Mary Rose O’Reilley, well loved by teachers of writing for books such as The Peaceable Classroom (1993) and Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice (1998), published her memoir The Love of Impermanent Things simultaneously with her first book of poetry, Half Wild. Together, the books offer a testament to a life spent nonviolently in an often violent world and insight into one of the most gifted voices in American poetry today. Half Wild was the 2005 winner of the Walt Whitman Award, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and given to the winner of an open competition of American poets who have not yet published a book of poems.
Poet Mary Oliver served as judge for the 2005 competition and wrote in her citation that O’Reilley’s is “a style that celebrates life and dignifies sorrow; that includes the drifter; the Japanese print; deer in the woods; herons in the wetland grass; a lost child recovered but, it could be, forever half wild; and especially, for it is a continuing presence in this book, that mystery we call the soul.” Oliver’s praise is well earned; the poems of Half Wild take the reader on a journey to places where the soul resides, to dark corners where violence intrudes, and to bright spaces where there is a glimpse of grace.
Half Wild is a book of doubles: The first poem is called “Twin,” and there are several paired poems such as “The Lost Child” and L’Enfant Sauvage. The narrator of “Twin” is an adult who recalls the experience of being born a twin but a twin whose sibling dies shortly after birth. The poem digs deeply into the shared sense of life, the sharing of one womb, unique to twins. Their common beginning, sometimes in one egg, means that twins not only share the womb, they share the same genetic structure, the same composition of flesh. “You were the part of me,” O’Reilley writes, “that gave itself to death.” In the death of the twin, the narrator also loses a part of herself. In her dreams, she sees her unborn sister’s eyes, “sealed with a membrane/ of unknowing.” From her dreams, she awakens “with an infant’s shriek.” In this poem, then, the promise and violence of birth are also the promise and violence of death.
“Twins” seems also connected to the poem “Ritual,” a poem about “the one who knocked at the window” but who “has flown away.” Taken as a metaphor for birth, and death, the poem speaks of a child just born, who only utters one cry before returning to “the nest of spirits.” Indeed, several poems turn to the subject of the child not born or who does not survive. In “Autobiography,” for example, the narrator speaks of “warm souls,” including “children who pulled back before birth.” Likewise, in “Miscarried,” a present-tense poem, the narrator is reminded of a daughter, now gone, named Rain: “ Sometimes I see her/ in corners/ running/ faster/ than I.”
Many of the poems deal with women: their relationships with men, their relationships with one another, and, most poignantly, their relationships with their mothers and daughters. “Persephone,” for example, offers the point of view of a missing daughter. In the myth of Demeter and Persephone, Hades steals young Persephone from her mother’s side. In her grief, Demeter throws the Earth into coldness and refuses to allow plants to grow. She wins a reprieve for her daughter over death but only on the condition that her daughter has not eaten anything. Persephone, however, has eaten six pomegranate seeds and so is forced to return to darkness and Hades for six months a year.
In O’Reilley’s hands, however, Persephone seems first to be one of the lost babies; “I could still taste her milk/ on my tongue as I entered/ the village of hell.” The sensual connection between mother and daughter here is striking; it is the mother’s milk that has nurtured the child. Further, the story seems more about choice than abduction. Persephone calls her dalliance with Hades a...
(The entire section is 1,570 words.)