O’Reilly, Nathanael. (Un)belonging. Canberra: Recent Work Press, 2020. RRP: $19.95, 90pp, ISBN: 9780648685333.
Nathanael O’Reilly’s lucid new collection of poems, (Un)belonging, covers familiar territory in contemporary Australian poetry, but does so with intelligence, craft and humour. The first poem, ‘Your Gaze’, establishes some key concerns and conceits. The speaker’s seemingly chance find of a ‘photograph / taken in nineteen eighty-eight / on the oval after school’ precipitates a descent into memory (3). The poet revivifies sensations a photograph may hint at, but can’t capture: ‘your auburn hair curtaining our faces, apricot / scent of shampoo in my nostrils’; articulates the peculiar sense of loss that accompanies temporal change: ‘the plains erased from the map / in ninety-nine when bulldozers / scraped the landscape’; concludes by returning to the object which prompted the memory: ‘In the photograph, your gaze writes / an invisible history only we can read’ (3-4).
We can’t, as readers, read the ‘invisible history’ the gaze writes in the photograph. But what we can read is the history the poet’s act of writing makes visible: the chain of associations he conjures as the ‘I’ of the lyric present tries to slip back into the ‘we’ of the remembered past. The sense of divided self that emerges from ‘Your Gaze’ persists throughout the collection, and contributes to the stance of exile, in-betweenness, or (Un)belonging the poet often inhabits. The poems particularise this stance in various ways: a speaker looking back at his past self, a tourist passing through a place on holiday, an Australian living in suburban America, an Irish-Australian settler born on stolen land.
‘Autumn Spring’ is one of the subtlest explorations of this stance. The poem recounts the speaker’s return from America to his birthplace in Australia for his grandfather’s funeral, where he spends time ‘immersing myself in home’ (31). The next stanza, however, places an asterisk next to ‘home’:
The next morning, I briefly returned
to my wife, daughter and life
in the northern hemisphere spring,
spent four days scaling exam mountains,
suffered the daily commute and parking
hunt, battled an inbox full of demands. (31)
‘Home’ may be the place of the poet’s birth, where his parents live, and he can find consolation and solidarity in ritual:
after the mass, the burial
and the wake, the carrying
of the coffin […]
the surprising joy of watching
cousins’ children play (31)
Yet it is also his life with his wife and daughter in America, lived not according to the rhythms of ritual, but the beats of middle-class suburbia, ‘the daily commute’ and ‘inbox full of demands’.
Divided selves and estranged poets may be grist to the mill of (post-)Romantic lyric poetry in English, but O’Reilly makes intelligent use of these conventional positions. His poems are aware of the colonial violence which enables a white settler to write, even ironically, of ‘immersing myself in home’, and how rituals like the funeral can reinscribe, and seek to disguise, that violence. In the title poem, ‘(Un)belonging’, the poet describes his ‘Anglo-Celtic skin’ as ‘foreign and ridiculous’ in Australia (33), and his sequence of ‘Booranga Sonnets’ concludes:
Acknowledge the Wiradjuri. Remember
you are always a guest in this country. (‘Departure’, 48)
O’Reilly’s strategy here is not to evade his complicity in acts of neo-colonialism, but to try, best he can, to draw attention to them.
The ‘Booranga Sonnets’, first drafted while O’Reilly was ‘writer-in-residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in May of 2017’ (78), stand at the centre of the collection. The second sonnet, ‘Morning’, reflects on these circumstances of composition:
Wonder how many
other writers have shared this bed
heard these sounds, interpreted this space. (36)
These lines also, I think, meditate on what it means for the poet to choose to write in the sonnet sequence form: how he must grapple with the freighted history of its ‘sounds’ and the modes of sense-making or interpretation that it makes available to him. One exemplar O’Reilly appears to have in mind here is Seamus Heaney’s similarly titled sequence of ‘Glanmore Sonnets’ (1979), which also features tropes of a writer self-consciously retreating to a place of refuge to write. O’Reilly takes his two epigraphs for (Un)belonging from two much later Heaney poems, ‘Postscript’ (1996) and ‘A Herbal’ (2010).
Curiously, despite his implicit promise to ‘interpret[…] this space’, O’Reilly often prefers description to interpretation in these sonnets, leaving the bulk of interpretive labour to his readers:
Rise with the sun. Shower and dress.
Strip the bedsheets before breakfast.
Put on a load of lines and towels.
Pour Juice. Make coffee and toast. (‘Departure’, 48)
In their clipped rhythm of domestic actions and refusal of figurative language, these pared-back lines seem faintly embarrassed of their place in a lyric poem. In moments like these, the ‘Booranga Sonnets’ may well exhibit suspicion towards how a self may construct itself in and through such language—‘take selfies’, as the tenth sonnet, ‘Kangaroo’, puts it (44). That sonnet nevertheless affirms the value of poetry, as a selfie may still ‘capture the landscape’s beauty over your shoulder’ (44). O’Reilly expresses a darker variation of this suspicion in two amusing but slight poems which parody the grotesque self-mythologising of Donald Trump: ‘The Confessions of Donald J. Trump’ and ‘Alt-facts Bio’.
Some parts of the ‘Booranga Sonnets’ are too astringent and self-denying for my taste, though O’Reilly has serious aesthetic and ethical reasons for his stylistic choices. Elsewhere, he is more expansive. He has a wonderful skill for simile, with which he will often begin or end a poem, and is not afraid to risk failure. Tourists curate holiday photos on their phone ‘like revisionist historians’ (58); ‘stuffing’ emerges from a torn mattress ‘like a hernia’ (67); ‘Pre-dawn embraces / impress like détente’ (17). These similes are successful in part because of their humour, in part because once we’ve smiled at them, we can’t help but take another look at their connections. Here, as throughout the collection, O’Reilly unsettles us into seeing the world anew.
Matthew Bulfer is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Western Australia. He has degrees in both Law and Arts, and returned to post-graduate research following a brief interlude in a commercial law firm. His research focuses on the intersection between the lyric and politics in the poetry of Seamus Heaney.