This is the Life of the Mind

As Reviewed By: Maria Johnston

The Sea Cabinet by Caitríona O’ Reilly. Bloodaxe, £7.95, 61 pp.

I am rereading Moby Dick in preparation for the exam deluge tomorrow-am whelmed and wondrous at the swimming Biblical & craggy Shakespearean cadences, the rich & lustrous & fragrant recreation of spermaceti, ambergris-miracle, marvel, the ton-thunderous leviathan. One of my few wishes: to be (safe, coward that I am) aboard a whale ship through the process of turning a monster to light & heat.           – Sylvia Plath, Journals, pg. 370

Sylvia Plath’s deeply appreciative response to Melville’s Moby Dick, her shrewd, insightful regard for its redolent language and its powerfully evocative images of the monstrous, unknowable natural world, provides a fitting gesture towards a similarly rich and erudite new collection of poetry, The Sea Cabinet by Caitríona O’ Reilly. Indeed, O’Reilly would doubtless be moved by Plath’s comment as Moby Dick provides The Sea Cabinet with its epigraph and Plath herself is surely a most enabling influence in O’Reilly’s finely wrought poems with their knowing cleverness, use of richly varied, often elliptical language and keenly observed, finely-detailed imagery. Plath is clearly important to O’Reilly as a poet. O’Reilly’s interest in the American’s work goes back to her PhD thesis, titled “I Carpenter a Space for the Thing I am Given”-itself a line from Plath’s “Thalidomide”-a study of influence and the consciousness of space in the work of Emily Dickinson, H.D. and Plath. However, O’Reilly should in no way be numbered among the many contemporary fledgling poets who may be seen as nothing more than admiring Plath-imitators, overawed by the formidable powers of their predecessor. She is too confident and informed a poet for that. Unlike Eavan Boland, the Irish poet who has most persistently declared the influence of Plath on her workand who, as Edna Longley has put it, “signals rather than digests her debts to Sylvia Plath,” O’Reilly has assimilated Plath’s influence, learning from Plath and other precursors in order to forge a voice of her own.[private]

It is interesting to note the similarities between Plath and O’Reilly, not least in the way that critics have responded to the work of both. Marita Over, reviewing O’Reilly’s first collection The Nowhere Birds for Ambit Magazine, remarked on how “O’Reilly’s tone varies interestingly though: sometimes she exercises a kind of fine hysteria that remains controlled but threatens to overflow, and at other times she exudes a warm empathy and humour towards her strange subjects.” These are much the same terms that critics used to describe the tone of Plath’s poetry, particularly ofAriel, as one of “controlled hysteria” but at the same time, as Al Alvarez recognised in an early review of Ariel, “tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hard minded.” Over’s concluding remark, “Superb, but definitely not one to read without the central heating turned up a notch or two” is a testament to this poet’s ability to discomfit as she impresses. Melville famously professed, “I love all men who dive” and O’Reilly, as Dickinson and Plath before her, is a poet who is driven to probe beyond limits; to disturb, provoke and exhilarate.

Writing on Plath’s poetry, O’Reilly displays the kind of intelligent critical engagement that is often absent in Plath scholarship. At a thematic level, O’Reilly has encapsulated the concerns of Plath’s poetry as, “the terrible insecurity of the self, the reality of indifference and lovelessness, and the inevitability of death and loss.”Such knowing observations of Plath’s work by O’Reilly lend themselves in turn to a deeper understanding of her own preoccupations in this collection. The Sea Cabinet, following on from her critically-acclaimed, Rooney Prize-winning debut collectionThe Nowhere Birds, continues the same reflective interrogation of the natural world and the lone self in it as the mind struggles to apprehend and make sense of its place in a threatening, mutable environment and seeks to articulate something of its own alienation in an ultimately impenetrable, unquantifiable reality. It is the sustained gaze of the speaker that dominates in this collection. The processes of observation as well as the objects perceived are mercilessly examined and analysed in this most watchful, most precisely detailed of poetries. O’Reilly’s focus is unflinching, never resting. In “Diffraction,” the distorting effect of light on the speaker’s perception is meticulously scrutinised. Light, as well as clarifying and making visible also warps and injures. Here, the speaker, vulnerable to the powerful forces of light and heat in a foreign location, is overexposed: “And the light- / it fills my eye vessels // to overflowing” resulting in visual impairment, semi-blindness; “A half-moon gone, / half a sentence/ smudged from the page”. The disorder is investigated by Argus-a reference to the Greek mythical watchman with 100 eyes-and the poem ends with the assertion that “there are limits to what/ any eye can absorb”. Similarly “The Floater” too, displaying a true flair for simile, has the speaker articulate the unnerving effects of a loose particle in her eyeball as it attacks her field of vision:

