The Nowhere Birds is Caitríona O’Reilly’s debut collection, although her name is not unknown to readers of British poetry magazines. O’Reilly is an often caustic reviewer, who has in the past in the pages of Thumbscrew participated in that most heinous of the literary hack’s crimes — the unsolicited smear on a poet’s career (unsolicited, that is, in that there is no actual new collection by the target under review). It is unfortunate and sadly indicative of a culture of Young Turkdom, which seems to be rife in Britain and Ireland. All that distasteful scimitar-waving hardly endears one to a writer whose own poetry is not yet published, and when the debut finally arrives a number of obstacles and preconceptions have been put in the way of a fresh look at a fresh poet.
Shouldering myself past the wreckage of O’Reilly’s venom, I was surprised to discover a relatively quiet debut and not the assault on aesthetic sensibility I expected. The Nowhere Birds is a watchful exercise in lyric and narrative which promises more from this writer in the future. It starts somewhat predictably for a first collection with a number of autobiographical poems about the poet’s childhood in Ireland (see O’Reilly’s contemporary John Redmond and his debut Thumb’s Width for sparkier efforts at the same), before spreading out in form and focus to encompass everything from Eastern European travelogue and Russian translation to the Renaissance art of ‘Statuary’ and acute, often exotic, nature poetry. Such cosmopolitanism is a marked feature of several of O’Reilly’s Irish contemporaries — Redmond, David Wheatley, and his coeditor at Metre, Justin Quinn (who actually lives in Prague). This seems to suggest that of the golden — and Northern — generation or so of Irish poets who loom so impressively nowadays, it is more existential early Mahon and the Stateside semioticist Muldoon that provide an inspiration, rather than the often homelier (if equally grand) concerns of Heaney or Michael Longley.
The best poem in the collection, ‘Octopus,’ displays O’Reilly’s powers of description, as she lets her eye for the telling detail simply explore that aquatic beast which mariners call ‘devil fish, / noting the eerie symmetry / of those nervy serpentine arms.’ O’Reilly’s focus zooms in over three octave stanzas — noting for herself the ‘tenderness of their huge heads’ — before closing affectingly in the final verse:
Females festoon their cavern roofs
with garlands of ripening eggs
and stay to tickle them and die.
Their reproductive holocaust
leaves them pallid and empty. Shoals
of shad and krill, like sheet lightning,
and the ravenous angelfish
consume their flesh before they die.
The quaintness introduced in ‘tickle them and die’ is swiftly removed with the gruesome oxymoron ‘reproductive holocaust.’
‘On a Dropped Feather’ is another nicely turned piece of lyrical description, while ‘Thinking of Simone Weil’ owes something to ‘In Memoriam David Jones’ by Robin Robertson, where the Scottish poet similarly engages in lengthy description of a natural landscape, without making any particular reference to the writer ostensibly being paid tribute. Only occasionally does O’Reilly put a foot wrong, and someday someone has to place a moratorium on sestinas such as her merely passable ‘Thin,’ while the closing couplet of ‘Idol’ in the ‘Statuary’ sequence — ‘The fat gold god achieves a perfect lotus / but the goddess of celestial coitus doesn’t notice’ — has a certain wit but stumbles rather than trips off the tongue.
Overall, however, this is a worthy debut and it will be interesting to see how O’Reilly settles in as a poet. At the moment one still perceives an understandable search for her real ‘subject,’ which is something the other poet under review here, Tracey Herd, has certainly found with her second collection, Dead Redhead. If anything Herd’s poetry is overly directed toward her obsessions. One of the buzz phrases current among many young British poets who have appeared in the latter half of the 1990s is ‘personal iconography’ (‘iconology’ or even ‘iconolatry’ would be more precise in fact), and at times Dead Redhead seems to be at the apogee of this fad for odes to all manner of old movies, vinyl rareties, and obsolete brands. In Herd’s case, the focus is very much on fictional and celebrity women who have all been, in their own ways, icons — with particular emphasis on their definition by men in a male world, alongside inevitable undercurrents of violence. The message is clear from the title of Dead Redhead to its cover painting of Lady Jane Grey’s execution, and can be seen in a poem such as ‘Bombshell,’ which takes its cue from a picture of Rita Hayworth pasted to the first ever atom bomb to be detonated: ‘The red-headed G.I.’s favourite / unpins her elaborate plumage; / a scarlet carnage, the mind’s // debacle. . .’ Blondes too feature heavily in Dead Redhead’s firmament, and within the first ten pages of poems we have encountered Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and the Factory ‘Superstar’ Edie Sedgwick.
