Meghan O’Rourke, a poet and essayist, is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Sun In Days. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes, she teaches in the writing programs at NYU and Princeton. Her poem “Mistaken Self-Portrait as Mother of an Unmade Daughter” can be found here. It appears with other poems in the July/Aug 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Mistaken Self-Portrait as Mother of an Unmade Daughter”?
I knew I wanted to write a series of poems exploring a big question—the question of what it is to be a person, with an individual consciousness—from the perspective of wanting a child. It’s a very strange thing to bring a being into the world that has no choice in the matter. The longing for a child is rooted in so many discrete physical cravings—for the soft chubby hands of a baby on yours, for the nestling of small, warm, downy head, or for giggling high voices in the other room—but it’s a big existential longing, too. I was interested in writing about what to me are the major, metaphysical, raw questions involved in having children and being pregnant in particular—questions that I think are sometimes minimized in a culture that sentimentalizes child-bearing as a state where you wear white clothes and drink herbal tea and feel dreamy all the time. Questions like is existence a good in itself? Is there such a thing as a soul? Is it fair to bring a being into the world who doesn’t have a say?
I wanted to write a poem using abstract language that would push very hard at these questions, stripped in places of ornament, while at other times turning to metaphor as the only way to get, finally, at the experience of self-awareness. It’s so strange, right? To be able to project into the future, to understand you are a “you” that will end? How odd to give this complex gift to another being.
Finally, I also wanted to give shape to the unborn child—to make her as real to the reader as she was to the speaker. Of course this realness is a kind of mistake—but it’s a kind of truth, too.
The title of your poem “Mistaken Self-Portrait as Mother of an Unmade Daughter” begs the question: where does the mistake of this self-portrait lie? Do you see it as stemming in the creation of a portrait in a role which the persona does not occupy or is it intended more in the false perceiving of an image already felt or created? Can you discuss the mistake you refer to in the title of this poem?
I think there are several mistakes: there’s a literal mistake of thinking you are pregnant or of thinking you are going to have a child before miscarrying, for example. The potential mistake of feeling yourself to be a mother when you are not yet one, or not in a way the world recognizes. It often seemed to me before I was a parent that I already was a mother, in a sense, or that I had a mother self that had no outlet (in the form of a child) but was nonetheless real. Then, too, ways we talk about infertility are negative and often unsympathetic—and simplistic—and I wanted to get at those assumptions, too. I wanted to capture the mistakes in the speaker’s own longing, but also to make the reader think about his or her mistakes.
And there’s also the big mistake we all make of always seeing ourselves only partially. The word “mistake” here is kind of strange—it’s made to do the work of reminding us that all our ideas about ourselves are distorted. This poem appears in my new book, Sun in Days, in which there’s actually a series of these “Mistaken Self-Portraits”—I was thinking about the fact that we hardly know ourselves.
Your poem uses both stanza breaks and asterisks between sections. What do you hope these divisions do to the flow of the poem? Are they there to mark transitions between time, space, or subject?
The poem is a kind of essay as well as a poem. The sections mark a transition between eddies of thought—they are more significant pauses than the other ones.
This piece seems to start by introducing the body, and existence as a whole, as something which is not only unchosen by its possessor but is in fact thrust upon them by parents and perhaps God as well. However, at the poem’s end, the body becomes “borderless and drained” and is transformed into “a scrim / for the light to come through” and appears no longer to be so clearly nor aggressively divided apart from the rest of the world. What does this ebb of separation do to the relationship between the bodies of mother and daughter? And to the relationship between the self and the world?
As I mentioned above, I was interested in a speaker who is thinking about the nature of consciousness in light of wanting a child. I think that unless you believe in God, it’s really complicated to have children. My new book—and this poem—is trying to really contend with what it means to be a biological self, with the idea that we are kind of random collection of cells that didn’t choose to be alive. If you don’t believe in God, how do you make meaning of being, of that self-awareness? In this poem, there is a submitting to the sense of being interconnected, a kind of being colonized by the elements and by one’s own genes rather than being an atomized self—and in the poem’s end it’s not necessarily a terrible thing. The “scrim” seemed like an image that could work as a vehicle for that accommodation. There is something OK or beautiful about letting the world and your own genes move through and around you and finally use you up.
The sun first rises in your poem as a yellow button but is later called “no ornament” and is instead portrayed as something massive, rushing, and transformative to the human body rather than merely an accessory worn by it. Where and how does this shift in the persona’s perception of the sun occur? Is it possible that the sun is both something worn by the body and something which can consume and alter it?
In reflecting on this longing to create consciousness, the speaker has to contend with the fact that her longing is not about these small, sweet ornamental moments of life, but also the nature of existence—terrifying and huge but I guess also majestic or at least vivid.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
Each book has its own process. Overall I think it’s become more efficient. I am a very inefficient and messy writer in general, and then over time I search for shapes and more shapes and try to let the structures come through. I’ve grown more intentional in the first drafting. But I work to let surprise in, to push myself away from my own habits of mind. Each book’s project is different. With Halflife, I knew I was exploring being young in the city, sex, romantic longing, the anxiety of a place that’s just lived through a terrorist attack. With Sun In Days, I felt like I could write a book about nearing midlife and about a sense of choices and possibilities closing down, the body going awry, other kinds of mistakes that one starts to see more lucidly as one gets older—and that I could push the forms and kind of poems here into a kind of artificial flatness at times that was, for me, mimetic of the themes of loss.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Right now, it would have to be the illness I experienced and my ongoing health problems. They have altered the way I think about being embodied, about identity, about existence, about being a biological creature—that sounds horribly big and abstract! But the issues were local and tangible for me: I was really ill for a prolonged period in a way that messed up my brain. (My nervous system had been invaded by the bacteria that cause Lyme Disease). I couldn’t remember the names of people I knew well. I was weak and confused and felt like I was walking through blackstrap molasses all the time.
And that really deeply affected my sense of what it was to be a person. The bacchanal of life was continuing around me; I’d once been an insomniac avid for it, but now I was so exhausted I barely wanted to join in. I got kind of obsessed with thinking about things like consciousness and identity: is it a certain pattern of neurons firing? Or is there such a thing as a soul, even in a non-religious way—some ineffable “me”? It felt weird to have lived for so long and to have so unformed a grasp of the issue.
I also recently had a baby and that has changed everything too. I don’t find being a mother a sentimental experience at all, but a joyfully devastating one. We have very little language for its realities.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
Tough to say. I feel almost all advice can be good or bad depending on your circumstances! One of the best, though, is really obvious: when I was in my twenties, and writing still seemed an exotic and challenging legislation of your own internal worth, a famous novelist told me, “You just have to put your butt in your chair for a lot of hours.” That seems kind of right. It’s not about reaching deep within to some neglected beautiful part of yourself, but about sitting in the chair. Losing real muscles while gaining mental ones.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m working on a memoir/work-of-cultural criticism about mysterious chronic illnesses that are poorly understood. The book looks at the kinds of stories we tell ourselves as a culture and as individuals about being unwell when we don’t understand what’s wrong—that the person who’s sick is “crazy” or “depressed” or a hypochondriac. I try to create an emotional and intellectual architecture for the challenging experience of having a disease doctors (and sometimes friends and family) don’t recognize or understand. And a lot of it is about women—why are women told they’re hysterical or imagining it or depressed when they have real physiological issues? That’s what’s really crazy.