Meghan O’Rourke’s new poetry collection, Once, depicts grief’s landscape—the devastation, numbness, and moments of clarity. The intensity and open layout of poetry meshes with the episodic nature of coping with loss, and her direct tone is similar to the down-to-earth poems of the eighth-century Tang Dynasty, although she incorporates more personal introspection and edgier images.
O’Rourke employs a spare style, distilling experiences to short lines that capture a disjointed reality. Snow is an image to which she returns often, evoking the stillness of contemplating death. Her lines linger after reading them: “Inside a fire, an evergreen, a slender iris by the bed”; “shade to shade I bent / leaning down into your ground—”; “Once you were an explorer, now you are Elizabeth Barrett, / only stupider and more prone to TV-watching.”
Several longer poems with multiple sections are especially successful. In “My Life as a Subject,” O’Rourke describes a feudal world where the speaker struggles with the arbitrary decisions of the king, a land filled with courtiers, monkeys, and barbarians. In “My Life as a Ruler,” she regains control by using a knife to cut and reshape her surreal world into something she can survive. The use of the multiple-part poem is reminiscent of Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” and Denise Levertov’s “Olga Poems,” although O’Rourke is more terse than either of these precursors.
The poet’s subtle wit helps lighten the grimness of the situation. Although it’s probably happenstance that “Sex, Again” is printed on page 69, O’Rourke probably deliberately used tercets in “Theory vs. Practice,” which speaks of engaging in a triad of another kind to escape the cold, numb present:
Our ménage à trois by candlelight—;
the various absurdities: black lace,
pink mules, a little-bo-peep teddy.
Indeed, O’Rourke takes care with each poem’s structure. For example, “Hart” is constructed of two and three-foot phrases with mostly one-syllable words. The cadence slows the voice and the effect is moving, as she describes making eye contact with a deer in the woods:
The light of the heart is blue. It is a blue chamber,
it never ends, a summer night
stretched into dawn through which a deer bounds,
ghostly, calm, turning to regard you
Most of O’Rourke’s poems lyrically express the lethargy, doubts, and regret common to grief. They are honest and unadorned, which is refreshing among grief narratives. A few strike-throughs in the text indicate her frustration with trying to push through grief’s cotton and find the right word to express what she is feeling.
Sometimes a few more details would help the reader understand what is going on and feel the full weight of her images. For instance, I thought “Hart” was a touching poem about her dying mother saying goodbye, but at the end of the book a note explains the poem is for “J.S.” Checking the memoir that O’Rourke wrote at the same time, The Long Goodbye (Riverhead 2011), it’s revealed that J.S. was her husband before they divorced during the stress of the dying and grief.
While O’Rourke’s well-crafted poems capture the quiet and even beautiful moments of grief, I wanted a few poems where raw emotions were thrown against the wall—some of the rage for an unjust death that runs through Kathleen Bonanno’s Slamming Open the Door or Yeats screaming for his daughter. O’Rourke seems intent on stepping to the side and observing rather than expressing her grief. Still, this is a solid, image-rich book that deals with something intensely personal yet universally experienced. It joins other contemporary entries like Sandra Gilbert’s Aftermath, Donald Hall’s Without, and Anne Carson’s Nox, in exploring the landscape of loss.