Caitríona O'Reilly was born in Dublin in 1973, grew up in Wicklow and Dublin, and now lives in Lincoln. She studied archaeology and English at Trinity College Dublin, where she wrote a doctoral thesis on American literature; she has also held the Harper-Wood Studentship from St John's College, Cambridge.
Her first collection, The Nowhere Birds, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2001, and won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 2002. Her second collection, The Sea Cabinet, was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Now Award in 2007. Her third collection, Geis, won the Irish Times Poetry Now Award 2016, and was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation.
She is a freelance writer and critic, has written for BBC Radio 4, translated from the Galician of María do Cebreiro, and published some fiction. She has collaborated with artist Isabel Nolan, edited several issues of Poetry Ireland Review, and was a contributing editor of the Irish poetry journal Metre.
Q: Are you an ecological poet, or perhaps a geological one? I ask because your work seems remarkably receptive to changing patterns (of fragility and endurance, say) in the natural world. ‘Polar’, for instance, responds to a statistical projection by the US Geological Survey, which predicts that “two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will disappear by 2050”. The poem chases the spectre of a “great absconded god of emptiness”, a creature that once “haunted the boundaries— / ice-rim and earth-rim”, now succumbing to the “boundless transformations” of its time and place, partly shared with (and endangered by) ourselves.
A: It’s strange and alien to me to think about what I do using labels of any kind. These are post hoc descriptions for what always feels messy, haphazard, and the opposite of a ‘project’. If anything, I think of myself as a poet who tends to write in the lyric personal voice, but the subjects of my poems are driven by personal obsessions that I don’t ever fully understand and am superstitious about interrogating too rigorously. The lens through which you understand the world may shift and darken with time, but what remains constant is that you can never escape your own temperament, and that’s what drives the poetry. I don’t really set out to write ‘ecological’ poems at all, I just tend to see things through that lens. An ecology is a web of connections, and so in a way all poetry is ‘ecological’ since finding connections between things is a part of what poetry does. But if we are talking about ecology in the strictly environmental sense, I think one of the great challenges for all writers in our time is how you write through anger and grief at what is happening all around us, and whether it’s even possible to do that now without being overwhelmed.
Q: I sometimes think that poems are primarily negotiations with silence and the unsayable: they’re more about the gaps they intuit than the song-like notes they actually strike. Maybe that’s a barmy idea, but in any case I’m curious to know what your own experience has been: is poetry a gathering up, as it were, or a lifting away (a scattering)? I should say, I’m thinking here of a piece like ‘The Queen of Sweden’, which attends to “the fallingness of things”, setting out to repair or simply to register “the inaudible crash of petals on the hearthstone / that happened while we slept”, as if “a seam had opened [...] between our lives and what escapes us”.
A: There’s a moment, if your writing of a poem is going well, somewhere near the beginning of the process, when you get a fleeting sense of a territory laid out before you, filled with the possibility of infinite association of words and ideas. That lasts a second if you’re lucky. Then you realise the actual writing of a poem is a matter of choices shutting off other choices – it’s very “fled is that vision”. What emerges at the end, after the application of sly craft, of the things you’ve learned about putting words together and what sounds good, or what ‘works,’ always feels like a compromise. It’s never, ever the poem you thought you’d write, the one you’d hoped to write. But that’s ok. If it’s a decent effort it serves as an adequate substitute for that intoxicating original glimpse you had. It’s a bit like the waking reconstruction of a dream – inevitably falsifying on one level, but an acceptable narrative stand-in for the immediacy of an experience you can never fully recapture.
Q: ‘Autotomy’ attempts a similar process of imaginative salvage, but this time the irrevocabilities are more jagged and disturbing. The poem tries to understand the “quiver tree”, which “bears its heavy inflorescence // like a witness to some / continual atrocity”, and “in the way of tongue-cut women [...] amputates what is most precious, / then quickly seals the wound”. Almost every image is freighted with physical and emotional pain, and yet the poem seems consciously to evade the tone and approach of traditionally confessional poetry. Could you comment on this interpretation? I also wonder what you think of the common idea that poetry can heal (wounds or troubles, for example, that would otherwise be difficult to acknowledge).
