The magical and surreal: Colin Dardis reviews ‘(Un)belonging’ by Nathanael O’Reilly

(Un)belonging by Nathanael O’Reilly, Recent Works Press 2020

Who better to explore the notion of ‘home’ than a wanderer? Nathanael O’Reilly has travelled on five continents; he’s originally from Victoria, now settled in Texas, and in-between spent time in England, Ireland, Germany and the Ukraine. (Un)belonging is his sixth collection, and followers of his work might be familiar with particular themes of interest for O’Reilly, even based on the book titles alone: Preparations for Departure, Distance, and Symptoms of Homesickness. All puns intended, he is on familiar territory writing about unfamiliar territory.

Seamus Heaney was once criticised for continuing to write about Northern Ireland while choosing to set up home outside of it. His defence was that one needed to step outside of the circle, in order for one to better see what lies within. O’Reilly has given himself multiple circles to step in and out, and like puddles of various sizes, some cause bigger ripples than others. The poems zip back and forth across time zones and continents, with a disjointed sequence throughout the book that adds to the sense of dislocation. At times, there are hints that one may have travelled too far, as in Étude:

Warning signs on the train
are posted in five languages—
not one my native tongue.

The keystone of the collection is a sequence entitled ‘Booranga Sonnets’, capture the daily mundanities and peculiarities of life on the urban outskirts. They actual start off functional: “But a trolley full of groceries”, “let coffee brew”, “load the machine washing”. It’s life almost anywhere in the world, yet O’Reilly perform a series of neat sidesteps into the magical and surreal. A bushwalk becomes a gymnastic display as a barbed wire fence is jumped over. Wildlife transform into rocks and vice versa, the viewer never quite sure what he is seeing. An idle stare out the kitchen window becomes a wild chase after a couple of kangaroos. At times, the action plods from A to B, and the poems feel like mere reportage; yet the journey from B to C rewards us with a travelogue that find wonder in the joy of minutiae. It’s a risky move to unabashedly show us so much of these trite universalities, but we need this balance to highlight the small adventures of landscape, animals and people along the way.

Along with lengthy contemplations out kitchen windows, O’Reilly is also a people watcher. The double whammy of ‘Maitre D’ and ‘Serenade’ delights in the allure of strangers and their simple actions. An elderly accordion player is transformed into a baritone Lothario, whilst a waiter fortifies himself with tequila in the hunt for customers, and women. O’Reilly observes them as the ubiquitous outsider, always a stranger to whatever parts he finds himself in, always happy to find another little escapade.

And yet for all his travels and the sights he has been rewarded with, It’s clear than O’Reilly is at his happiest when with his family. In the poems dedicated to either this wife or daughter Celeste – and other poems that allude to them – the idea of home becomes a person, or persons, rather than any place. Here, he doesn’t have to imagine any stories from his observations: the action is full of belonging and security, a sense of firm and permanent connection. In ‘Too Young’, he takes his daughter to a playground:

You joined in with the Maori kids,
too young to know or care about race
or nationality, rolling down an embankment
into a pile of crunchy June leaves
while I exchanged nods with other dads

The young have no reservations or anxieties about joining in the fun, whenever it may occur; while the grown males are satisfied – or perhaps only daring to venture – with their cursory gestures, unable to transcend their demographical barriers. It’s a fitting allegory to the themes of the collection, likewise visited in ‘Nativity’, where the daughter plays the part of the star on the road to Bethlehem: the innocence of children lights the way.

The suggestion is understood: in order to feel at home, one needs to approach the environment as a child would. In ‘Swinging’, someone drops into a pool from a rope swing “like a fearless teenager”. The childhood home of Bill Clinton is visited in an Arkansas city with the suitable moniker of ‘Hope’. However, the house is “unoccupied, boarded-up and run-down”, the visitor passing on the souvenir shop to cross the road for “a cigar and a fifth of whiskey”. Suddenly, the inner child is lost and the dislocated adult re-enters the picture.

Overall, (Un)belonging is immediately accessible to the reader, regardless of whether you are familiar with the countries visited. O’Reilly writes in a laidback, almost passive voice: he is happy to let the details speak for themselves, rather than strong-arm you into how you should feel, as perhaps any good tourist location should. It’s certainly a book to pack with you on your own travels, whether you belong there or not.

 – Colin Dardis

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Colin Dardis is a poet, editor and sound artist, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His work has been listed in the Seamus Heaney Award for New Writing, Over The Edge New Writer of the Year Award, and the Saboteur Awards, as well as being published widely throughout Ireland, the UK and USA. Previous collections include The Dogs of Humanity (Fly on the Wall Press, 2019), the x of y (Eyewear, 2018), Post-Truth Blues (Locofo Chaps/Moria Books, 2017) and Dōji: A Blunder (Lapwing, 2013).

(Un)belonging is available from https://recentworkpress.com/books/product/unbelonging/

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Before Bone and Viscera
by Robbie Coburn

 

Robbie Coburn was born in June 1994 in Melbourne and lives in the rural district of Woodstock, Victoria. His first book-length collection of poetry Rain Season (Picaro Press) was published in 2013 and he is well into a second book titled the other fleshBefore Bone and Viscera is his eagerly awaited second chapbook. that will delight and surprise, this is an eagerly awaited publication.

“Coburn’s new book disturbs & enriches. There is a grace as it sculpts language & meaning… a flensing poignancy underlines these superb poems. This is not an easy book… its ruthless eviscerated clarity & honesty scar the eye.” – Les Wicks

Before Bone and Viscera lifts the voice of Australian poetry into new territory. Robbie Coburn tears away all you think you know to reveal these poems; naked in their lyrical and surreal simplicity they unearth the anatomy and geography of poetic imagination. To read these poems is to get your hands into the blood and guts of life itself.” – Nathan Hondros

“An intense, at times disturbing, emotional journey employing a surreal, fetishist use of the human body reminiscent of the painter, Francis Bacon.” – S.K. Kelen

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