it suddenly swims into sight

like a snaggle-toothed sea-beast

submerged until now,

jellied eel in my vitreous humour.

This is highly reminiscent of Plath’s “The Eye-mote” wherein the speaker describes the disruptive effects of a splinter stuck in her eye:

Abrading my lid, the small grain burns:

Red cinder around which I myself,

Horses, planets and spires revolve.

Similarly, in O’Reilly’s “X-Ray,” the speaker, supine and “unscrolled”, is subjected to the invasive properties of light, the self under threat of exposure and fragmentation.

O’Reilly’s is a profoundly exploratory imagination. As one would expect in this age of Irish cosmopolitan poetry the work is peripatetic, encompassing locations as distant as Hull and Japan as well as journeying back in time and moving through large-scale references to art, history, science, the natural sciences, alchemy, falconry and of course whaling, always in search of more knowledge. The sea is the central image throughout, what Plath in “Berck-Plage” termed “this great abeyance,” and indeed O’Reilly’s evocative eight-line poem “Hierophant” is reminiscent of Plath’s “Full Fathom Five” and “Lorelei” with its sea-imagery of “hands white as cuttle bones” and “the sea-shell curve of his lip” and with its use of archaic words such as “fen” and “hoard”. The same “drunkenness of the great depths” that is majestically orchestrated in Plath’s “Lorelei” is there in O’Reilly’s “dark pool.”

[private]Another poem, the fantastical “Shortcut to Northwind” has the speaker, by way of a computer virus that renders her monitor blank, imaginatively carried away to another world, as she declares on a deep-sea sojourn: “The air’s thickness/ grew, and it was without fright// I knew that I was breathing water.” This is surely a direct reference to the vivid closing lines of Plath’s “Full Fathom Five”: “this thick air is murderous/ I would breathe water.” Plath’s trope of bee-keeping also features. In the prose-like “A Deserted House,” noisy colonies of bees have taken over the chimney piece to become architects and constructors of six-walled edifices or cell structures, in the spirit of Robert Frost’s “Design,” giving way to, as the poem concludes, “less a haunted house than a population in the chimney piece.” Nature, unfathomable, has its own laws, its own mind. The poet can only use the full forces of words and poetic forms to create some sense of order, temporary though it must be, and in this O’Reilly surely reiterates Plath’s “Conversation Among the Ruins”: “What ceremony of words can patch the havoc?”

Just as O’Reilly, in her reading of Plath’s “The Night Dances,” draws attention to Plath’s use of the word “calla” lily for its relation to “callous”, here she comes across as a deserving successor to Plath-a self-confessed “Roget’s Trollope”-as a poet deeply interested in words themselves. Part V of the title poem, called The Whale, begins, “The twenty-ninth letter of the Arabic alphabet / is nun, which means ‘a whale’.” There is a scholarly, erudite attentiveness to words and their meanings throughout O’Reilly’s collection as “Calculus” declares: “I collect fine words the way others collect birds’ eggs” only to then archly catch out the unsuspecting reader with, “the most beautiful word in the language // is haemostasis, which means the stopping of clocks.” The whole collection is unified by the use of motifs and images that reverberate throughout. Thus, pivotal words such as “eye”, “sea”, “edge”, “moon” and “bees” sound repeatedly through the poems, making for a richly interwoven texture. This is the same “interweaving of imaginative constants from different parts of the oeuvre” that Seamus Heaney celebrated in Plath’s work in his essay “The Indefatigable Hoof-taps.” Words and symbols continually call attention to themselves, set very deliberately in their places as the poet’s control never falters. O’Reilly’s inventiveness with language and style of syntax is reminiscent of Plath’s. Chillingly matter-of-fact pronouncements such as “I am six months nearer the earth” and “I have barely moved all winter” (“Gravitations”) imitate Plath’s monological style particularly in her poem for three voices, Three Women.

