O’Keeffe Confronts the Darkness of the Inner Self
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Published in June, 2019, Megan O’Keeffe’s poetry collection is an invitation to its readers to recognize that they are not alone when they are bombarded with thoughts of depression, jealousy or even death. O’Keeffe’s Where I Ache wants to shed a light, to say that these moments occur within all humans. O’Keeffe works hard to remove the stigma of being an imperfect human, but her language at times leans into the realm of the melodramatic. To her credit, she never goes completely overboard.
The sketches in the collection, created by artist Kevin Furey, make the reading experience seem like a stolen moment. The endearingly rough edges applied to the drawings of helmets hung on rifles and winding snakes trick the reader into thinking they have picked up someone’s journal. It adds a welcome does of authenticity to a highly filtered world.
As is the case with Christine E. Ray’s Composition of a Woman, the work isn’t broken up into no name movements but rather into body parts. The difference between these two poetry collections is that O’Keeffe’s body seems wracked with ailments. The head is foggy, the knees grieving and the spine weak. The only body part that apparently has not been afflicted is the arms. That movement’s title, My Soothing Arms, is a massive, blinking, glowing hint as to how the message of the poetry shall change towards the end of the work.
The hideousness of romantic jealousy which reels towards obsession is the subject of the movement My Greedy Green Eyes and is studied with such an intensity that it may be unnerving to some readers. It is the most perturbing section of the entire collection because there is such a horror hiding behind every letter of each stanza. The speaker continually writes about their lover’s previous partner and seemingly causes immense hardships in the current relationship because of an emotion akin to rage that comes close to igniting at the mere mention of the former flame’s name.
Right from the start of the movement, the speaker admits, “I’m obsessed with you / even though I shouldn’t be.” Alright, fair enough – it’s no surprise that people do tend to want to learn about past partners in order to ascertain knowledge about their current beau, but then the poems quickly become more, how to put it, uncomfortable. The speaker continues, “I want to know everything / you’ve ever said and did. / I want to be you singing along with him / like you’re the only two at that concert”. There’s a sense that the speaker doesn’t merely want to learn about this individual but become them and by doing so, erase them from the mind of the speaker’s lover. As readers work their way through the movement, they will find themselves becoming wary of the speaker and anxious as to what action the speaker will take next.
Readers may need to take a break from the poetry every once in awhile. It is a bit too overburdened with heavy thoughts and aching verses to read straight through. But as one can guess from looking at the table of contents, the movement My Soothing Arms injects the work with some positive strength. Here, the speaker begins to have some vertebrae inserted into her back bone. A new, and welcome, power arrives on the scene with “I Am Desert:
Soft petals wilt in the hot hell only few can survive.
I have been shaped by Mother Earth,
you can’t begin to imagine what I can endure.
The final poem of the text, “I Am Here,” is a strong stand alone piece that also counteracts many of the listless poems that precede it. Strong verbs like “fought” and “carve” replace the sentimentality of a dropping, neglected flower that taints the speaker’s voice throughout the other movements.
While O’Keeffe’s mission is noble, the poems’ trajectory in this collection is expected. It would be interesting to see a poet play with structure when writing a collection that is meant to be inspiring. Show us a strong speaker meeting an obstacle and then falling into disarray. Playing with the structure of inspirational poetry creates an atmosphere that allows readers to feel surprise again. Will the speaker find solace? Can they get out of this abyss?
As lovely as a collection can be when it tries to display that a person can rise from the sludge of despair, creatively, that format has become a bit uniform. While the focus on romantic jealousy does make Where I Ache stand out a bit from the pack, this collection could, unfortunately, be easily confused with the army of inspirational poetry books that have been amassing over the years.
Megan O’Keeffe is a good writer and her ability to create such an unease while studying relationships is highly commendable. She brought an emotion to light that is sometimes ignored or simply pasted as a fault of someone else. She does not do that. Her speaker oozes this negativity and she lets it creep along the page. Her skill at creating an unseen dread is fascinating, and it will be even more fascinating to see how she hones that skill in the future.
You can purchase Where I Ache online or order it from your local bookstore. Get your own copy and join in on the conversation in the comments.
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