"If God makes me greater than the battlefield / I must rise to the occasion" from "Jason on the Pillow"
Jamie O'Hara Laurens' first collection of poetry, Medaeum
Isaac Myers III
October 1st, 2017
When you finish reading Jamie O'Hara Laurens' “Medaeum”, you'll feel as though you’ve been walking through the thickets, you'll think about the sound of the earth moving, and you'll want to close your eyes, and rest within O'Hara Laurens' quiet and whispering lines, which cover her poems from above, like a comforter, but also remain buried within them, like bed sheets, tucked neatly between the comforter and the mattress.
During a reading at Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry shop in August, O'Hara Laurens described the premise of the collection as an attempt to capture what's moving through Medea's mind as she considers whether to murder her children, or to continue on with motherhood, as planned. Except in this instance ––– as Medea is living within the present day, and wrestling with many of the same questions that we wrestle with ––– her children have not been born yet, but instead, she’s pregnant, and contemplating whether to continue with the pregnancy, or to have an abortion.
O'Hara Luarens reveals the modernity of the work n the very first line of the collection’s first poem, “Medea Raises the White Flag,” which begins with a thud, which echoes the sound of a book being slammed upon a surface: “The Proper Guide to Household Life / has fallen open on the counter.”
If you were wondering, The Proper Guide to Household Life refers to the French householder’s rulebook, Guide de a Vie Practique, which O’Hara Laurens came across at a flea market. “The Guide”, as she describes it, “details all of the particulars of womanly household duties practically down to the weight of the ladies. Like many such ‘helpful’ texts, it is steeped in patriarchal assumptions and bestows misogynistic pressures.” In an interview with Women’s Quarterly Conversation this past May, O’Hara Laurens spoke about what her modern-day Medea faces:
“‘Medeaum’ cannot fit in the confines of the domestic arrangement as it is imposed upon her. At this point in the narrative she senses the threat of breaking with it within herself. I see this drama playing itself out over and over again in contemporary culture, in narratives of possession, in the coding of social contracts, and in the stretching or acceptance of that coding. I see her moving away from traditional structure as she grapples with the conundrum of her true nature.”
Though placing Medea’s story within the present-day, and attempting to get down her thoughts and emotions as she faces a potentially life-ending decision is a tall order, it’s one that can only be accomplished through poetry, a form which allows its authors to draw readers just far enough away from reality, while still spinning toward the imaginative; and all the while occupying a space within a certain something that's impossible to describe. The poem can where an essay or a short story dare not try.
This certain something is captured within two lines that appear within “When I Walk East, When I Walk West, Lightning Strikes South,” which holds two short and important lines, “Something beyond us blinks. / Something shudders, stuns.” What is the something, and how can we feel it blinking, although it’s beyond us? These aren’t questions or lines to be figured out, but instead, to be felt, and enjoyed. In your body, can you try to experience the feeling of something just beyond you, blinking? And if you can, or almost can, what’s that feel like, and where does it take you?
“Medaeum,” O'Hara Laurens' first collection is published by Ping-Pong Free Press, which serves as a safe-harbor for work that’s influenced by the mark which Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin left on the American literary tradition. Within an editor’s note at the back of the collection, the press describes the work that it publishes in unapologetic, though perhaps still, inviting, terms: “Miller was not a pretty writer, and everything that will be published by Ping-Pong Free Press will not be pretty. The work published by Ping-Pong Free Press is not written for the market, but for the ages. It’s challenging, it asks much of its reader. It’s not easy. It is, though, a vital continuation, and contribution to Henry Miller's literary legacy.”
As Ping-Pong Free Press selected O'Hara Laurens' collection as the winner of its 2016 First Book Prize, it makes sense that “Medaeum” wouldn’t fit neatly into the category of poetry that would be describe as easily-accessible, if such category even existed (and if it did, what would it even mean?). Instead, the thirty poems within “Madeaum” play off of one another in sometimes obvious, though more often obscure ways. Sometimes a turn of phrase is repeated, for instance, “Was it an accident of summer?" a line which opens “Diviner II (Omen)”, and also closes “When I Walk East, When I Walk West, The Lightning Strikes South”.
