Last week, Meghan O’Rourke, a culture critic for Slate and the author of The Long Goodbye, a memoir about losing her mother to cancer, published her second collection of poems, Once. Her new book considers loss and recovery in both personal and political forms. Brow Beat asked her to pick one of the poems that inspired her new work.
While I was working on many of the poems that became my second book, I thought a great deal about “The Flower,” by George Herbert. At once poignant and piercing, it’s a poem I have long gone to in times of need.
For one thing, it’s beautiful—and beauty (well, old beauty, sanctified by time) is always a balm. For another, its very music—the alternating short and long lines—conveys something of the lived experience of loss and recovery, that ongoing contraction, numbing, and release one feels. This stanza in particular amazes me:
Who would have thought my shrivel’d heart
Could have recover’d greennesse? It was gone
Quite under ground; as flowers depart
To see their mother-root, when they have blown;
Where they together
All the hard weather,
Dead to the world, keep house unknown.
That opening question, which seems so simple, haunts me. Partly it’s the use of “shrivel’d” next to heart—so much better, stranger, than “broken” would have been: It conveys a slow collapse, a thirst, a winter that that has come and might never leave.
In grief, or depression (which it seems Herbert is writing about, at least in part) it is easy to feel that what is forever gone is the freshness of one’s response to the world; in the pause of joy, a leaden feeling comes. So that when we reach the word “greennesse”—which we can see vividly as the new grass of spring, and hear metaphorically as “recovery”—we feel the release that the poem describes.
Likewise, in Once, I wanted to find a simple, unstylish language for the way that grief and sorrow can strip you down, making the world seem a skeletal place inhabited by great forces. There can be a power in sparseness—as this time of year, when the leaves begin to fall away, reminds us.