(Un)belonging Recent Works Press 2020: The launch speech I would have given for Nathanael O’Reilly’s stop-motion new poetry collection – Anne Casey
Even in its quieter moments, Nathanael O’Reilly’s latest poetry collection (Un)belonging is a triumph of constant forward-driven momentum. This is probably not surprising, given that the poet himself was a talented athlete at school and his daily running routine often informs his poetry. The first of the two epigraphs in the opening pages flags the propulsion to follow:
“………. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass …”
Seamus Heaney – from ‘Postscript’
The book opens with ‘Your Gaze’ – a scene from adolescence that prepares the reader for what is to follow – a delicate interweaving of wryly witty, gloriously cinematic and often sensuous imagery with captivating story-telling, razor-sharp syntax, arresting juxtapositions and perfectly paced rhythms.
Long before I met Nat in person, I had read and even published some of his poetry. The quality that has always struck me in reading his work is his extraordinary restraint – he has a lightness of touch, a gentleness which leaves you entirely exposed when you stumble on his more visceral, poignant or playful moments.
Nat is the consummate traveller between worlds. From his native Australia to his adoptive America and ancestral links in Ireland and Europe, he paints vivid depictions of the landscapes he traverses and inhabits, including a scathing portrait of suburban America!
This is a poet who slips easily into ancestral cadences, gliding between worlds with an ever-present longing. There is a deep and constant reverence and sensitivity here to his impact in the world, whether cultural, ecological, interpersonal, or regarding our own precarious mortality, although he does not shy away from the (sometimes explosively!) political. Nat’s sense of being in and of the world is also prefaced by a second Heaney quote:
I had my existence. I was there.
Me in place and the place in me.
– Seamus Heaney – from ‘A Herbal’
This collection is dedicated to his wife and daughter, Tricia and Celeste, whose presence is felt throughout the book. This neatly presages that Nat’s narratives are threaded throughout with his great love of family and friends.
But enough with the portending – I promised you wit and beguiling storytelling in (Un)belonging. As we are sadly not launching this book in person, what you may not know at this point is that Nat is a very tall person. From where I stand, he is very tall indeed. And I mention this only to prepare you for the intoxicating narrative of ‘Grand Canal Drowning’ – one of my favourite poems in the book (and not just because it takes place in my native Ireland). It opens with these sensational lines:
My great-great-grandfather drowned
in the Grand Canal on his way home
from the pub. Great-uncle Sean told
the story, laughing at the absurdity
of a six-three man drowning in a canal
only five-ten deep.
I could tell you how Nat rounded out this brilliant narrative with a thoroughly entertaining personal journey – which may or may not have involved him partaking of “a dirty pint in surprise”. But I would much rather you buy the book and read for yourself why Nat being a very tall person (in my humble view) was in any way significant when he followed in his great-great-grandfather’s footsteps some one hundred and twenty years after the opening scene of the poem.
I promised you sensuous imagery, subtle wit and arresting juxtapositions. For me, these elements fall artfully together in ‘Études’ – from its glorious beginning:
impress like détente.
through its wry middle:
I read High Windows
on the train to Hull,
The woman at the café
in the Slovakian railway station
bread, brot, pane or pain—
I depart hungry.
to its delicious end:
Feijoa halves mixed with sugar
tumble in boiling water.
You will find love in many shapes here. Nat’s wife and daughter make numerous appearances between these pages. You will find Nat’s daughter Celeste in ‘Parklife’:
moving freely between worlds,
unrestrained by boundaries and borders.
And in ‘Nativity’:
a star shining bright above
the road to Bethlehem,
a traveller from a foreign land
wearing the uniform of her peers,
accepted into the tribe,
lack of belief no impediment.
Romantic love is often wrapped in equal parts seductive imagery and wistful reminiscence – for example in ‘Hiraeth’:
tumbling on the sand beside the waves
seagulls swirling overhead
pelicans gliding above their prey
sand in our hair and between our fingers
yearning for a time beyond time
when youth had no end
passion burned eternally
and death had no dominion
And in ‘Saronic’:
My Athena sleeps facedown
in the sun, salt seasoning skin
Love of family makes its appearance in ‘Autumn Spring’ with jolting juxtaposition and Kodak-clear imagery:
at sunrise, found myself outside
the hospital where I was born,
where Pa died just days before.
and the wake, the carrying
of the coffin through the drizzle,
the surprising joy of watching
cousins’ children play…
Fresh from sprinkling dirt on my grandfather’s/coffin…
In ‘Rain Delay’, Nat effortlessly slides into ancestral rhythms immersed in his trademark luxuriant imagery:
Unwilling to risk the slick slopes
of the holy mountain or spend
the day huddled in our damp dome
we hustled to town through the grounds
of Westport House past dripping oaks
and soggy sheep in lush green fields.
