“Where I Ache” Megan O’Keeffe (self-published) – poetry review

Where I Ache Megan O'Keeffe book cover“Where I Ache” has an author’s introductory note, “This collection is published to help those that relate to these poems feel less alone. To know that others have gone through similar experiences and that they too, will overcome their dark days. Some of the inspiration comes from personal experience, world news, film and book characters over the past ten years. The intent of this collection is not to romanticize addiction, mental illness, nor unhealthy behaviors associated with low self-esteem. Please consider that this content may be triggering for some. Please seek a licensed professional if you are struggling with these issues.” The lengthy collection (154 pages) is split into six parts, “My Foggy Head”, “My Weak Spine”, “My Bruised Heart,” “My Grieving Knees”, “My Greedy Green Eyes” and “My Soothing Arms”. The poems are interspersed with black and white sketched illustrations by Kevin Furey which are often a literal take on a phrase or theme of the poem they accompany. The sections appear to be a journey through anxieties, worries about how one is perceived by others, love or loving someone who doesn’t reciprocate, grief, jealous and closure or acceptance.

From the first section, “Please Don’t Sugar Coat this for Me”, pleads

“When bad things happen we can’t help
but try to make reason or purpose
of them. Pull logic out
of the illogical.
We’re making angels out of monsters
in the dark.”

It captures the way anxiety leads into overthinking and catastrophic thought patterns where one negative thing happening ruins a whole day. Sometimes the thinker catches themselves and tries to put a positive spin on it, “we’re making angels out of monsters.” The poem is direct and uses easy to understand language to communicate. When a longer line is followed by a shorter one, it suggests a thought beginning to run away is being restrained and brought back, the thinker wrestling for control. Another poem, “Battle Day”, is a pleading for understanding (complete poem),

“I know I’m not feeling well today.
Please don’t mark it in red
like I’ve failed an exam
I didn’t know I was taking.
Don’t ask me to talk about it.
I’m not up for conversation
I can barely stand
the company of myself today.”

The repetition of “today” implies someone reminding themselves this is just one bad day in a week of otherwise good days. It has the same theme of restraining thoughts that want to spiral out of control. Again, the language is direct and communicative.

The second section, “My Weak Spine,” appears to focus on self-doubts brought on by low self-esteem, e.g. in “The Enemy,” (complete poem),

“My biggest enemy is myself.
Desperate for me to fail and be alone.
To have me all to myself
to suck the life out of me.

Self doubt pounds at the door
telling me I’m not good enough
and that I am unworthy.

Anxiety coats itself in my thoughts.
It’s hard to tell what I think
and what it thinks of me.”

I’d have liked the first time to become the title, leaving three stanzas of three lines, and a potential part-rhyme on “me/unworthy/me” on the last line of each stanza. Perhaps, as a standalone poem, the author may think the italicised and bold words necessary, but in a themed collection the signals to the reader aren’t necessary. A later poem, “It’s (Not) That Easy,” looks at typical phrases people say to those suffering with mental ill health,

Stop Worrying

You’re not Fat

You’re not dumb

Anyone would be lucky to have you

It’s all in your head

Don’t be sad

So many people have it worse than you

and just like that you fixed me.
I can’t believe I didn’t think of that sooner…”

The last two lines are ironic. No one’s fixed that easily.

The third section, “My Bruised Heart,” looks at the effects of loving the wrong person but the narrator blames themselves when things go wrong, in “Dead Branches,”

“These thoughts rotting inside my head are not my own.
I know that and yet I cannot stop thinking them.
I’m sorry it’s not just the two of us in this relationship.”

The poem explores how previous bad relationships affect the current relationship where fears of violence or abuse prevent someone fully engaging the current relationship. It takes time and patience from a new partner as someone unlearns past behaviour and relearns how to trust someone. This theme is picked up in “My First Scar”,

“Maybe I’m so angry at you
because you remind me of him.
And I’m mad at myself for being the fool yet again
for not valuing myself like I deserve.
But it’s easier to blame you than to face myself.
I can just leave you instead of fixing me.”

That last line captures why damaged people can flit from relationship to relationship instead of taking time to assess why a previous relationship failed and learn how not to make the same mistake again. It’s always easier to blame someone else rather than take responsibility for one’s own behaviour. I’m not sure why the poem’s right aligned in the book as above. A later poem looks at loving an addict, “Intoxicated”,

“Put the bottle down and take a sip off my lips.
You don’t need that smoke, my kiss will be your favorite drug.
Not Jamison on your breathe but my name on your tongue.
Catch a buzz from the way my body moves.”