As often as not the poet will assume the persona of her subject, as in the Edie Sedgwick monologue mentioned above, or ‘Anne Sexton’s Last Letter to God,’ or indeed the opening poem of the collection, ‘A Letter from Anna’ (Karenin). This latter poem is an interesting example of how Herd’s imagination transmutes her source material, and we can learn much of the nature of the poet’s sensibility from her reaction to the Russian epic. Tolstoy is celebrated for his vision of life in its totality, and no one would expect this from a short lyric, which will inevitably form a diminution of certain themes in the novel. Yet Herd goes one step further, and her poem is neither a revivified vignette from Anna Karenin or a witty extrapolation of one of the novel’s many loose ends or hypothetical turnings. Instead, the poet strips away the panoramic action and minutely-etched detail to present a bare and elemental canvas in Anna’s address to Vronsky:
I tiptoe the distance from the bedroom door
across the thickly carpeted, cream-coloured floor.
I might be crossing a country or a mountain stream
but I have travelled further for much less
and for you I would travel barefoot
through the pine forests covered by snow and ice.
Tolstoy’s novel is a kaliedoscope of colors which seems to run into one in that ‘thickly carpeted, cream-coloured floor’ or bleed away entirely to ‘pine forests covered by snow and ice.’ The poem continues with Anna’s emeralds turned to ‘flowers shrouded in winter’ and returns to that most basic of conceptions of Russia as snow-covered wilderness, far from the multifarious society described by Tolstoy: ‘We’d be lying here, / under white covers, two children lost in the benevolent / forest, clutching each other to stave off the cold / and patiently waiting for a Russian spring.’ By the end of the poem, Herd has transformed the ‘grown-up’ empirical and realist novel into a fairytale, the shadow of a Hans Christian Andersen fable. The result is both powerful and indicative of the constraints that are nonetheless placed on Herd’s imagination.
There is something obviously unsettling in a poem such as the aforementioned ‘Bombshell’ and something more subtly disturbing in ‘A Letter from Anna.’ Herd takes her associations of sex and violence to painfully bald statement in ‘Woman and Man,’ which appears to be the monologue of a prostitute as she is raped and then strangled. Make that ‘crass statement,’ perhaps, as I am unsure that the poem works as anything else. Soon enough on reading Dead Redhead one expects to encounter a lyric such as ‘He’ll Have to Go,’ which hovers around an Electra complex implicit elsewhere in Herd’s work — ‘Father, I’ve sent all the boys away, and still / you won’t come back to me.’ Another of Herd’s obsessions, known to readers of her debut No Hiding Place, involves famous racehorses, and Dead Redhead has more than one poem which alludes to this. A sequence of poems, ‘The Mystery of the Missing Century,’ is based around the character of teen detective Nancy Drew. One passage from this considers Jacqueline Kennedy and actually opens with the line, ‘Jacqueline, you were a proud bay thoroughbred,’ at which point some readers may well start to feel claustrophobic as the collection’s themes close in all around.
During an interview Herd gave to Lilias Fraser in the pages of this journal, she briefly discussed a novel-in-progress, and one wonders whether it is in the longer form that her themes would best flourish. It is difficult to imagine another collection like Dead Redhead, and yet I get no feeling that anything has been exorcised in its writing. If we are to have another volume of poetry — and Herd is certainly an accomplished enough writer — then perhaps the mask of personae will need to be dropped more often. Dead Redhead is an effective exploration of Herd’s obsessions, but it would be nice for its sequel to feature a little more of Herd herself.