EA Gleeson reviews “Symptoms of Homesickness” by Nathanael O’Reilly

Symptoms of Homesickness

by Nathanael O’Reilly

Picaro Press, 2010

ISBN 9781920957896


Reviewed by EA GLEESON


With dedications to Conlon and Quigley and geographical cues such as Yambuk, The Lady Bay Hotel and The Moyne, the nomenclature of Symptoms of Homesickness orientates us towards the Irish Australian Diaspora and particularly as it is lived out in Victoria’s South West. Closer reading reveals a wider geographical terrain but the real landscape of this poetry is the cultural and emotional territory explored through childhood, teenage years and young adulthood.

O’Reilly has paid attention to experience and brings it to the reader in a poetry that is descriptive. The opening poem in ‘Deep Water’ places the reader in a childhood place many might choose not to remember.

                On winter mornings, the State
                Put children to the test
                While teeth chattered,
                Swimming caps squashed
                Ears, testicles retreated.

More enticing to those who thrive on nostalgia might be O’Reilly’s description of ‘Stopping for Fish and Chips’.

                the sweaty package
                Of butcher’s paper and grabbed hot
                Handfuls. Escaping steam fogged-up
                The windows. We gripped sleeves
                In our fists and wiped windows clear.


More of the poems have to do with burgeoning sexuality, friendship and risk taking.

I enjoy the way O’Reilly plays a situation to transform a seemingly ordinary activity such as waiting in the library for the protagonist’s dad to collect him, into a chance to explore some of the adult magazines housed in the library.

                 I could not
                 Imagine the flat chested, uniformed girls
                 In my class with ribbons, baubles and pig-tails
                 In their hair developing such adornments,
                 Shamelessly spreading themselves on car bonnets.

                                             (“Afternoons Waiting in Libraries”)

O’ Reilly’s approach is to tell. This is reflected in titles such as ‘Folk LPs and No TV’, ‘Stopping for Fish and Chips’ and as cited above, ‘Afternoons Waiting in Libraries’. Events are reported in detail.

                 Evenings were spent at home
                 Drinking my parents’ wine
                 Eating thick slabs of cheese
                 Grilled on toast while watching
                 Day night cricket matches on telly.
                 Or if the Austudy hadn’t run out, 
                 Drinking Carlton Draught downtown
                 In the Shamrock Hotel or the Rifle Brigade…

Events of the heart are often presented in a similarly descriptive style, “oscillating between melancholy and desire” (Anna Karenina in Canberra), with a reliance, sometimes, on the use of adverbs.

                 She needed someone to hold. 
                 I eagerly took up the task,
                 Tracing the contours of her
                 Delicate face with my finger,
                 Gratefully inhaling her warm breath,
                 Entwining my limbs with hers…
                                                     (“The Present”)

I think the impact of this can be to emphasise the physical detail at the expense of the emotional impact and hence, to lessen the likelihood of surprise. I found myself sometimes wishing O’Reilly would place more trust in his reader. On the other hand, I was taken with the way he presented some of his ideas so evocatively. His strongest poetry alluded to possibilities. This was particularly evident in some of his endings:

“Saying yes, yes to the unknown” (The Present) or “you showed us the world, then let us go” (Mentor) and the last line of the book, “The Trinity of your Australian Life”.

This final example ends one of the most moving poems of the collection, ‘Requiem’, in which the internationally situated grandson is not able to attend his grandfather’s funeral in Australia due to the pending birth of his child. A poem based on such poignant points of the cycle of life, with the inherent knowledge that this man was not able to hold his dying grandfather and the great-grandfather will never hold his grandchild would have to affect the reader.  But it is the details of the grandson that made this poem live for me. Images of the expatriate grandson; opening the package containing his grandfather’s “duct-taped binoculars and dusty green corduroy cap”, being held by his wife “as he sat on the toilet and wept”, of remembering his music and stories and potato crop while he held his newly born daughter. Poetry rich with imagery but controlled by emotional truth is a potent poetic combination.

The title poem “Symptoms of Homesickness” works differently from others in this book, but cleverly. The expatriate protagonist laments somewhat ironically, the aspects of Australian life he misses, and with his musings, the tone shifts from poignant to self- deprecating to funny. So it is a shock when the final lines read,

                     When the pain is almost too much to bear.
                     Wondering how much it costs to fly a body home.

Although I would call for a tightening of the poetic technique and editing in Symptoms of Homesickness, it is a work that has me buzzing. Its content is interesting and does the important work of preserving a unique cultural history within the Australian experience. Most significantly, it projects work with a distinctive Australian voice. Elements of the poetry are entertaining, beautiful and frank. I am grateful to the poet-teacher in ‘Mentor’ who “convinced a roomful of teenagers that poetry matters”. The most significant poems have me excited about the future possibilities that we are likely to see from this poet. I will be queuing to buy his first full-length manuscript.


E. A. GLEESON‘s poetry collection, In between the dancing, received the award for Best First Manuscript and was published by Interactive Press in 2008. Anne lives in Daylesford, Victoria where she works as a Funeral Director.