Halflife by Meghan O’Rourke. Norton, April 2007. $23.95
One of the finest poems in Meghan O’Rourke’s ambitious first collection Halflife is, oddly enough, about failure. “Anatomy of Failure” charts a series of shifting images, and while the failure remains unnamed, it becomes clear that ultimately the poem anatomizes the failure of perception:
[A]ll the words exchanged
risen past the boundaries
of what had been made
and what wasn’t yet outlined, risen
like a parrot toward the sky
only to find a painted ceiling and a stenciled sun.
What the speaker sees and identifies turns out to be misperceived, ungraspable, and the distance between representation and reality increases to devastating effect. The poem culminates in the speaker’s disappearance:
I live in a museum, curled
up against a body of stone,
spine to block-gray base
as a stranger’s face looked
down upon me,
a bird in someone else’s mind.
The elegance with which the poet transfers her speaker’s position from subject to object, from body to image, belies a distressing instability at play in this and other poems. Though O’Rourke writes for the eye, she trains her reader to look with as much attention as doubt. In “Meditations on a Moth,” she demands “Here—look. No, look.” If the first “look” orients the reader, the second “look” re-orients, enacting a revision (and re-vision) that forces us to work hard for what we see.
Look again, and a reader will find herself some place entirely unexpected. This can frustrate sense and tone, as it does in the Ashbery-esque “Sophomores” in which the first stanza’s effervescence (“I’m a princess with a hole in my heart / —all the plastic deer bend away from me— / and you’ve got a melancholic bent.”) turns clumsy in the murky second stanza (“All it was was a knee up against mine / beneath a stone ceiling, gold and alkaline. / A godly mind stuffy as a false drawer.” ) More often though, O’Rourke surprises beautifully:
You were a child,
you were safe, you were not harmed. But
there are field insides us. They grow.
These lines from “Still Life Amongst Partial Outlines,” the first of Halflife’s two long sequences, exemplify the powerful efficiency with which this young poet can dispense grace, and they indicate that O’Rourke’s vision aims above all to recapture the lost, the overlooked, and the unseen. Occasionally, writing about the imperceptible leads to diffuse language. “Still Life Amongst Partial Outlines,” for example, contains a noticeable excess of “like”-similes and concludes with the heavy-handed abstraction of “light / traveling through the great, cremated distances of autumn,” which seems incongruous within a collection marked by stylistic precision. In fact, the book would gain much in structural precision by reducing its five sections to four, or even three; the third section, indistinguishable in function from the first, seems to exist merely as a respite between the two long sequences.
The far stronger sequence “Two Sisters” creates a dialogue between a woman and her lost sister, victims of a condition in which one twin vanishes in the womb; O’Rourke meaningfully disrupts their evocative exchange. The lost sister addresses, with envy and admiration, the surviving sister, describing her as “a master of childhood,” while the surviving sister, unaware of what (or who) she’s lost, recounts memories of her own disassociation from the world: “I was the finch in the oak tree that never spoke, and had no ambition, not even to sing.” O’Rourke achieves a mesmerizing fluidity in the personas of the two sisters, as if inhabiting a specific character liberated her art from her self. Savvy reader that she has proven herself to be as a critic and editor, O’Rourke the poet no doubt recognizes that an escape from personality, despite Eliot’s protestations to the contrary, can nevertheless turn emotions memorably loose. That “trying to rid myself of myself,” a desire announced early in Halflife, might just lead to self-discovery.