Zachary Ward reviews “Preparations for Departure” by Nathanael O’Reilly
Preparations for Departure
by Nathanael O’Reilly
Reviewed by ZACHARY WARD
Preparations for Departure, Nathanael O’Reilly’s second full length collection, is an ongoing journey in which the poet enters the gaps between home and abroad, contentment and discontent, presence and absence, youth and age, the past and the present. These disparities emerge in a suite of fifty-nine free-verse poems spanning across his formative years growing up in small town Australia, to his most recent years living in America. Reflecting a life spent in diaspora, the poems transport the reader back and forth across oceans to land in cities of ruinous decay, preserved in the poet’s mind; to scenes of quiet urbanity and the endlessly silent screams which pervade; to beaches untrodden, and in which we may now see our footprints forever imprinted; the clatter and squalor of marketplaces and the drudgery of the quotidian. A constantly shifting collage of antonymous sights and sounds, these duopolies are best observed in the author’s mind.
The suite’s first poem, ‘Border Crossings’, observes the conflict of duopoly that is constantly being waged across the author’s thoughts. A round trip through Eastern Europe, O’Reilly paints scenes of post-Soviet squalor and abandonment, though always from the security of a moving train carriage. The reader is afforded a sense of detachment, as the poet is easily able to retreat to the comforts of his compartment and those offered by Western influence. When not ‘sipping a glass of whiskey’, the speaker can ‘listen to Nirvana, U2, Springsteen’, willingly flitting between the scenery outside his window, and the familiar manner of those around him. Outside is the other, the old world, different and dark, crumbling and vacant; the carriage is home to Harry Potter, iPad’s and selfies. O’Reilly is never part of the scenery, and is aware of his intrusion into this world. He is more at home among the comforts of the west, and uses the ever-moving shuttle to shield him from the realities of the world he is passing through. A further exploration of this social disparity is explored in, ‘In the Market Place’. Though not protected by the bulk and pace of a train carriage, a description of the grime and poverty of a Ukrainian concourse is delivered briefly and starkly, conveying a desire to,
… simply observe and pass by,
my needs and survival unthreatened.
To them I am a rich Amerikanski,
an alien from a golden dreamland.
The train carriage is no longer required to define and separate, for his ‘clothes and accent proclaim [he does] not belong and never will.’ Unable to escape his heritage and the legacy of his own home and his ancestral homeland, the poet concedes that ‘in three weeks I’ll be gone, back in the West … living in luxury.’
Back in the West, the author’s reminiscences of his upbringing in Australia unearth a struggle to accept age and in so doing, detach from the past. Though far flung from the shores of home, the patchwork of Australia’s sleepy suburban streets, dry crackling long grass and booming coastal shelves are never far from the author’s thoughts. As from a moving train carriage, O’Reilly can observe his youth; a series of flashing images, just beyond his reach or inclusion. Formative years spent among the quiet nature of urban Australia reveals within the fledgling poet an awareness of the world and a greater understanding of a higher culture that might only be attained by sitting on rooftops and listening to Pink Floyd, hoping to glimpse a better view, in ‘The Way We Saw Ourselves’. Being merely a memory, as intangible as the crumbling iron yards of Eastern Europe, the luxury and comforts of the coach are not present; O’Reilly clearly desires to alight here and reassume the uncertainties and expectations of his younger self,
Years ago now, those days
when the world seemed ours
for the taking, when we dreamt
wildly, full of hope
and our own importance.
O’Reilly’s sense of diaspora is not only temporal, but also painfully internal. A victim of nostalgia and an unwitting tourist in his own youth, displacement perpetually plagues the evading poet. Though still capable of marking the parameters of home in his memory, his identity as an Australian of Anglo-Celtic origin turns his sights away from the antipodean land of his rearing, and temporarily toward the British Isles. One senses the poet’s hope of finding some outcrop of ancient rock to which he may find some purchase, and carve into the old-world soil of his ancestral home his own marking among the scratchings of his literary forbears.
Migration affords O’Reilly a semblance of inclusion, extending the exploration of duality beyond the internal and the temporal; it places the speaker at a spatial variance from his thoughts. Dissatisfaction and aimlessness accompany the author’s musings as he attempts to assimilate a foreign landscape. No longer wishing to play the part of the tourist, the reader becomes acutely aware of the sudden reduction of O’Reilly’s protective barriers; the train carriage has passed and the space between the rooftop and his present self has been traversed. In ‘My Inheritance’, the recurrent invasion of the poet’s carefree childhood is once more invoked. Reminiscently wistful, the reader is escorted further down the halls of the speaker’s memory, stopping ‘by barbed wire fences, scattered with droppings and dung’ to ‘suck in the smell of the sheep and the cows, musty hay, molasses.’ These rustic images, dabbed with care upon a palette of recollections to be disturbed by the slash of the artist’s brush and splashed vigorously across his canvas, hang lovingly upon the walls of these thoroughly ventured corridors. Distanced by years and self-doubt, the reader is reminded of O’Reilly’s self-imposed exile, and the ethereality of such careless days by the abrupt return of time and space in the poem’s final stanza,
In my mind the hot north wind
still flattens the brown grass
and carries the smell of sheep
and earth across the Pacific.
The Pacific ocean evokes profundity, and the depths to which the poet plunges to salvage these images, while its vastness suggests they are forever beyond the poet’s grasp in a muddling of past and present.
The remarkably emotive poems in Preparations for Departure read lightly, yet leave deep and perennial tracings. O’Reilly, in a voice sculpted by the world he has ventured, captures the evasive and eternal nature of the wandering spirit; the constantly restless speaker leaves traces of himself across the pages, carefully crafting an impression of having just come and just gone, leaving the reader one page behind. To keep turning is to accept O’Reilly’s invitation and accompany him on his centrifugal journey forward over oceans and back across pools of thought that trickle into the past. As the speaker takes in the sights, the reader may ponder class, wealth, race and age from the not always welcome security of a temporal and or spatial distance. Though the gaps are ever widening, these poems are able to suspend and preserve observances, which continue to question inherited notions of contentment, belonging and identity.
ZACHARY WARD graduated in a Bachelor of Communications, major in Creative Writing at UTS. His fiction appeared in the UTS Vertigo magazine.