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The Sea Cabinet, Catriona O'Reilly, 6/2/06

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Books
Date: 06 February 2006


Catriona O’Reilly: The Sea Cabinet

Max Dunbar salutes a haunting new collection.

Apparently there are only about ten people in the country who can make a living purely from the income they receive from their poetry. With few people- at least few that we know of- writing poetry, this seems unlikely to change. Contemporary verse seems in a bind, pulled in two directions: on the one hand wanting to draw from the Romantic roots for which it is best known, and on the other wanting to be new, modern, funky and cool. This confusion manifests itself in different ways. Some write bad rap or observational stand up masquerading as poetry; others flee into the arms of medieval cliché. At the first performance poetry night I went to, in Yorkshire in 2003, a couple were at the back of the pub playing poetry bingo. They had written down classical imagery, ‘sea,’ ‘stars,’ ‘mother,’ ‘chocolate,’ and marked them off whenever a poet used one in his work. They had marked off every one before the end of the first half.

What dazzles you about this second collection by O’Reilly is that somehow she restores the cliché to its source. This is a volume drenched in the natural world, the cold, the ocean and the coast, the wellspring for so much of Shelley and Keats. And yet when O’Reilly writes about these things it is not a reworking of the old or a manipulation of emotions. O’Reilly makes the cliché true and reminds us that all clichés have their source in truth: when she tells us that ‘a storm split the sky in two’ you see it and believe it. Open this small book at any page and you’ll find ringing, shining description; the sea like ‘a football roar from the terraces,’ a spider walking on a beam with a ‘rasp of legs like brittle fingernails in sleep’. Even when the poetry is deliberately vulgar, it is sensual, as in ‘Netsuke,’ which contains the wonderful line, ‘Pale with the shit of nightingales’. I want to put that on a t-shirt.

O’Reilly also draws on the myths that inevitably come to mind when we think of what we don’t know about nature. She brings a mermaid back to life, but this is no Disney fishbabe. This mermaid, ‘Look(s) more like P.T. Barnum’s Freak of Feejee, piscene and wordless, trapped in the net of a stare. She has the head and shrivelled tits of a monkey’. It seems like the kind of ironic inversion that bad comic fiction is made of, but when we think about it, this is of course what a true mermaid would look like, given its environment and origins. Likewise, a Unicorn is a ‘corpse-pale Narwhal’. O’Reilly makes the mystical realistic, the reality mystical, and she loves to play with human ideas of science, nature and our place between the two. There’s a quote just after the contents which resonates through the work- a quote from Moby Dick, the story of a man who goes on a hunt for a great white whale, only to discover that the biggest monster of the sea is himself.

The civilised world creeps in occasionally- schooldays, graffiti, relationships- but we don’t really need it. O’Reilly is at her best when evoking pre-human landscapes. You can smell the kelp and feel the crunch of sand under your shoes. This is a poet at the height of her powers. Pale as the shit of nightingales- yeah, baby.

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