The first thing that strikes you about Caitriona O ‘Reilly’s debut collection of poems is the cover, with its reproduction of a Remedios Varo painting. My initial reaction when I saw it was Uh-Oh! I had recently been to a Varo retrospective in Washington and while I found the show very exciting, I couldn’t help but feel dismay at how her work had regressed from rationality to irrationality as she got older. Where the young Varo was concerned with social parody and satire, the older Varo became more and more absorbed with the paranormal, alchemy, magic and superstition.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached O ‘Reilly’s poetry. Another fluffy collection? There was no need to worry on that score. This is the work of an erudite, clear, lucid and with not a trace of irrationality. The language is rich, the imagery vivid and original and the form flawless. It is an impressive piece of work.
In this collection the themes covered are travel experiences, reflections on works of art, in particular sculpture, self- exploration and descriptions of wildlife. Some of the poems to do with self-discovery are startlingly good as for example in Thin where she describes the world of the anorexic:
‘..My ribs rise like the roof
of a house that’s fashioned from glass.
I might even ping delicately like bone-
china when flicked. No dinner
for six weeks has made this skin
more habitable, more like a room –‘
Or the love poem Possession:
‘ …….All of you
that’s to be known
resides in that small gesture.
And though our days consist of letting go –
since neither one can own
the other – what still deepens pulls us back together.’
The nature poems make up the bulk of this collection. When O ‘Reilly describes wildlife she does so with a detailed and deep knowledge of the subject. Some of the poems read like poetic lectures and indeed one poem is called A Lecture Upon The Bat. The imagery she employs to paint word pictures is controlled and powerful as in Lions and Tigers and Bears: ‘Friesians hold the bones of the hills/inside their tie-dyed pelt. They’re/monochrome mountains draped/ in muddy felt.’ Or Octopus: ‘They resemble nothing so much/ as a man’s cowled head and shoulders.’
O ‘Reilly covers an impressive terrain. We are meant to admire her erudition and we do for it is awesome. And how well she crafts the lyrics! But the reader is left on the outside. This is the voice of an ice-queen who knows she is above the ordinary mass of mortals. In fact, O ‘Reilly could be describing herself in Marmoreal when she says: ‘….we’ll stare/in silence from our stone address./ Two eyeless statues under snow/blinded by their own bodies’ whiteness’. This is a pure spirit wandering through unspoiled nature, untainted by pollution, global warming, or holes in the ozone layer. In one poem she describes
‘The occupants of a hundred jigsawed homes
silted the city’s arteries….’ (They Do It With Mirrors)
and one can’t but feel that her view of people, outside of one significant relationship, is just this – silt that blocks up the streets of the city.
The choice of cover for The Nowhere birds is, I believe, misguided. There is no organic connection between Varo’s work and O ‘Reilly’s. Of course, O ‘ Reilly is a rationalist and this is a good thing. But Varo, who also describes nature in her work, does so with humour. As Patrick Kavanagh, himself no mean nature poet, once said: “The main feature about a poet…is his humourosity. Any touch of boringness and you are in the wrong shop”*. I am not making the case here that O ‘Reilly’ work is boring, but there is not a trace of humour in it. It is a sober collection and you are meant to take it seriously. The problem is, though, its very sobriety leaves you cold.
This is a poet who can write extremely well, as exemplified by the excellence of the language and the controlled use of imagery and form in The Nowhere Birds. But these poems fail to connect and you are left longing for a dash of humour and a sense of living in the real world to breathe passion and life into this work.
*Self Portrait 1967
The Nowhere Birds by Caitriona O ‘Reilly
First published in Ropes Issue 9