Other times a bird will swoop into a poem, flutter and flap its wings for a few lines or over two or three stanzas, then fly out again; as in “Not Quite a Murder,” ––– “A bird scuttles from its branch / & tears the sky," and on the opposite page, in “Diviner II (Omen)” ––– “A bird slipped into the old house brazen, / through the front door. A bird the color of courage,”.
As readers, we’re not sure whether this is the same bird, and if it is, whether it matters; and if it’s not, whether we’re supposed to draw comparisons between the two birds. One which is just starting to fly away, “& tear[ing] the sky,” while the other is leaving the open sky behind, and slipping indoors, and “into the old house brazen.” Perhaps the two separate birds, or the same bird performing two separate and distinct maneuvers, represent the indecision that Medea is experiencing, just before the abortion.
In “Not Quite a Murder” O’Hara Laurens gently nudges the reader to a point of view within Medea’s mind, which allows us to get a closer look at the indecision that’s flowing through her: “I have no choice / but to follow the course / of the river within. I drive a knife into the earth / just far enough to scare up a shudder-- not quite a murder / of crows”. And from there, we’re left to wonder, did she actually have a choice at all, and are tempted to compare this choice (or lack thereof) with the bird(s) who may have chosen to fly into the house or to tear through the sky, or instead did not choose at all, but instead, merely “followed the course / of the river within.”
Although “Not Quite a Murder,” and “Diviner II (Omen”) center around the bird(s)’ flight through the open sky, or within a house, it’s tempting to consider whether the poems are suggesting something similar concerning the agency of human beings, and whether our existence is made up of a series of decisions of which we’re intimately aware of, or whether, instead, we’re only following the courses of our own individual rivers within.
Although it’s difficult to determine how intently we, as readers, are meant to focus on the river-metaphor that may or may not stand for Medea’s decision-making process, the metaphor does seem important, as it appears within the collection in multiple places, and in certain spaces, gets inverted. Sometimes the speaker of the poem is flowing with the river, or other times, as within the passage from Euripides Medea which opens the collection, “The waters of the hallowed streams flow uphill to their sources, and justice and everything is reversed,” the river appears to be flowing against the conscience and current of the speaker.
Even if readers may not be able to wrap their hearts and minds around the inexpressibility of the indecision that Medea carries with with her, we can, alternatively, flip through the book, and view the titles of O’Hara Laurens’ poems, and allow the wit and hidden-depth within them to wash over and through the experience of reading the book.
A few of the titles, which almost instantly invite pleasure include, “Been Working on My Dead Reckoning”; “Boxing the Compass”; “When I Walk East, When I Walk West, Lightning Strikes South,” which just might be strong enough to serve as its own short poem, and “Let the Quiet Creature Continue,” which closes the collection, and includes a stanza which, perhaps, attempts to capture, even if only a moment, what it means and feels like to actually know anything at all:
“Become the thing you have always
and have never been: humid peat
under the skin, firewood, wood-smoke,
a sense of being famished, a sense of banishment.
The radius, the feared scope, the sorceress–––
above all, the sorceress,
the belly of the world,
all of it so intimately known.”
This is the greatest strength of “Medaeum”: its ability to bring to light the idea that although there’s plenty within us that can’t actually be known, there’s just as much which is so intimately connected to who we are that it isn’t separate from us, and therefore need not be known, but instead, can just be experienced, and enjoyed. Of course, O’Hara Laurens’ poetry says this better, specifically, within “Diviner III (Anointing)”, which appears just before the mid-point of the collection, and begins:
“To overpower the message brought by a bird
into the house you have to nail it to the front door
& push it back in the face of fate.”
 “Walnut husks rejected by trees / are the split handballs I will drown in wine. / plums half-living and half-gray / I will slit and stew” from “A Sleepless Guard, I Raised Up to Thee A Light of Safety”.
 “A storm so violent you can hear the ground shake. / And everyone else pliant-- / pliant with it." from “Medea Counts to Eleven.”