Catríona O’Reilly


1973- ; b. Dublin; grew up in Dublin and Wicklow; ed. TCD (grad. BA in Archaeology); grad. PhD (American literature); held Harper-Wood Studentship at St. John’s College, Cambridge; received bursary of Irish Arts Council, 1999; issued The Nowhere Birds (2001), winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature; with David Wheatley, co-ed. Three-Legged Dog (2002), a ‘chapbook’; issued The Sea Cabinet (2006), Poetry Book Society Recommendation and short-listed for Irish Times best collection; contrib. editor of Metre [journal]; served as editor of Poetry Ireland Review, 2008; published by Bloodaxe in conjunction with Wake UP; assoc. lect. at Sheffield Hallam University; also writes criticism; has taught at Wake Forest University and the Irish Writers’ Center in Dublin; her poem “The Airship Era” appeared in Poetry (Sept. 2015); lives with Wheatley in Lincoln.

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Poetry, The Nowhere Birds (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe 2001), 63pp.; The Sea Cabinet (Bloodaxe Books 2006); Geis (Bloodaxe Books 2015) [shortlisted for Irish Times best collection prize, Jan. 2016]. Miscellaneous, review of The Laughter of Mothers, by Paul Durcan, in The Guardian (26 Jan. 2008) - online [accessed 21.01.2016].

Anthologies: Her poetry is incl. in The New Irish Poets, ed. Selina Guinness (Bloodaxe 2004).

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Reviews incl. Ruth Padel, The Poem and the Journey and Sixty Poems to Read Along the Way, in The Irish Times (2 March 2007), Weekend, p.11.

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[q. a.,] The Irish Times (23 June, 2001): The Nowhere Birds (2001), poetry collection, called ‘private and philosophical’; ‘strict formalist’; ‘the most startlingly accomplished debut collection by any poet since Paul Muldoon’s New Weather in 1972’; chart the growth of a young girl’s awareness … written with such cool finesse that it would be vulgar to speculate as to whether they are autobiographical …’; ‘technical command is dazzling’.

Selina Guinness (Intro., The New Irish Poets, 2004) - remarks on The Nowhere Birds: ‘Although this book moves from childhood through adolescence and student travels to adult relationships, it charts this journey through a dream-world filled with natural imagery that either terrifies and repels, or that expresses libidinal desires intimately understood. At times eerie in their invocation of spiders, bats, and the claws of birds, these poems are drawn through such witch-like details to the edge of the known world, where they lift off into a surrealist vision of exemplary lyricism.’ (Cited at The Poetry Foundation - online.)

Bernard O’Donoghue, reviewing Paul Muldoon, Vera of Las Vegas, with sundry other poets’ collections incl. The Nowhere Birds (2001), supplies approving notice of Catríona O’Reilly in Times Literary Supplement [Irish issue], (29 June 2001), p.9-10; p.10.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four”: ‘Saint Laurence O’Toole meant business / with his his cheekbones and stiff mitre, / Mary wore lipstick and no shoes / so I sat on her side of the altar.’ (Quoted in Niall MacMonagle, Off the Wall, Marino 2002; see Irish Times [brief notice], 21 Dec. 2002.)
II. The Mermaid

Between the imaginary iceberg and the skeletal whale
is the stuffed and mounted mermaid in her case,
the crudely-stitched seam between skin and scale

so unlike Herbert Draper’s siren dreams, loose
on the swelling tide, part virgin and part harpy.
Her post-mortem hair and her terrible face

look more like P.T. Barnum’s Freak of Feejee,
piscene and wordless, trapped in the net of a stare.
She has the head and shrivelled tits of a monkey,

the green glass eyes of a porcelain doll, a pair
of praying-mantis hands, and fishy lips
open to reveal her sea-caved mouth, her rare

ivory mermaid-teeth. Children breathe and rap
on the glass to make her move. In her fixity
she’s as far as can be from the selkie who slips

her wet pelt on the beaches of Orkney
and walks as a woman, pupils widened in light,
discarding the stuffed sack of her body.

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 a nerveless as the whale.

—from The Sea Cabinet (2015), given by The Poetry Foundation - online.
Note: The Poetry Foundation also gives “IV: The Curée (from A Quartet For the Falcon)” and “The Airship Era” (from Geis, 2015) on related pages.

Poliomyelitis”: ‘The Pool at the centre of the broken-tiled room / was once a swimming pool for local boys // with boils on the neck and chilblained knees. / Their old joints murmur like the sea’s // gradual encroachment on the choked-up gorge of nineteen-fifties noblesse oblige: // grass sprouts from the rafters of the Big House / now, like hairs from a Pensioner’s nose. // The swimming pool was long ago condemned / though a rusty ladder still dissolves at one end // and even the gulls won’t land on water / this brackish and rancid. I carry the taint of it / away like my father, bend over it in dreams / to watch the dead plants thrive beneath the water, // the Pocked silt open and the nymphs rising / to invade another element, breaking the surface / till the room’s air fills with black butterflies brushing their wings against my mind’s ceiling.’ (Times Literary Supplement, 25 June 2004, p.17.)
Blue Poles (after Jackson Pollock)”

Freedom is a prison for the representative savant
addled on bath-tub gin and with retinas inflamed
from too long staring into the Arizona sun
or into red dirt which acknowledges no master
but the attrition of desert winds and melt-water.
Is that why you cast such desperate lariats
across space, repeatedly anticipating the fall
into disillusion, the sine wave skewered
by the oscilloscope, the mirror’s hairline fracture?
The West was won and there was nowhere left to go
so you vanished into a dream of perpetual motion
knowing that once to touch the surface
was to break the spell, but that while the colours hung
on the air an instant, there was no such thing
as the pushy midwife, the veiled mother in the photograph,
the rich woman’s bleated blandishments.
Tracing the drunken white line at midnight on the highway,
you were too far gone to contemplate return,
like Crowhurst aboard the Electron; not meaning
to go to sea, but drawing about you
such a field of force that there was nothing left to do
but plant blue poles among the spindrift and iron filings
and step, clutching your brass chronometer,
clean off the deck and into the sky
where a lens rose to meet you like a terrifying eye.

—from Geis (2015), printed as The Saturday Poem in The Guardian (11 July 2015) - online.

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The Nowhere Birds (2001): ‘Reilly’s The Nowhere Birds introduces a young writer of remarkable maturity and narrative power. The book’s holding pattern is set by questions of location and flight, beginning with views of childhood and adolescence, then moving outwards in poems of daring imaginative range-finding.’ (COPAC notice - online.)