Guest Poetry Blog # 7 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, American Poet Poet Dion O’Reilly – Part One of Two

American poet Dion O’Reilly

Another Happiness

Publish your best work, find a decent job.
Eat some sizzling octopus, the many
kissing tentacles meaty on your tongue.
Success, you think, Joy! For a while anyway,
then it’s another mess in the papers, the endless
scroll of rapists and dead turtles, another
photo of a world leader with his corn-baked face.

So you go on a car trip north to find
some good rain. You get to Seattle,
and the lawns are scab-brown,
your old home on the lake—
a lime-green high rise.
Always looking for something.
Answer keys. Antidepressants.
More friends, another dog, another slim poetry book,
the poet pushing line after line
of exquisite description, one astonished
metaphor after another, escalating into an ecstatic revelation.

You can’t write like that.
You don’t read enough Virgil and Milton, don’t start
your day writing lines of iambic pentameter.
Detroit, Detroit, Detroit, Detroit, Detroit.
And you can’t meditate like some of the big names do.
When you sit, it feels like termites streaming in and out
of your arteries, on the screen of your inner vision,
all your arrogance, ecstasy, and gloom.

But admit it—sometimes in fall, you look up and see
an arrowhead of duck flight, lonesome and luxurious.
If only you could understand
how fungus flowers from the mind of the land,
how fractal arms of trees shard the sky.
If only you could exalt
in ash falling, the West on fire,
it would be like you’d just arrived on earth.

Dion O’Reilly from Ghost Dogs,Terrapin Books, 2020

RICHARD’S LEAD-IN FOR DION O’REILLY AND HER BLOG POST INTRODUCTION

I am so pleased to introduce the seventh guest blogger in this new series of guest poetry blog posts: California-based American poet Dion O’Reilly. Part Two of her blog post will feature the American poet Jim Moore whose eighth poetry collection, Prognosis, was published by Graywolf Press in November 2021.

Dion is no stranger to these pages. In January 2021 (please click here) I featured her new book Ghost Dogs and poems from Narrative, the online literary journal, where she was a finalist for the prestigous 2020 Narrative Poetry Prize whose winners include many celebrated contemporary poets like Natalie Diaz and Oceon Vuong. And earlier in February 2019 (please click here) I featured a poem of hers from Rattle’s Poets Respond from 2017.

I first encountered Dion through a comment shewrote on a blog post I had written three years earlier on the American poet Tony Hoagland. It was how I learned that, Tony, a favorite American poet of mine, had died while I was away on an trip to Niger and the Sahara. I have stayed connected with Dion ever since and I am so glad I have. It is no fluke that she was a finalist for the Narrative Poetry Prize.

And I am so moved to share her blog post introduction below which captures in her own hard-earned words the way poems and poetry can give voice to what should never have to be voiced; can become a critical way to survive the chaos and disorder in a life. And in her case, some disturbingly large amount of that. To say I am humbled and inspired by what Dion has written for us below would be a huge understatement.

The American poet Gregory Orr who has written a lot about how poetry can save a life says that when we read a poem of someone’s difficult circumstances, the chaos and disorder of a life, we know they survived to write what they did. And Orr says this can give us the hope that no matter our disorders and chaos we, too, can survive. Dion gives that hope. What she survived. What others might survive. And for her writing was the key.

In these two paragraphs from her introduction below she puts the rubber to the road of how poetry is not just an art form but a critical way of understanding one’s own life. And making meaning of it that can lead to a growing wholeness and self-awareness. A healing.

“No matter what, poetry fights cliché. It complexifies and links. The prevailing narrative casts events into stone, which is a lie: Truth is essentially about transition, change, and endless refinement of understanding. Poetry lives, as Rumi put it, beyond ideas of right and wrong.

Writing anything honestly, even roughly, is the start, but bringing Truth to a poetry group and opening oneself to ideas on how to shape experience is the next baby step. A good writing group or teacher will create an atmosphere of permission, offer suggestions to craft the story, deepen and explore the insight, balance darkness with an ascendent chord, or tinge the sentimental with duende.”

I wish I had had this quote when I was leading my hundreds of generative poetry groups at drug and alcohol recovery centers and at aresidential mental facility. Please, please read her not-to-be-missed introduction that follows:

DION O’REILLY’S INTRODUCTION – Craft is Only Part of It

In answer to the question: Why do you write? I often answer in my flippant way that writing is the only thing I can do. Flippant, yes, but there’s some truth to that statement.

Recently, my cousin sent me a video from one of his family’s rare visits to my childhood home. In it, I am an overweight, unbathed eleven-year old, with ragged hair falling in my face. Barefoot with no helmet, I’m showing my cousins how to operate my go-kart. I’m proud of my fancy toy, a toy I seldom operate since there are no children nearby to ride with and few places to ride—no sidewalks, no suburban streets. In the video, my British mother is flawless in full makeup, her hair, bubble cut, presiding over our eighteen-acre farm like a cult-queen, replete with English jodhpurs and a riding whip. My cousins look neat and scrubbed in knee socks and saddle shoes. Their mother, my aunt, is smiling and pleasant, but not glamorous like mine.

