Caitríona O’Reilly, Geis – review

O’Reilly’s craftsmanship is dazzlingly assured. She has a powerfully developed auditory imagination, orchestrating patterns of rhythm, syntax and sound to brilliantly varied expressive effect. Her sentences are often long and complex, but each phrase rings out clearly, each image shapes itself distinctly in the mind, and the whole sentence drives through on a flow of sinuous and unbroken energy. She’s an intellectual adventurer, too: her love of out-of-the-way words sent me to the dictionary or Wikipedia quite often, always with pleasure and a sense of mental enlargement. When she uses arcane words she does so with a vivid sense of their aural expressiveness and the unstable charge of meanings and associations they carry.

Her imaginative creativity and the interest of her material match her technical skill. Poem after poem gave me a sense of being reawakened to the wonder and excitement of the world, sometimes in disturbing ways. The short, erotic “Island” sequence at the start and “Potlatch” at the end seem to present different phases of a single relationship that might be the poet’s own. In between O’Reilly ranges widely, drawing on history and archaeology, art, science, geography and myth. Almost all the poems pour out a stream of arrestingly vivid physical images, particularly but by no means exclusively images of sight. These kindle in the mind, flare for a moment and then dissolve into other images or ideas. O’Reilly’s imagination seems to be a radically metaphorical one, It also seems to be radically animistic, feeling animate life in inanimate objects and natural forces.

There’s a good deal of overt mythology. The title alludes to Irish legends (in which a geis is a supernatural prohibition or taboo) but the Greeks and Trojans are here too, and so are the Aztecs in the densely erudite “Comparative Mythography”. There’s nothing academic about such allusions though. There’s a natural continuum between the way O’Reilly revitalises existing myths and the way she almost creates her own mythological characters, as when she breathes life and malign intent into the poisonous Amanita Virosa fungus. In the brilliant “Polar” we see how her poetry feeds on science, filling text book ideas with imaginative wonder. It’s also a haunting, multi-layered piece of myth making, envisaging a future without polar bears, from which people will look back and dream of how, in a past that is our present,

A great absconded god of emptiness
hunted the groaning floes,
scattering waves and particles from his coat,

his hair hollow as birds’ bones.

 The almost radioactive power of those lines depends partly on the way their sounds, rhythms and silences sing in the head, partly on the sheer force and clear imaginative arcs of each individual line or phrase and partly on the complicated rippling and layering of secondary suggestions, connotations and reflections between these overall arcs. “Scattering waves and particles from his coat” fuses together the image of a bear shaking water and ice crystals off his pelt as he surges out of the sea; the much more abstract idea of what the hair of a polar bear does to light, not reflecting it but scattering it, breaking it up into different wavelengths; and the wholly abstract scientific notion that light paradoxically behaves both like a wave and like a particle. “Scattering” is the scientifically apt word for what the bear’s fur does to a beam of light but also creates a heroic image of the bear scattering enemies, irresistible as Thor or one of the armoured bears in Northern Lights. But this hero-god is gone, wiped out by waste and pollution. The lines swarm with suggestions of different feelings about his disappearance, and an unerringly precise play of sound helps give them maximum force. I’ve already spent too long analysing ideas one should simply feel within the sentence but I can’t resist saying how the last line quoted both wonders at the peculiar constitution of the bear’s fur and sadly acknowledges the hollowness of the mythological fantasy of his power.

I would like to thank Peter and Ann Sansom for permission to post this review, which appeared in The North 54.


Caitríona O’Reilly, Geis, 64 pp, £ 9.95 pbk, Bloodaxe Books, Eastburn, South Park, Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1BS

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