ONCE by Meghan O’Rourke

Review by Kathleen KirkOnce by Meghan O'Rourke

by Meghan O’Rourke

W. W. Norton
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10100
ISBN 978-0-393-08062-9
2011, 96 pp., $24.95

Once is a lovely book of poems revealing the ephemeral nature of life in all its transparency, as suggested by the tissue thin green scarf on its cover: even the hem stitching shows. I’ve not read The Long Goodbye, O’Rourke’s memoir about the loss of her mother to cancer, but this book makes me want to read that one. The poems about the mother are moving, tender, and real. There’s nothing sentimental about early death, cancer, or chemo, so the poems achieve their poignancy by way of honesty, nothing less.

I happen to be reading and re-reading the poems here at Christmastime, when the poet’s mother died, so these poems cut me as ice or tinsel can. “Elegy: Hill Without Scar” takes place on Christmas Day and begins:

That winter day was the last you remembered.
The shutters of the house were open.
The snow lay on the ground like cold and cracking embers.
Inside a fire, an evergreen, a slender iris by the bed.

Somehow outside and inside, fire and ice, are the same, sharing even their cracking sounds. The poem accumulates and repeats its images so they become iconic, almost “tokens” of what they were, once. The poem ends:

The dead are the first to be embers.
They do not remember the thawing ice, or wine and spice.
You sleep like an ember, a token, a door.

Here, and in many of these poems, I hear a subtle, steady use of internal rhyme, as if the speaker of the poems has taken her mother, her memories, and her former impressions of the world to a place inside herself, where they rest or wait to be examined…or left alone, if need be. Sometimes that place is, or is like, the mythological underworld, where the mother now lives, deep underground. I’ll leave you to find those references and the crucial image of a red-veined leaf that I found very moving.

Reinforcing the use of internal rhyme to take in and protect memory and feeling is the use of point of view. Sometimes I forget whether the “you” in a poem is the mother being directly addressed or the poet talking to herself. This happens with the pronoun “she” in the poem “Still,” also set at Christmas, in which a hovering voice enters the perspective of both, so readers can be or see “her mother” or “her daughter” interchangeably, and lose track, collapsing their separate identities.

The intimate tone of so many of these poems is balanced by an outward-looking retelling of a kind of fantasy history, especially in section two, which contains the longer poems “My Life as a Subject” and “My Life as a Ruler.” “Because I was born in a kingdom,” begins the former, “there was a king.” Maybe she was born in a kingdom, but I take this as a metaphorical kingdom, created by words, a timeless dreamlike kingdom; in it is the invention of “moving pictures, / the emperor’s new delight,” so history and fairy tale somehow mix to create a fantasized growing up in a land of abundance. Also mixed in is regret, as if for American excess, and acceptance:

Do I have anthing
to add? Only that
I obeyed my king, my
kind, I was not faithless.
Should I be punished
for that? It is true
the pictures creaking
through the spindle
cause me pain. I know
the powdered drugs
we coated our fingers
with made us thirsty
and sometimes cruel.

But I was born
with a spirit, like you.
I have woken, you see,
and I wish to be
made new.

By the time she is a ruler, the world is broken:

The world, when I met it,
lay about in broken pieces—
a neglected toy.

All I did was pick up the pieces.
I caused them to be put together
like the parts of a chair.

The twin towers come to mind, but this can’t just be the United States. This is a world history. It mentions Ninevah and the Nile. There is a Cleopatra-like passion in it. “Of course I hate my power,” says this very powerful ruler, though powerless against “the night, / which keeps coming, though / I command it not to.” This ruler, at the limits of power, is both compassionate—

I thought the world’s trouble
lay in its shards. So I resolved to hold
the shards to my heart.

—and “nearly frozen up with cruelty” (a pretty amazing paradox).

I read in an interview that O’Rourke read Hamlet over and over during her initial grief, as Hamlet, too, was grieving a parent, and, as I am now engaged in reading Hamlet aloud to my own daughter, I was particularly enchanted by the poem “Ophelia to the Court,” sort of what Ophelia would say, if not such a “good girl,” obedient to father and king, if not driven to madness and suicide in her grief. “All / I wanted (if I may speak for myself),” says Ophelia, thanks to O’Rourke (a wonderful irony), “was: more.”

If only one of you had said, I hold
your craven breaking soul, I see the pieces,
I feel them in my hands, idle silver, idle gold.

Oh, this is marvelous!—to let Ophelia say she wanted to be seen, to be valued! Even if broken. And then this persona poem breaks free of plot!

You see I cannot speak without telling what I am.
I disobey the death you gave me, love.
If you must be, then be not with me.

I plan to pull my own daughter aside this Christmas, when Hamlet in Honors English is done, the final exam taken, and read her this O’Rourke poem. “What do you think of that?” I’ll ask her. And let her think it over, and talk to her, if she’ll have it. Next year I’ll be 55, the age O’Rourke’s mother was when she died. I want all the time I can have with my daughter.

Poetry does matter. It helps us live our lives.


Kathleen Kirk reviews poetry for Prick of the Spindle and chapbooks for Fiddler Crab Review. As a former editor of RHINO, one of her favorite duties was reviewing contributors’ books in the RHINO Reads section of the journal. She also reviews informally in her own blog, Wait! I Have a Blog?! which she created accidentally. Her own poems appear in a number of print and online journals, including Confrontation, Sweet, Leveler, and Greensboro Review, and she serves as poetry editor for Escape Into Life.

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