Department of Wildly Disproportionate Comparisons
Why is this comparison so profoundly, over the top, flat-assed... wrong?
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.
6:20 P.M. :
Okay; let's set aside the fatuousness of comparing Meghan O'Rourke to Joseph Cornell, and look at one of the two poems Mary Karr relies upon to make her little point.
Open your copies of Halflife to page 77:
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
and came so fast they blotted out the sun.
All the better, the captains said; we will fight in the shade.
A far cry from the aunt's needlepoint by the door--
Bless this home and all who visit.
Downstairs the family sleeps like a tapestry;
the soldiers stood until noon, when the clouds parted
and sun drenched the battlefield.
Tiger shadows stripe or twisted legs, and even the books
seemed to pull from the sight
of my being stitiched to your sleeping limbs,
as if beyond the arrows of leaves
they spot a sun unhorsed from its chariot,
head to your breakable head, the shapes
across the pass at first indistinct,
then stiffened into bodies, limbs, thumbs.
One hand running over the bruised ridges of the wound,
the other tugging at the stiff black thread.
I summarize the poem as follows: the boyfriend brings the girlfriend (who is the speaker of the poem) home for the weekend to meet the parents and while there, he pulls her into his bedroom on Sunday morning for sex before Ol' Dad and Mumsy are awake. While in the act and (apparently) afterwards, the speaker of the poem thinks--at considerable length--about the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans and assorted hangers-on delayed the Persian armies of Xerxes I and thereby saved Greece (and perhaps, all of what was to be Western civilization) from extinction. *
Do you believe that scenario? I don't. Yes, I've read Herodotus and I've read Michael Ondaatje. I also remember sneaking various girlfriends into my teenaged bedroom--a few of them quite poetic--and I don't recall anyone comparing the experience to the Battle of Thermopylae. Or, for that matter, to the Second Battle of Bull Run. Had the speaker looked at the bedroom ceiling and thought about the boyfriend's model airplane collection, or worried that, were they caught, the boyfriend's trust fund payout might have been adversely affected, I would believe this poem, but how, in any sense, is sneaking sex on the floor of the boyfriend's room while the parental units snooze downstairs metaphorically akin to a legendary, ancient battle to save Western civilization?
The metaphor--and by extension, the poem, since the metaphor is the poem (other than the fact of sex and its location, there is little else here** ), is a V-8 engine strapped with bunji cords across an orange crate experience. The central conceit is beyond grandiose, it is entirely out of scale.
No, I don't think O'Rourke is making "the quotidian sound strange" in this poem (at least, not in any sense I find admirable). I think she is way over her head in this poem and--too often--elsewhere in Halflife. I am not saying that Meghan O'Rourke is untalented; she is a poet to watch and to read. But I am willing to bet that twenty first collections were published in America last year that were better than Halflife, and surely some of them deserve a bit of the critical attention and praise that have instead been lavished on Meghan O'Rourke.
*I choose not to speculate on the "bruised ridges of the wound" or the "stiff black thread."
**On second thought, do we need more in a 20-line poem about a Sunday morning romp than Muffy, the Biffer, Herodotus, the entire Persian Army and 300 Spartans?