When I was nine, my father—an autistic, violent, high school teacher—defied my mother, and refused to belt me. Soon after that event, he became mostly absent from home, immersed in his job and liberal causes. He obsessively stocked his library-den with literature and history books. When I pulled some Kipling, Maugham, Dickinson, or Twain from the shelves, he’d say,” Dion, as long as you read, you’ll be OK.” And so I entered a different world. Soon, I was writing and memorizing poems. I had placed my father’s library inside me.

By the time I was a teenager, I’d filled many binders with poetry, but I was a mess. I suffered from a pernicious eating disorder, an addiction to marijuana and Southern Comfort; I had no close friends, and was fatally attracted to rapey jocks who treated me like toilet paper.

One morning, dropped off at school in the early darkness on my father’s way to work, I sat in the quad and asked myself, How will I survive? What can I do? Snagging men—like my mother and sister had been groomed to do—was not my future. I was too traumatized to focus on activities that challenged me, like math, science, theater, or student council. Sports were not an option for girls back then. But at that moment, when I feared I could not function, a voice came to me: You can write. I was too broken to strive for much else. That being said, I never thought I would write books, never thought anyone would read my work, but I had confidence I could be a high school English teacher and bring disaffected teenagers to literature and writing.

After thirty-five years of teaching, decades of therapy, twelve step programs, and resolute self- inquiry, I’ve improved my skills at grappling with childhood memories of violation and torture. Now, retired, I’m reading, writing, and memorizing again in a more comprehensive and mindful way.

And so, Dear Reader, I want to tell you something, not about MFAs or writing groups, although refining craft is imperative. I want to acknowledge that the voice of demoralization is cunning and powerful. I became a poet because, once upon a time, I was silenced, and I think one of the most difficult lessons is the following: even if one does not grow up under the thumb of a Sadistic cult leader, for most people, there’s a voice saying Your poems suck. You suck. You can’t make this poem work. Give up. You have nothing to say, or You’re not the right color, the right age, the right gender, the right size. Who do you think you are? Here’s the important part: facing the voice of demoralization brings content to poetry. Demoralization is a finger pointing to life’s central issues, both personal and systemic. One can admit, for example, that they’re…

Always looking for something.
Answer keys. Antidepressants.

Forty years ago, the first time I told a therapist—told anyone, really—that I was bulimic, she said, “You can get better, but you have to admit you’re angry at your parents.” And now I would say, if one wishes to write, one must admit Truth. Admit it. Let it in. Some of us are blunt; some of us come in slant, but I believe it is essential to hear the silencing voice, identify it, speak to it over and over because it is a many-headed hydra, which, in a sense, is encouraging: there’s always something to write about, and honest writing continues to evolve.

Let me be clear, this recasting of reality, this truth telling can be about anything: love, immigration, bliss, race, sex, delight in the natural world. A poem can be about an…

arrowhead of duck flight, lonesome and luxurious…
how fungus flowers from the mind of the land,
how fractal arms of trees shard the sky…

No matter what, poetry fights cliché. It complexifies and links. The prevailing narrative casts events into stone, which is a lie: Truth is essentially about transition, change, and endless refinement of understanding. Poetry lives, as Rumi put it, beyond ideas of right and wrong.

Writing anything honestly, even roughly, is the start, but bringing Truth to a poetry group and opening oneself to ideas on how to shape experience is the next baby step. A good writing group or teacher will create an atmosphere of permission, offer suggestions to craft the story, deepen and explore the insight, balance darkness with an ascendent chord, or tinge the sentimental with duende.

Ernest Hemingway said: “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”

So I say, Begin with Truth, within that Truth, the refinement of craft can begin, the lyric moment can unfold, which is a place to be new again, in love with the world.

Heavenly-Blue Morning Glory

You know those moments
when you’re young, dumb-
struck by the sight of something,
the air undone by mist and naked
sunlight as you pace the tracks
in Seattle for no reason,
save the oily light,
the peel of day-moon, coy
between the clouds.
Sure, you feel the same
old disaster, the same sadness
about sadness.
That’s a given, but then,
you’re hit by a fit
of chromatic blue. Hunger-
blue, blind-blue, squeezing
the high fence
like a host of baby-faced
pythons, so cerulean, so rare,
in the dripping freeze,
so necessary and painful
after months of gray restraint,
gray as the gray hair
around your mother’s near-dead face,
your hand released, finally, from her
pressed fingers, her furious fist.
It’s the first time you notice—
like the opened throat of desire,
the tapped vein—
how much you want the world.

Dion O’Reilly from Rattle

By Dion O’Reilly, January 2023

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