Sadly though, when someone loves a drug more than their partner, it’s time for their partner to move on. I think the third line should refer to Jameson’s whiskey.

The fourth section, “My Grieving Knees” moves on from break-ups to death. The poem “To My Knees” gives the section its odd title (complete poem),

“I don’t normally fall to my knees
but before you, I did.
By your bedside, I did.
Too late, I did.
I don’t talk to Him anymore
but to you I will.
I said my goodbyes and well wishes.
I asked you to look over those surrounding me.
I tried to be brave and selfless,
so I told you not to worry about me.
But to my knees, I fall again.”

The poem is full of self-flagellation and regret, but the only one who can save an addict is the addict who has to decide they want to overcome the addiction. Without that desire to change, any treatment or help doesn’t work. “No One Cries for the Sinners” helpfully comes with a note “This poem is an abecedarian in which each line begins with the following letter of the alphabet”.

“Arizona is the place for a funeral, if there ever could be such a place
because believe me when I say, Life
can’t take root in dry soil. No Botanist or Investigator
dares to try and stop her. She is contacted by the weak, the helpless, the hopeless,

each in dying need of her services. I think of her often today, while at my husband’s
funeral. She was careful; killing him slower than the fading pale
green bruises on my God- given body. If I was religious, any God of mine would be in
Hell right along with the criminals and devils she sends there. Hotter there than the
injected poison that inflames their bodies. Hotter than Arizona. Is it
Justice for the lives these men have already stolen? Depends on whom you ask.

Killers like Penelope are hard to find unless they want to be found. She never
let’s people in too close, only the wicked
moths, like my abusive drunk husband, deserving of her fiery temper. She collects
newspaper clippings like coin collectors treasure Civil War nickels.
Obituaries like trophies line her walls. It was my life or his. I choose mine.
Proudly, I’d do it again. My body wasn’t his property to use or abuse as he wished.

Queen of murder, Penelope alone carries the weight of death and demons
rotting inside her. She straddles a line between serial killer and
superhero. Or are they just different sides of the same coin? I could not be more
thankful that she slayed the dragon that I couldn’t save my kids from. It’s not easily
understood, I know. Only those who survived a certain kind of darkness will.

Vigilantes like Penelope are clever, venomous, calculating, beautiful,
worst of all, deadly. A cold- blooded killer living in the dry grass,
xeric climate. A climate like fucking Arizona.
You won’t find life taking root, no tears to water its growth. It’s dead space, ground
zero for the ghosts and hellish creatures like Penelope and the sinners she kills.”

The theme of there being more than two people in a relationship is picked up again in the fifth section, “My Greedy Green Eyes”, particularly in “The Parasite”,

“I’m not sure why you still talk about her.
Can’t you see that it hurts me?
You haven’t spoken to her in months but yet
here she is again in our conversation.
In your mind and in mine.”

Another direct, easy to read poem where two lovers can’t get over an ex.

The final section, “My Soothing Arms” focuses on making a stand and being strong for yourself. It’s refreshing to get to a poem where the focus is on another. “War Cry” helpfully comes with a note “This poem is in Pantoum form where the second and fourth line of each stanza is repeated as the first and third of the next.”

“Don’t open my door if you aren’t going to close it when you leave.
Are you listening to me?
I deserve respect no matter my size or shape, just like everyone else.
I am not some object to conquer or kill.

Are you listening to me?
The Taliban cannot just board my dusty school bus and fire three shots at me.
I am not some object to conquer or kill.
You, with your rough whiskers, must face the consequences of what you take.

The Taliban cannot just board my dusty school bus and fire three shots at me.
You are right to fear that I may know too much, that education is serving me right.
You, with your rough whiskers, must face the consequences of what you take.
I am learning that a woman is worth more than just how much she can please a man.”

“Where I Ache” is aimed at a general reader and speaks from personal experience, with one exception. It uses direct, simple language to communicate. Poetry readers wouldn’t need the explanatory notes and the use of italics and bold lettering to guide readers implies the author is not yet confident her readers will see the intentions behind her poems. This direct approach works when poems stand on their own such as in a poetry magazine or instagram post, but combined into a collection, the poems grew similar in tone and outlook so the collection’s best read one or two poems at a time rather than in one sitting. The aims and sentiment behind the poems are worthy, however, a challenge or use of a metaphor or analogy now and again would have added interest.

“Where I Ache” is available from 10 June and can be preordered. Megan O’Keeffe’s blog is www.debatablydateable.com.



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