CRACKED OPEN by Megan O’Keefe
Review by Realistic Poetry International
Defining poetry is like nailing jello to a tree. Defining modern poetry is like training an old cat to nail jello to a tree. The slow evolution of poetic styles and genres over past centuries has morphed into a bewildering array of styles in the current era: traditional end-rhymed, free verse, hip hop, concrete, sight, slam, spoken word, prose poems, and performance are kinds of modern poetry, all jostling simultaneously for audience and validation. “Find me a simple love poem!” cries the lover. . . and is hard-pressed to fulfill that basic need.
Enter Megan O’Keeffe and her unpretentious collection, Cracked Open (Realistic Poetry Publications 2018, ISBN: 1986290670). O’Keeffe has no interest in getting caught up in stylistic experimentation or in allying herself with any ‘school’ of poetry; rather, as she says in her Author’s Note, her “poetry is vulnerable, real, and honest,” and she hopes readers will “find comfort, community, and strength to continue on [their] own journey of love.” (iv) Love in all its manifestations is the sole concern of these ninety short poems, a few as short as two lines, a few as long as eighteen. To mirror structurally the stated idea of stages on a ‘journey of love’, O’Keeffe has divided the book into five sections, each of which roughly depicts waystations on a journey:
The Bleeding Heart
Stitching It Up
Hot Blooded Desire
A Strong Pulse
One would not expect sharp, tidy divisions on a physical journey, and one should not expect neat divisions of poems about a subject as volatile as love. The headings in Cracked Open do, however, approximate the nervousness, unsureness, and fear that accompany the early stages of falling in love, through the questioning and joy and absorption of middle ground, culminating in the confidence, consolidation, and assurance of more mature love. There are some sad and angry poems at all three of these broad stages, as O’Keeffe explains in her Author’s note: “not all poems are happy, as not all of love is.” (iv)
The great American poet, Robert Creeley, famously said, “Form is never more than an extension of content,” a provocative statement that exemplifies the quandary faced by all modern poets. Gone are the days when a poet could turn to the sonnet form, or the closed couplet, or the ode, and enjoy a traditional template within which to build her own poem. Now, a poet like Megan O’Keeffe must re-invent form with every poem she writes. She is up to that daunting challenge. Her quest is to be a ‘social’ poet who speaks directly to her readers in simple, clear language that is at once declarative and understandable. Throughout her book, this young poet chooses a prose-like style and tone that is essentially conversational and engaging, BUT. . .she is a poet and doesn’t forget that Form is always significant in poetry. The second poem in her book will illustrate:
A YOU AND AN I
I lean closer.
You pull away.
I want more.
You are stuck in the comfort.
I am shoving
There will never be an us
Because we won’t work.
It will always be
The broken, stacked shape and double spacing beautifully mirrors the separateness that the poet-speaker expresses between herself and her hesitant lover. That ‘mirroring’ of form and content is critically important: without it, O’Keeffe’s prose-style could become simple statements of questionable status as poetry. She is clearly aware of this potential problem, shown frequently throughout the Collection. In one further example: in a short poem called “This is How Relationships End”, the entire ‘message’ could have been written like this: “Loving you feels like a distant memory already—but we’re still together”. To which, a reader might say, “Ah, right. I get it,” but perhaps have wondered what it was she just ‘got.’ Instead, the POET writes:
feels like a
D i s t a n t
But we’re still together.
As suggested above in comment on “A You And An I”, the extra spacing on the core word “D I s t a n t” in this second poem, coupled with the large white space before the last line, reinforce the idea of the poem. A simple device used effectively to ramp up a straightforward statement to the status of Poem.
Cracked Open is the work of a young poet exploring the journey of love. It will appeal primarily to young readers who have loved, been hurt, and are in the process of recovery but are by no means done with love. The ‘stages’ of this eternal process are presented in short poems designed to capture emotions in short span, not unlike a small cameo brooch captures a moment of beauty. Poems like “Slick and Pulsing”, about the human heart; “Love You, Love Me Not”, about pain and self-assertion; “Empty”, about hollowness; “The Night Sky” about profound disappointment; “Our First Night Out”, about optimism; “Forever”, the final poem in Cracked Open, about the warmth and sense of completion that comes from love.
There is no fault to be found in the range of emotions explored in this Collection. Some aspects of execution could be improved. The title, for example, will remind some readers immediately of cracking an egg or perhaps breaking into a safe, and the onomatopoeia of ‘cracked’ is a bit harsh for a book on love. The poet needs to consider the whole issue of titles throughout: too often the titles give away the entire poem, hence reducing—even eliminating—mystery. A title that clearly explains or reveals the poem, can reduce reader incentive to read it. Titles that are neutral or that intrigue or quicken the reader’s curiosity, would be preferred.
Some poems, selected randomly it seems, are illustrated with watercolor sketches. The appropriateness of a few is questionable. The illustration for “A Dagger in My Heart” shows a heart that could be a sketch from a medical textbook with a very large military knife piercing through it, blood dripping from the end. Two other illustrations—one a heart, one a pair of lungs, both complete with valves and arteries, have an anatomical correctness about them that detracts rather than reinforces their poems.
In balance, this is a good debut book of poetry. The poet shows warmth, insight, and understanding of the vicissitudes of love, and conveys her thoughts in a chatty, conversational style that will appeal to young readers. There is no questioning the honesty and sincerity that breathes from the poems, and, as noted at the beginning of this Review, the poet’s consistent attempts to create Form that reflects what she has to say is welcome in the often-bewildering range of styles that characterize modern poetry. Some flaws need the poet’s attention, but that just whets the appetite to see what she’ll do in her next book of poetry. . ..
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