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About this poet

Born in New York, New York in 1976, Meghan O'Rourke graduated magna cum laude from Yale and received her MFA from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. She began her literary career as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker, where she also worked as a fiction/nonfiction editor from 2000-2002.

O'Rourke's books of poetry include Halflife (W.W. Norton, 2007), which was a finalist for Britain's Forward First Book Prize, and Once (W.W. Norton, 2011).

Poet and New York Times reviewer Joel Brouwer compared the tone of Halflife to Elizabeth Bishop's: "O'Rourke makes room for many fields of memory in these poems, but locks many others away, often by employing a bemused, detached tone reminiscent of the famously reticent Elizabeth Bishop."

Formerly the poetry editor of the Paris Review and the literary editor of Slate Magazine, she is also a widely published critic and has contributed to The New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker. She received the 2005 Union League and Civic Arts Foundation Award from the Poetry Foundation, two Pushcart Prizes, the May Sarton Poetry Prize from the Academy of Arts and Science, and is the recipient of a Radcliffe Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and was recently named a 2014 Guggenheim Fellow. 

My Life as a Subject

Meghan O'Rourke
I.

Because I was born in a kingdom,
there was a king. At times
the king was a despot; at other times,
not. Axes flashed in the road

at night, but if you closed your eyes
sitting on the well-edge
amongst your kinspeople
and sang the ballads
then the silver did not appear
to be broken.  

Such were the circumstances.
They made a liar out of me. 
Did they change my spirit? 
Kith in the night. 
The cry of owls. A bird fight.


II. 

We also had a queen,
whetted by the moon. And
we her subjects,
softening in her sight.


III.

What one had 
the other had to
have too. Soon 
parrots bloomed
in every garden, and 
every daughter
had a tuning fork 
jeweled with emeralds.


IV.

Learning to hunt in the new empire,
the king invited his subjects
to send him their knives.
He tested these knives on oranges,
pomegranates, acorn squash,
soft birches, stillborns, prisoners
who had broken rules. He used
them on the teeth of traitors.


V.

When strangers massed at the border,
the courtiers practiced 
subjection of the foreign. The court 
held a procession 
of twine, rope,
gold, knives, and
prostitutes with their vials of white
powder. Smoke coursed into the courtyard,
and we wrought hunger upon
the bodies of strangers. I am sure you
can imagine
it, really what need 
is there for me to tell you.
You were a stranger once too, and I
brought rope.


VI.

Afterward, I 
slept,
and let the dealers 
come to me alone 
with their jewels and 
their powders.


VII.

At night, we debated
the skin of language,
questioned what might
be revealed inside:
a soft pink fruit,
a woman in a field…
Or a shadow, sticky and loose
as old jam. Our own 
dialect was abstract,
we wished to understand
not how things were
but what spectacle we might 
make from them.


VIII.

One day a merchant came to court 
and brought moving pictures, 
the emperor’s new delight. 
He tacked dark cloth 
to the windows and turned off
the lights, cranking the machine and the film
like a needle and thread,
making stories we could 
insinuate our cold bodies
into and find warmth. Light;
dark. And the sliding images of courtiers
merrily balancing monkeys
on their heads, as if this 
were an adequate story.


IX.

And our queen, that hidden
self. What became
of her? Slid into the night
like a statue, shivered
into shadows. Knowing as a spider
in retreat. The web
her mind, and in it, the fly.


X.

On Sundays, we flew kites 
to ensure our joy
was seen by those who 
threatened
to threaten us. The thread
spooling out high 
in the purple sky
and silver-gelatin films being made,
sliding through the cranking machine
so that the barbarians could know
we made images of ourselves
coated in precious metal
and sent them away
indifferent to our wealth.

I miss the citrus 
smell of spring
on the plaza filled
with young
and long-limbed kite flyers.


XI.

Do I have anything 
to add? Only that
I obeyed my king, my
kind, I was not faithless.
Should I be punished
for that? It is true 
the pictures creaking 
through the spindle
cause me pain. I know 
the powder we coated our fingers
with made us thirsty
and sometimes cruel. But I was born
with a spirit, like you.
I have woken, you see,
and I wish to be made new.

Copyright © 2010 by Meghan O'Rourke. Used by permission of the author.

Copyright © 2010 by Meghan O'Rourke. Used by permission of the author.

Meghan O'Rourke

Meghan O'Rourke

Born in New York in 1976, Meghan O'Rourke's first book of poetry, Halflife, was a finalist for Britain's Forward First Book Prize

by this poet

poem

You can only miss someone when they are present to you.

The Isle of the Dead is both dark and light.

Henry Miller told Anaïs Nin that the only real death is being dead while alive.

The absent will only be absent when they are forgotten.

Until then, absence is a lie, an

poem
My shoes are unpolished, my words smudged.
I come to you undressed (the lord, he whispers
Smut; that man, he whispers such). I bend
My thoughts, I submit, but a bird 
Keeps flying from my mind, it slippers
My feet and sings—barren world, 
I have been a little minx in it, not at all
Domestic, not at all clean,
poem
Grew up on the Jersey Shore in the 1970s.
Always making margaritas in the kitchen,
always laughing and doing their hair up pretty,
sharing lipstick and shoes and new juice diets;
always splitting the bills to the last penny,
stealing each other’s clothes,
loving one another then turning and complaining
as soon