyon Review interview, O’Rourke makes reference to T.S. Eliot’s conception of poetry as an escape from personality. This attitude serves her well when treating subjects which most poets overwhelm with their personality, such as the perpetual voyeurism of modern America, the childhood death of a cousin in a fire, or a stillborn baby. When O’Rourke examines more mundane themes, however, such as a feeling of childhood contentment in “The Further Sea,” the abdication of poetic personality flattens the poem:

The rain slipping into the distance, a strange fact.
Our house was built in a valley where the storms
shook it. As if God were thinking of me.

That Mary Karr compared Meghan O’Rourke favorably to Elizabeth Bishop—which is preposterous, both because Bishop and O’Rourke’s poems are not similar and because O’Rourke has only published a single book—is not O’Rourke’s fault. This should be obvious to the point of banality, but unfortunately does not seem to be. (A friend of mine recently published a book of poems, and one of the blurbs referred to him as the “voice of his generation.” As he explained to me a bit testily when I kidded him about it, “It’s called hyperbole.”) The poems in Halflife that eye people, places, things, and events don’t blink. O’Rourke references feeling via intellect, and vice versa, with a seemingly effortless precision. The more personal poems in Halflife, however, suffer from just the opposite, a labored imprecision—it is fine for O’Rourke to conceive of poetry as an escape from personality, but not if she is writing poems that depend on an immediate human connection between her and the reader. Nevertheless, O’Rourke possesses a distinctive talent which should only cohere more completely with time, and Halflife is a generally impressive and sometimes stunning debut collection.

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Greg Weiss is an MA student in poetry at the University of Southern Mississippi. Before returning to school, he worked as an assistant teacher, nanny, barista, pizza delivery guy, door-to-door solicitor, ESL teacher, and flight attendant. He is the proud owner of a very handsome cat, El Bob “Precious” Dylan.

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