A: I suppose I have a vaguely Freudian sense of poetic imagery being ‘overdetermined’ in the way dream images are – if you are especially drawn to an image or a symbol or story, it’s because it seems to want to be filled with meaning. Often you sense that possibility but have no clear idea of why it is the case, and the poem is a process of discovering why. It’s a two-way process though: an image or object can impress itself upon your consciousness in a way that makes you feel almost passive. There is something of Martin Buber’s notion of encounter here, perhaps, a fruitful interpenetration. There isn’t a deliberate evasion of ‘personal’ matters or experience – I tend to find my own personal experiences difficult and boring to write about and I don’t assume other people are going to be that interested in them either. I don’t know that poetry can ‘heal’ in any real sense, and therapy is when you pay a professional an hourly rate to listen to you. But I do believe that some of us write poetry as a response to things in our past or in our psychology that are far from healthy or well-adjusted. And it’s at the point where the resulting poetry bears witness not only to your own experience but to that of the people who may read it that the poem has a chance of being meaningful.
Q: There’s a good deal of formal variety in your work, from the lapidary cleanliness of ‘Geis’ to the long-lined cascade of ‘The Airship Era’ (to offer just two examples). Why is this, do you think? And how do you settle on the final form and technique used in any particular poem: is it a matter of intuition and ‘going with the flow’, or one of deliberation, experimentation and conscious choice?
A: Form is the besetting and inescapable problem of poetry. Even if a poem lacks a conventional ‘form’ in the sense of rhyme or metre or traditional stanzaic pattern, it must still have a form that is determined by its theme and by the exigencies of rhythm and of the internally heard qualities of your own voice. It just won’t work otherwise: it won’t hold together. Ideally, form is also a negotiation with subject. ‘The Airship Era’ needed big baggy stanzas; other subjects seem to want to be condensed. It’s a mixture of instinct and informed whim. You might say to yourself ‘I want to write a sonnet’ but some things seem to want to be sonnets, some definitely don’t. And then it’s bad manners to be too programmatic: the deadly tedium of the badly done sonnet sequence. So I would say that ideally, it is a combination of deliberation, intuition and (dare I say it?) taste.
Q: It’s a large question, I realise, but could you unpack some of your literary influences for us? ‘Snow’ seems to echo Louis MacNeice’s poem of the same name (as well as his piece, ‘Sunlight on the Garden’), while the “boundless transformations” in ‘Polar’ (quoted above) recall the final image in Percy Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. Likewise, to me at least, a piece like ‘The Mermaid’, from the title sequence of The Sea Cabinet, is reminiscent of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin or Mary O’Malley. The poem mixes elements of ecological fable and modern, feminism-inflected foreboding, ending with the lines:
Without hearing, or touch, or taste, or smell, or sight
she echoes the numb roll of the whale
in a sea congealed with cold, when it was thought
no beast could be as nerveless as the whale.
What do you make of these comparisons?
A: This is one of those imponderables where a critic is of more use than a poet. When I was a student I remember mulling over the question of whether a poet can be influenced by someone she has never read. I wrote a doctoral thesis on poetic influence, so you’d think I would have something interesting to say about it. But when it comes to influences on my own writing I can only really list the poets I especially admire or who mean something to me; trying to examine how far they’ve influenced me is like trying to unravel your own DNA. It also seems to entail big claims that I’m not willing to make. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is a poet whose work has long interested me. The English metaphysical poets. The American modernists of the mid twentieth century. George Mackay Brown. Federico Garcia Lorca. The contemporary American poet Spencer Reece, particularly his collection The Clerk’s Tale.