Michele Seminara reviews “Distance” by Nathanael O’Reilly
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Distance, Nathanael O’Reilly’s first full-length poetry collection, is separated into three sections – ‘Australia’, ‘Europe’ and ‘America’ – the first and most substantial section (which deals with the experience of growing up in Australia) functioning as the emotional cornerstone of the collection. The title and section headings immediately alert us to the major themes of the book – distance, separation, identity, expatriation, connection and disconnection – but the distances and proximities explored here are not simply geographical or physical; they are also temporal, cultural and emotional.
The book’s first poem, ‘Crabbing’, evokes a strong sense of the speaker’s location in a small corner of an alluring, yet incomprehensible world. Boys crab as they watch boats that ‘have travelled – / from the top to the bottom / of the earth just to fish’, and wonder at ‘the vastness of space’. The boys’ ability to pull the crabs ‘out of their world’ foreshadows the journey Distance will take us on, moving us progressively (and often painfully) away from the familiar. The terrain of the familiar – the people and places of childhood – is explored joyously in this first section of the book: in the poem ‘Ballarat Scenes’, a series of fourteen sensual images moves us progressively through the speaker’s youth, culminating in a moment of reflection as he looks ‘for my surname on headstones / erected a century before my birth.’ The poems here are marked by light and landscape, and also by a strong sense of childhood security and lack of personal responsibility. They are nostalgic without being saccharine, looking back fondly on a time when the world – and time itself – seemed to spread out endlessly. In ‘Sinking’ the poet revels in a period of life when he could
… meander in and out
knowing I have nowhere
I have to go and nothing
I have to be after sunrise
These are the halcyon days, ones made all the sweeter by being viewed in retrospect, tinged with the knowledge of loss and time’s inevitable passing. In ‘Lost Suitcase’, the speaker recounts returning ‘Home after two and a half years’ and searching for a suitcase of ‘letters received over a decade’, only to discover ‘a continent emptied of friendships’. Similarly, in ‘Your Funeral’, (a standout poem and the last in the ‘Australia’ section), connection to place, people and – by extension – self, is further eroded when the speaker attends his grandmother’s funeral and realises ‘that now you are gone / I am running out of reasons to return / to the place where I felt most at home’.
The theme of displacement is further explored in the ‘Europe’ section, where the speaker feels ‘I understand little’ and ‘am like the wind’. Lack of Australia’s vast spaces, light and natural landscape is keenly felt here. As he did in the ‘Australia’ poems, (‘Frenchies, rubbers, dingers’(17)), and as is common in his poems generally, O’Reilly – in his laconic and vernacular fashion – now draws upon the names and colloquialisms of his new environment (staying in an ‘Ikea-furnished apartment /on Goethestrasse /overlooking an art gallery, / Trinkhalle and a strip club’(45)), to describe the clash he finds between the ancient and garishly new. Pinning for belonging, the speaker looks to his Irish roots, climbing ‘The Hill of Tara’, to tie a handkerchief on a ‘rag tree’, and in doing so
taking comfort in a ritual
foreign to me, but routine
for my people, seeking
to connect through a simple
gesture to our ancestors
In these Irish poems the mood elevates, the speaker finding (as he did long ago on the gravestones of Ballarat) that ‘On the main street of the village / my ancestors called home / half the shops had my surname written above the door’. Here there is an uneasy sense of belonging and yet not-quite-belonging, as the speaker relies upon a friend to
… guide us safely
across borders we could not see,
visible only to a local.
Nationality and identity seem inextricably bound for O’Reilly – in ‘St. John’s Wood’ every character is defined by it: the speaker shares ‘a room with a Canadian / and two racist South Africans / next to a roomful of farm-raised Kiwis’, buys ‘international phone cards / from surly Pakistani newsagents’, and sleeps with ‘an ex-ballerina / from Altona’. Displacement from country has clearly engendered a disrupted – and yet paradoxically heightened – sense of national identity in the poet. Like the stones in the poem ‘Skimming’ – which hit ‘the water again / and again and again, before / sinking to the bottom sighing’ – the speaker searches for his own resting place, ‘scanning the hillside / for the home of our dreams’ with his wife in the poem ‘Cote d’Azur’.
This restless search for a ‘home away from home’ leads the speaker, in the closing ‘America’ section of the book, to finally, and not without struggle, reconfigure his sense of self. No longer drifting, he now speaks of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’, and is challenged, by the ties of marriage and fatherhood, to fit into his new American home and culture, a culture which has scanty knowledge of his own: ‘You ain’t from around here, / is ya? Where y’all from? /… You speak English real good’, drawls the hairdresser from ‘At the Hair Salon in Big Sandy, Texas’. However, such fundamental change requires a reassessment of the old concepts underpinning ‘self’:
The conflict went deeper,
all the way down to childhood,
religion, family politics, gender
norms, culture and nationality.
and a subsequent rebuilding:
We entered armed
with wine, a knife,
cheese, crackers, cigars,
a lighter, your photographs
and my poetry.
Ultimately, in ‘Texas Life’, the speaker learns that there is ‘enough between us’ to create ‘a private universe.’ Still, he is haunted, in ‘Reminders’, by
reminders of a life left behind,
connections to places no longer
part of everyday life, ancestors
decomposed in graveyards,
friendships suffering entropy,
halcyon days impossible to recover.
In the final poem of the collection, ‘Expat Christmas’, the speaker resigns himself to staying ‘with my American / family in my American house / going to my American job’, but still attempts to ‘destroy the distance’ (between America and Australia, past and present), by drinking ‘Jacob’s Creek’ and eating ‘salt and vinegar chips’.
Distance is a hugely nostalgic collection, traditionally, elegantly and simply (in the best sense of the word) written. Marked by a sense of both internal and external exploration, the poems take us on a journey through time and place, charting the terrain of identity, nationality, connection and belonging within the context of spatial, cultural and temporal displacement. These poems have the power to make one pine for one’s own childhood, reassess one’s own identity, and reconsider one’s own connection to ‘ancestors’ and ‘country’.