The title poem of The Sea Cabinet, cast in free verse over five sections was apparently inspired by a visit to the Hull Maritime Museum’s display of whale skeletons and other artefacts from the deep, as well as by the story of the whaling ship Diana that sailed out of Hull in 1840 only to become trapped in ice and its captain die. Quoting from historical documents, the poet meditates on the whaling industry and on the accompanying themes of obsolescence and extinction. Thronged with opulent vocabulary ranging from archaic to more contemporary terms, the opening section itself puts forward a catalogue of whaling implements: “flensing spades, blubber knives/ and tongue knives, blubber pricks and seal picks, / trypots and pewter worms, gaffs and staffs and bone gear” clanging then chiming through bursts of internal rhyme to make up “the whaleman’s glossolalia and horizon.” Indeed, Plath as enraptured reader of Moby Dick, would be delighted to behold the word “ambergris” in The Whale even if her “spermaceti” does not appear (although we do get “Mysteceti”). The title poem closes with the following marvelously poignant realization:

The whale on which their world depended

is elsewhere, free of history, and casts

their antique lives adrift like ambergris.

O’Reilly cleverly has the word “depended” hang precariously off the edge of both the line and the stanza, drawing directly on the etymology of the word which comes from the Latin, pendere, to hang. Such attentiveness to matters of technique and erudition is a joy to encounter, as is the fierce alertness to detail, to experiences both real and imagined. Throughout the collection, O’Reilly meticulously conveys the life of the mind as it encounters the world.

This is not the poetry of autobiography. Indeed, O’Reilly has been keen to mark out the distinction between life and art, particularly in the poetry of Plath, as she warns against the critical approach that would “simplistically conflate Plath’s biography with the personae of her writings.” As O’Reilly astutely realizes where Plath is concerned “the connections between a writer’s life and her work are numerous, indirect and mysterious.” What is more, her statement in an interview for the Irish Times that “All my poems come out of immediate psychic or emotional experiences” directly echoes Plath’s famous elucidation of her own poetic project to Peter Orr: “I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have.” What is more, just as O’Reilly goes on to say that “There are certainly fictional moments in most of the poems. They are not direct autobiography in any kind of way” asserting how “I’m aware of the artifice that went into writing them and the formal considerations which make them less direct and more mediated” Plath too stated that “I believe one should be able to control and manipulate experiences […] with an informed and intelligent mind.” O’Reilly, having learned from Plath, is mindful of the need to exercise the same intellectual control over her subject matter, and she achieves this mastery in many of the poems in this collection.

Thus voices, masks and poses proliferate. In one poem Goya speaks, lamenting his condition of old age, while in another, “Now or When,” following on from Richard Wilton, the sun dial at Beverley Minster speaks of its own defunct state now that time has moved on. Similarly, in “Netsuke” a Japanese woman depicts herself and her world in beautifully mournful, pared-down diction over sparse two-line stanzas. With precise attention to detail, the act of her own self-mutilation is captured through highly metaphorical expression and the enjambment itself, spilling over the lines, imitates the profusion that is being described:

When I draw

his blade across my

arm it resembles

water dripping over

a stone lip

in the stone garden,

runny wax

from a candle,

the new moon’s

incised smile.

O’Reilly’s intricate use of subtle internal rhyme, words repeated over lines, assonance and alliterative technique is very assured and is this too she has learned from Plath who pursued a poetics dedicated to aural concerns, what she called “mouthfuls of sound.” Also, her highly developed metaphorical imagination is reminiscent of Plath in poems such as “Cut” where the acute scrutiny of a finger cut by a knife blade leads into a sustained conceit for American history. In O’Reilly’s “To The Muse” the muse of poetry, traditionally female, is inverted, appearing as a male lover. Here, the historic Irish Confederate Wars provides the layered backdrop for the breakdown of the relationship and the sexual dysfunction and strained communication between poet and muse, both trapped in an unhappy state of eternal return. Thus, poet and muse are a ‘confederacy’-of dunces perhaps?-making for nothing more intimate or encouraging than an impotent alliance. This poet allows for no easy consolations, taking no comfort even from her own art.

