‘(Un)belonging’ by Nathaneal O’Reilly -Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee
‘(Un)belonging’ by Nathaneal O’Reilly -Reviewed

‘(Un)belonging’ Nathaneal O’Reilly

Recent Work Press

ISBN: 9780648685333 (paperback)

Nathaneal O’Reilly was born in Australia and has spent extended periods living in England, Ireland, Germany, Ukraine and the United States so is very familiar with being the outsider and attempts to belong. It’s also a perfect viewpoint to observe and record those observations. The early poems mostly start in America, in ‘Exploring the Neighborhood After Ten Days Confined at Home Due to Surgery’

‘The woman with pink personalized

license plates proclaiming OIL WFE

is moving out, leaving trash behind.

The baseball fields, basketball

courts and playground are deserted,

kids trapped indoors by heat.

Old Ray on Olympic watches the street

on a white plastic chair in his open garage,

Katie panting faithfully by his side.

Empty recycling bins lie helpless

on their sides waiting for fathers

to come home and carry them inside.’

It brings to mind Georges Perec’s ‘Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien’ (Attempt at exhausting a place in Paris) where the accumulative detail builds a picture of a place. Here suburban Texas, where the landscape defines the people. The woman with the ‘pink personalised license plates’ keeps her license plates so doesn’t entirely leave all her trash behind. The residents dutifully take out their bins for emptying and, following convention, it’s a man’s job to bring them back in.

Two poems draw a compare and contrast between two presidents. ‘The Boy from Hope’ is Bill Clinton, whose childhood home is open to tourists, 

‘Still, one could imagine little Bill

tottering about on the front porch

taking the first steps towards

a remarkable career, watched casually

by his grandparents and widowed mother,

none of whom could possibly have imagined

what kind of man he would become—

brilliant, feared, admired, hated and flawed,

shades of Hamlet and Macbeth.’

Whereas a poem drawn from Trump’s press conference on 16 February 2017, ‘The Confessions of Donald J. Trump’,

‘President Putin called me up very nicely

to congratulate me on the win of the election.

I have nothing to do with Russia.

I told you, I have no deals there,

I have no anything.’

Whereas Clinton holds ‘shades of Hamlet and Macbeth’, Trump babbles to produce contradictory nonsense; hoisted by his own petard. 

The collection moves on to recount a story from a great-uncle about the poet’s great-great-grandfather who drowned in the Grand Canal in Dublin on a drunken walk home. The great-uncle finds it funny that a man of six foot three inches can drown in a canal that’s five foot ten inches deep. When the poet visits the canal, he thinks he can take a short-cut by wading across it, 

‘into the muddy canal. I sank

to my right knee and panicked,

convinced another step forward

would suck me to the bottom.

Suddenly, a six-three drowning man

in a five-ten canal was no joke.’

The poet makes a hasty retreat. The second half of the collection moves back to Australia and family life. In ‘Too Young’ dedicated to the poet’s daughter Celeste, she’s ‘too young to be embarrassed’ by her father’s antics, ‘You joined in with the Maori kids,/ too young to know or care about race’ and ends, ‘You sipped lemonade, too young to understand/ why we cared about music from New Zealand’. The poem emphasises how prejudice is learnt, not innate and there’s hope that children can also learn not to become prejudiced. Like the earlier Texan poems, these poems also allow cumulative details to tell a bigger story, in ‘Refuge’, an open field is tucked

‘behind the strip mall

beside the medical center

a white-tail doe and her fawn

pause at the street’s edge

before clicking across concrete

to the last stand of live oak’

‘Beach Ballet’ is a visit to Ireland where the poet is chatting to someone but looks towards the beach and sees a girl surfing, 

‘before stepping lightly off the side

of the board into knee-deep foam.

The girl’s ride is almost complete

before I recognize her as my daughter,

just twenty minutes into her first lesson,

adapting, evolving, becoming herself.

Not recognising his daughter is a bonus, he gets to see her as if she were someone else’s child developing skills and becoming independent. A loving parent’s instinct is to protect and nurture but sometimes that conflicts with a child’s growing independence and need to figure out how to do things for themselves. His daughter has benefited from the lack of parental interference. 

Nathaneal O’Reilly has built a collection of gentle poems full of careful observations where readers are invited to picture the details and create the image and response requested in the poem. ‘(Un)belonging’ explores the life of someone who is an outsider and the advantages of seeing the familiar through a different perspective.

Emma Lee