Like their creator, the poems in this arresting meditation on loss bring to mind some highly evolved form of modernist design: sleek, elegant, and chilly to the touch. Brooklynite high flier Meghan O’Rourke occasionally skirts the banal and derivative, but most of the poems in Once land on the ear and the mind with startling freshness and force. In April, O’Rourke published The Long Goodbye, a harrowing and acclaimed memoir of her mother’s death from cancer; Once covers much of the same psychic territory, albeit more elliptically. Writing two such personal books in rapid succession—especially in the long shadow of Joan Didion—is not a project for the self-effacing, but O’Rourke, who shares with her generational cohort a conception of the boundary between the private and the public as gauzy at best, transforms the raw material of her suffering into convincing art.
O’Rourke’s transcendence of the generic details of illness and grief is driven by a prosody of above-average originality, one that relies on highly staggered line lengths and tricky, unexpected internal rhymes for its impact. She deftly mixes the abstract language of philosophy with the concrete and absurd; lines such as “our arctic hearts melt at the valor/of their empirical imagination,” and titles such as “Appeal to the Self” and “Resistance to Metaphor” have a droll Stevensian ring. The tripartite structure of the book betrays a subtle narrative arc, from exposition to tragedy to recovery—bookended by two surreal medieval-accented fantasia—while the best poems suggest, consciously or otherwise, something dangerous and overheated and crazy lurking underneath the tightly controlled surface. In the end, O’Rourke comes to realize that “What you lost is what everybody else lost,” and that an ambiguous redemption is still possible: “You can step out of/violence and into/sky.”