Poet's Choice

By Mary Karr
Sunday, August 24, 2008

With a fresh, wry voice, Meghan O'Rourke can make the quotidian sound strange, the same way Joseph Cornell could assemble a magical collage by pasting magazine clippings into out-of-context compositions. In "Descent," the speaker's own birth begins with a metaphoric shock:

I was born a bastard in an amphetamine spree,

lit through with a mother's quickenings,

burrowing into her, afraid she would not have me,

and she would not have me.

I dropped out down below the knees

of a rickrack halterdress . . .

The refrain -- "she would not have me" -- is a repeated fear and a statement of the baby's sense of undesirability. The speaker is, in a word, unbearable. The baby is then "dropped," followed by three prepositions meant to reiterate the considerable fall: "out down below." Relocating the birth in physical and fashion history, she notes the hem of her mother's mod halter dress. The word "rickrack" both describes the trim and enacts sonically the back and forth of the poet's vision. The baby passes "sheeted, tented knees, water breaking, linoleum peeling,/and no one there to see but me." This is the poet's plight -- "no one there to see but me " -- and she's born into both wonder and danger: "I slipped from her grip/in a room where two orange cats stared/like tidy strangers at a world of larger strangeness,/and I had no name. . . ."

One way a girl gets a name is through marriage, if she relinquishes her own name for her husband's. In "Thermopylae" (literally "hot gates"), we see a love affair during a visit to a childhood home. A scene of passion is jump-cut with the famous battle of Thermopylae, the Greeks' failed resistance against invading Persians. The inspiring Spartans probably knew they were doomed, but their sacrifice permitted Athenians to escape. In the poem's lovemaking scene, the speaker is subversively stitched to her lover (his bookshelves suggesting he reads ancient history), as they join the family tapestry.

Bring me to your childhood room, where

the old captains never flinched, and push me to the floor.

The arrows of the Persians flew so thick


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