The tellingly-titled pantoum “Persona” points again to the same technique of taking on other voices in a play of fluid identities-what O’Reilly sees in Plath’s own work as “the personae of her writings.” And here, it seems to be Plath’s voice of detached questioning, of control in the face of uncertainty and terror that O’Reilly is deliberately taking over:

And what can I do with these dark adhesions,

These unmoored pieces of the night?

They breathe their black into my day-

Further on, the line “See me there with the pained carved face” immediately suggests Plath’s “Event” with its vividly etched image of the child in the crib: “His little face is carved in pained red wood.” Also, the presiding images here of female self as puppet, manikin, or made of wood are Plath’s own: “little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear” (“Lesbos”). As Fiona Sampson too has recognized, “If this sounds like Plath, it’s perhaps not surprising; since O’Reilly’s poetic project, too, is the appropriation of rich context, including Irish and British history, to personal meaning-making.” “Gravitations,” with its use of imagery derived from chemistry, owes much to Plath’s idiosyncratic deployment of the same vocabulary of science and alchemy, particularly in “Nick and the Candlestick” (Let the mercuric/ Atoms that cripple drip/ Into the terrible well”) and the terrifying, final “image” which, as “The glass cracks across”, “Flees and aborts like dropped mercury” that closes “Thalidomide”:

March: the grey atom

I’ve swallowed drops,

element-heavy plumb line

to this year’s mood-

as mercury might smash

its instrument-

O’Reilly has marked out Plath’s mature poems as “lyrics full of disturbingly powerful and suggestive imagery,” and many of O’Reilly’s poems invite the same description. The wonderfully suggestive image here: “Faces pass / as though their owners / went on wheels” echoes Plath’s preoccupation with the blank or featureless face, a word that between its singular and plural usage sounds ninety-eight times in all throughout Plath’s work, most strikingly in the closing line of “The Surgeon at 2 am”: “Gray faces, shuttered by drugs, follow me like flowers.”

O’Reilly has stated how “Plath’s most beautiful poems present images of absolute self-loss,” and how Plath’s “The Night Dances” “provides an image of self not as emergent but as fragmented, dissipated, obsolescent.” The same theme of the self under threat of extinction or containment pervades this collection and is there in “The Maze” where O’Reilly’s speaker, calm and matter-of-fact, details the frighteningly enclosed nature of her existence where there are “no words,” “no signs”: “I live in a space that was bequeathed me / a ziggurat of stepped spires and corridors. / There is no road out.” Structural concerns dominate O’Reilly’s poetic however such formal resources are used subtly. O’ Reilly, having studied Plath’s poetry closely has recognized for herself the danger of over-reliance on such devices: “Plath’s early lyrics are rather stilted and self-conscious, demonstrating how heavily, at first, she relied on the formal poetic resources of rhyme and meter.” Reflecting on her own use of poetic forms, such as the sonnet or sestina, O’Reilly has said how “it acts as a stimulus to the poem. It’s a test of how you can think within boundaries.” These boundaries, enclosures, confinements mirror O’Reilly’s thematic concerns with the self and the structures it is contained by under duress of entrapment, disintegration or obsolescence. O’Reilly resembles Plath in her use of free verse stanza patterns, and just as Plath, after her strictly formal and imitative beginnings grew into a poet of real originality and formal daring, O’Reilly is a poet who deftly handles her poetic resources while also sounding a unique, assured voice. She is sure to reach even further heights in the future.[/private]

About MJohnston

Maria Johnston studied English Literature and Music at Trinity College, Dublin and is now a doctoral student in the English Department there. Her reviews have appeared in Metre and Poetry Ireland. Forthcoming essays will appear ‘After Thirty Falls’: New Essays on John Berryman, edited by Philip Coleman and Philip McGowan (Rodopi, 2007) and "Continuings": A Celebration of the Life and Work of Brian Coffey (Irish Academic Press, 2007).
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