Elegantly as elsewhere, the poet’s characteristic fine-spun one-liners sit easily alongside his love of landscape exploration in the title poem, ‘(Un)belonging’:
We navigated drought-browned land,
through Gundaroo, Gunning and Gurrundah,
stopped to swim somewhere unnamed by settlers.
After Europe, the distance between towns
seemed immense, the land a nothingness,
my Anglo-Celtic skin foreign and ridiculous.
Here there is also the ubiquitous longing that hallmarks this collection:
I wondered if I could ever belong again
after so much time and distance.
Ever-present also is the respect for, and sensitivity to, his impact in the world – whether cultural – as in ‘Departure’ (from ‘Booranga Sonnets’):
Acknowledge the Wiradjuri. Remember/
you are always a guest in this country.
ecological – for instance in ‘Refuge’:
a white-tail doe and her fawn
pause at the street’s edge
before clicking across concrete
to the last stand of live oak
interpersonal – for example, towards women in ‘Running I’ (from ‘Booranga Sonnets’):
puff morning! harmlessly when passing
young women walking alone
or regarding our own precarious mortality – as in ‘Mort’:
we’ve reached that awful age
separated from death
by a single fragile generation
The awareness of manmade intrusion in the natural world comes through again and again – for example in ‘Running II’ (from ‘Booranga Sonnets’):
…past the new
housing estates, cramped embodiments
of the Australian Dream…
in ‘Escape Sonnet’ – with visceral language choice:
past new subdivisions metastasizing
beyond Houston on freshly-bulldozed earth
carved out of the woodlands with beautiful
new floorplans from the low 100s
A steady stream of subtle humour accompanies political references. Blink and you’ll miss it in ‘The Boy from Hope’, where on visiting Bill Clinton’s childhood home towards the end of the poem, the poet quips that at the:
…obligatory gift shop beside
on the souvenirs and cross the highway
to buy a cigar and a fifth of whiskey.
Perhaps for obvious reasons, subtlety goes by the wayside in the artfully constructed ‘The Confessions of Donald Trump’ – composed entirely from the text of one of Trump’s press conferences:
Well, the leaks are real.”
The news is fake…
…I’m not ranting and raving.
I’m just telling you.
You know, you’re dishonest people.
There’s another not-so-subtle dig at Trump in the wonderfully clever ‘Alt-facts Bio’:
1.25 million people attended my graduation
and gave a forty-five-minute standing ovation.
In ‘Americans’, the poet’s adoptive fellow countrymen are not beyond his cutting banter:
The Americans plod past
conspicuous as an unzipped fly
Black humour and climate consciousness collide in the suburban US landscape of ‘Pond Frog’, while vivid portraiture jogs alongside simmering syntax and razor-sharp observation in poems such as ‘Answers’ and Well Tempered’:
…but you keep going
west young man, keep tightening the buckle
on your Bible belt…
I can’t believe that yours
is the only house in the neighbourhood without
But please don’t just take my word for it – buy the book and immerse yourself in these perfectly paced rhythms as universal poet, Nathanael O’Reilly transports you between international landscapes with sleight of word and art of line.
– Anne Casey
Originally from the west of Ireland and living in Sydney, Anne Casey is author of two poetry collections – where the lost things go (Salmon Poetry 2017) and out of emptied cups (Salmon Poetry 2019). Anne has worked for 30 years as a journalist, magazine editor, media communications director and legal author. Her writing and poetry rank in leading national daily newspaper, The Irish Times ‘Most-Read’ and are widely published internationally—The Irish Times, Entropy, apt, Murmur House, Quiddity, Bazakh (State University of New York), DASH (California State University), FourXFour (Poetry Northern Ireland), Cordite, The Canberra Times, Verity La and Plumwood Mountain among others. Anne’s poetry has won/shortlisted for awards in Ireland, Northern Ireland, the USA, the UK, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia.
(Un)belonging is available from https://recentworkpress.com/product/unbelonging/