The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

She That Bore Thee

Meghan O’Rourke
The Long Goodbye: A Memoir
(Riverhead Books, 2011)

The memoir has become as ubiquitous as the vampire in current publishers’ lists, with the inevitable result that many of these prose lives lack a full-blooded, broadly human viewpoint to raise them above anemic particularity. Nevertheless, a number of noteworthy contributions to the canon have emerged into the light: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Townie by Andre Dubus III, and A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates come to mind. Joining this charmed circle is The Long Goodbye: A Memoir, by Brooklyn-native and prize-winning poet Meghan O’Rourke, who chronicles the death of her beloved mother.

“If the condition of grief is nearly universal,” the author writes, “its transactions are exquisitely personal.” Part I of The Long Goodbye focuses on the exquisitely personal: The family’s two-year ordeal coping with the matriarch’s long illness and inevitable end. The trauma of that ordeal is externalized on Thanksgiving Day, when, during an emotional confrontation with her addled mother, the memoirist digs her fingernails into her own arm, “so deeply they tore the skin open.” Later, in the depths of her grief, she reopens the wound by dragging “an ivory-handled dinner knife . . . along the healing scar.”

In Parts II and III O’Rourke expands her context through a wide-ranging allusiveness. We can easily visualize her “sitting here among my precarious stacks of books, trying to get a ‘handle’ on what this loss means.” She mines troves of literary texts and bereavement studies in search of understanding and anodyne. She quotes from Dickinson, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud, and Lincoln, as well as Buddhist and clinical writings. O’Rourke rejects Kübler-Ross’s neatly packaged stages of grief, and decries the loss of communal conventions that help the bereaved cope. (Confronted with her mother’s fresh corpse, she wonders, “What do we do now?”) In her contemplation of death, she evokes DeLillo, Larkin, C. S. Lewis, Plato, Rousseau, Tolstoy—the list goes on. In the end, she can’t find resolution in books: “I need to feel it,” she says.

The Long Goodbye borrows its title (via Raymond Chandler) from two sources: Patti Davis’s memoir of her father’s slow, inexorable decline from Alzheimer’s, and a popular love song by Ronan Keating, whose mother died of cancer at the age of 54; O’Rourke’s died only a year older. Keating frames his lyric in the language of romantic love, and the author often adopts the same idiom. Looking at her fading mother, she thinks, “Like a fool, I fell in love with you.” She speaks of being “lovesick” and tells us that despite her sporadic sexual encounters, “my primary romance was with my mother.”

The mystical nature of the mother-child bond—which appears earlier in the Halflife poem, “Epitaph for Mother and Child”—plays out here as a major motif. At times mother and daughter seem one and the same, the roles interchangeable and fluid. When the daughter consoles her anxious mother, we read, “It was as if she were playing my role and I was playing hers” and another time, “I felt for a moment that I was my mother.” Her existential crisis begins to resolve itself as she assumes a new maternal persona who cares for her brothers and father, and presides over holiday rituals, a transformative development in accord with recent bereavement theory that regards the modification of self-concept as essential to recovery from loss.

As one might expect from O’Rourke, a poetic sensibility pervades the writing. Scattered throughout, we find such gemlike similes as: “She crosses my mind like a spring cardinal that flies past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone,” and, “Our longings are like thick curtains stirring in the wind.” Other images jolt: quoting “Endymion” before scattering her mother’s ashes, she juxtaposes “a thing of beauty is a joy for ever” with “the body that I had loved lay in a sandwich bag.” Here is her slant on the Orpheus myth: it’s “about the ways the dead drag us along into their shadowy realm because we cannot let them go. So we follow them into the Underworld, descending, until, one day, we turn, and return.” With the plodding rhythm enforced by those commas, we hear the voice of the poet and feel both the weight of her burden and the huge effort it took to rejoin the living.

The Long Goodbye is part-catharsis, part-monument. Does prolonged focus on the writer’s pain and despair run the danger of indulgence? Maybe. Could Parts II and III have been condensed without loss of power? Probably. But certainly this is a memoir of distinction, raised above the heap by its method of universalizing a personal ordeal through historical and cultural perspectives. The language itself raises it above the crowd. Just listen to the dazzling periodic sentence that ends the book with Biblical echoes and Joycean cadence:

In the beginning was the wind, the wind made by breath, the word of the wind, and in our hearts we kept telling the story over and over of how we loved her and were there, there, there, once we were all there, and she took a breath like a gasp and her eyes opened and she took us in all of us there and then she breathed once more, the last breath, and we were there and she was not, and even now I think, Come on, Mom, stay another night, stay the night—

Stay the night.

If a passage like this does not immortalize its subject, at the very least it does honor to the mother, and her daughter.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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