Geis, by Caitríona O’Reilly, Bloodaxe Books, 64 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1780371467
Geis is a collection concerned with the spaces between – between people, between words. The awareness of emptiness, evoked in so many of the poems, prompts contemplation: here meaning is created, not merely represented, as we sense the poet resuming a process of reflection after a lengthy absence. Past and future are held in a delicate balance throughout the volume.
The opening poem, “Ovum”, contemplates the contingent nature of bodily and linguistic futures: “You’d take it for zero, or nothing, / or the spotless oval your lips make saying it, / as if you blew both yolk and albumen / through its pin-pricked head”. With a hint of Thomas Kinsella’s meditations on the egg as a creative origin, this poem contemplates the fragility of conception, not only signalling the proximity of life and death, but the arbitrary ways in which lasting meaning is made. The complex yet accidental relationship between words and material reality is also signalled in the drift of “o” words rising out of this poem and resonating across the volume as a whole. The movement from ovum to spermatozoon, from female to male principle, exemplifies such shifting of forms throughout the book, where O’Reilly renews her engagement with moments of flux and the challenges of representation these bring.
These changing forms are firstly poetic ones. Geis displays an extraordinary formal versatility: the “simple structure” of the house in “Ariadne” is rendered in constrained tercets; the fate of technology in “The Airship Era” emerges gradually in long lines. These modes are never forced: a preference for couplets modulates the book’s darker moods, marking the caution with which difficult subjects are introduced. Its psychological explorations are measured, its self-scrutiny restrained. Diverse poetic forms speak also of the range of cultural influences here – American, Greek, Japanese – and the stimuli move from the textual to the visual. As in O’Reilly’s earlier work, the natural world plays a vital role in linking experiential and scientific approaches. This is first hinted at in the opening poem, where musical instrument and bird are linked. Here visual and auditory associations oscillate between human and non-human representations, between ancient and contemporary scenes. This creates a linguistic texture at once dense and yielding: its inferences cannot be perceived whole, only in part, preserving the limits of knowledge at the same time as they demand our earnest attention. In “Spanish Fly”, for example, microscopic detail does not render the organism more real, but rather more extraordinary: “Not glass-green at all but iridescent, / a mineral-winged insect pulverised // with toads’ bones, moles’ teeth and iron filings”. Such proximity raises as many questions about the subject position of the observer as it does about the creature under scrutiny. It calls attention to the problematic relationship between the particular and the general by refusing to simplify what is revealed by the act of looking: “not the globe but the maps’s foxed edges // not the sentence but the syllable / not the embroidery but the unpicked stitch”.
In keeping with this exacting attention, an important motif in this work is that of containment. Early poems “Ariadne” and “Empty House” figure the house not as a place of security but as one of anxiety and betrayal. In the former poem the transgression that is concealed – and yet not concealed enough – gives rise to a visceral realisation, which in turn leads to the compulsive unravelling of meaning that is the precursor of creative renewal. The title sequence marks an intensification of this process through the representation of a form of breakdown – a necessary withdrawal that is the starting point for a new kind of relationship between self and world. The poem “Geis”, its title echoing that of both sequence and book, is this work’s inner room – a space of confinement, its smooth white walls presenting a clinical and artistic blankness. Conversely, though, the incarceration that this sequence represents results in a dispersal of meaning, through parallel narratives of distress and disorientation. “Geis” is also the space of enforced silence – the quietness of the volume spreads outwards from this poem, in which the wounded mouth is incapable of utterance. The hot coals that might be swallowed as an antidote to psychic pain may be traced onward in the “radiant stone” on the tongue – a kind of talisman that presages the returning power of expression. Hinting at the “obol” of the opening poem – the coin placed in the mouth of the dead to pay for their journey to the underworld – this image releases the speaker into a new imaginative landscape.
The power of the underworld is not quickly shaken off, however. Though the title, Geis, speaks of the customary prohibitions in Irish legend, elsewhere myth provides a defamiliarising perspective. Even its language can be estranging: Itztlacoliuhqui-Ixqumilli is a disturbing presence in meaning as well as in sound. He is the Aztec god of winter, of frost and ice, of human misery, and his appearance is in keeping with the deepening sense of alienation that the early poems in the volume chart. Imagery of cold, frozen landscapes is prominent in such poems as “The Winter Suicides”, “Polar” and “Snow”. The first two deal with the changing form of nature at a microscopic level, evidence of the increasing fascination with scientific perspectives that this poetry records. Yet in spite of the attention to the minutiae of the living world – the particle drifting to the sea floor, the photon “deflected into darkness” – these organisms are not themselves knowable or even permanent. The polar bear, a species severely depleted as a result of global warming, is the “absconded god of emptiness”, his changing habitat evidence of the fluctuating forms that characterise O’Reilly’s work. As ice turns to water here, the bear threatens to disappear; his whiteness merges with the icy landscape, he vanishes before our eyes.
In spite of its ethical alertness and its attention to the future, this volume is not without historical grounding. “The Servant Question” is unusual among O’Reilly’s poems in directly addressing a forebear, weaving the story of this woman’s life as a servant into a literary perspective on the representation of marginal figures. The woman’s own “spidery script” is present alongside the words of Virginia Woolf: “one is absurd to expect / good temper or magnaminity from servants”. In subtle ways, the poem invites us to think about social change, about transitions from dependence to independence that are figured elsewhere in the book. “The Airship Era”, one of the most finely achieved poems, returns to this concept of change and flux through the moment in which modern technology meets the legacy of symbolic traditional cultures. In the figure of the Zeppelin the future is untethered from the earth; here fundamental perspectives are altered as air and earth become as sea and sea floor. The airships provoke wonder more than fear: “Those whom they did not kill scarcely believed in them, / improbable contraptions the parchment-yellow colour of old maps, // vessels a rational traveller might have chosen, a half-century earlier, to pursue daft, round-the-world steampunk wagers”. Yet they also provide a unique way of reading the earth, challenging our relationship to landscapes and ending the equation of the marvellous with the sublime. This lightness, this power of rising from the ground, carries a price. As in the story of Icarus, the ambitious flight ends with a flaming return to earth and an exposure of the framework of the imagination itself. Somewhere in the formal mastery of these poems is the awareness of their own fragility, of the need for art to take risks in its navigation of reality and imagination. It is this testing of boundaries that makes Geis a work of great aesthetic and intellectual range, and marks O’Reilly as a sustaining presence in contemporary poetry.
Dr Lucy Collins lectures in English at the UCD School of English, Drama and Film