Black Cassandras of the Power Lines – The lyric Power of the Many Shocking (Yet Somehow Liberating) Narratives from the New Poetry Collection of American Poet Dion O’Reilly

American poet Dion O’Reilly

Dear Tongue,

I like the way you tender the inner flesh of cheek,
bend to touch your hinge in the red-flesh crevice of your cave.
I love the way you play with folds along the inner base of gum,
pester and pester the zippery edge of a chipped tooth.
Oh you want so much! You want to repent, but first transgress,
to scrape sweet apple, lick the way a candle licks.
Oh, worship tongue, whet-stone tongue, tongue that loves
the sweat off a hip bone, god tongue who speaks in tongues.
I like it when you roll your rhymes and tap my palate. Whistle tongue,
song tongue, umbrage tongue, you’ve led me down some catnip alleys,
probed some chancy ears. But now, don’t you think it right
to lick the midnight caruncle of desire? Dear slab of pink
who screamed my first hello, you will whisper my last goodbye.
My last, Please, please, scratch between my shoulder blades.

Dion O’Reilly from SADNESS OF THE APEX PREDATOR, Cornerstone Press, 2024

I so enjoy the feel on my tongue of this playful musical poem about the tongue.  What a world the poet discovers with it. Our embodied world of skin, flesh and bone. This poem that demonstrates the creative wit and spark of American poet Dion O’Reilly. The intelligence and superb craft of her poems. This is a poet with poems to celebrate.

And so it is again such a pleasure to feature Dion and to introduce her just-released full-length collection: SADNESS OF THE APEX PREDATOR. This follows after her 2020 collection Ghost Dogs which I reviewed in 2021. To read that review please click here. Dion also contributed to the Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series  #7 with her story of her dramatic journey to and with poetry and her feature on American poet Jim Moore.

This new book sings of survival as did Ghost Dogs. An almost unbelievable survival. And through her survival as told through her poems there is much terror, anger and seering honesty. Some of these poems are not for the faint hearted. (See the poem excerpt at the end of this post.) And yet. All of them so necessary. All of them telling readers: unbelievably I survived this. And the unstated thought that comes to me: that if this remarkable poet survived is it not possible, no matter our trials, we can survive, too. The gift of this example.

Dion sings of survival from a difficult sister, a sadistic lunatic of a mother and her flashing whip. Sings of survival from many other degrading and domestic ugliness as a child. These lines:

from Posies:

I was a botched child
in a land where children fell
from the sky like snow, were left
unguarded for wounded lions.

Dion O’Reilly, ibid

And these first lines in a poem about her mother that in such an imaginative way indicates the overwhelming weight of a mother’s violence against her family. This beginning of a stunning song:

from World Books

When my mother threw the encyclopedias at us,
she threw the world: mammals of North America,
Doric columns and eggplants, giraffe necks,
bustles, empire dresses, pale, pushed-up breasts.
She threw colorplates of striped beetles. She threw the Beatles
hot air balloons, the race to the moon………

Dion O’Reilly, ibid

And as Dion did in Ghost Dogs, she sings seering songs of recovery from a horrific burn accident which left her with massive scarring over much of her body. She sings and a larger song emerges past survival. A song of a woman who is so much more than all her wounds. Who, although unflinching in her portrayal of the some of the horrors imposed on her, somehow did not lose a generosity of spirit. This remarkable poem:

How to Dress Wounds

Insist on entering cathedrals
the window colors
sliding through flesh. Feel them,
clockless, the centuries
laboring toward god filling you
like breath. Remember
what happens,
happens slowly. Listen
to something as small as a butterfly
shivering the back of your skull.

Look at your unmanageable body
as the plant sees the sun, complete
devotion. Day after day drag yourself
to the same altar, drink and eat
as best you can. Forgive

the imperfection on the skin of fruits,
the unblessed meat. Awaken
to light moving through curtains.

Sleep the way horses canter
through the dark trees riderless

Until they forget they’re horses.

Dion O’Reilly, ibid

The use of the imperative grammatical mood in this poem is so effective – how it drives the poem forward. It starts with the first word: Insist, then all the other imperatives follow: feel, remember, listen, look, drink and eat, forgive, awaken, sleep. These imperatives could be a mantra for healing and health!

And I am so taken by the lyric power and intensity of the last lines: Sleep the way horses canter through the dark trees riderless//until they forget they’re horses. The many other lyric moments in the book that break out of its narrative constraints, its deft use of ordinary speech, is one of the compelling strengths of this remarkable collection. Shocking narratives, yes. But contained with exquisite craft, the grace of fine workmanship. The lyric power of these lines from this poem,

from There was Smoke in the Sunrise:

………………………..Outside a clatter
in the naked snag, crow calls
like stilettoes on black top. For years
they’ve been warning us –
black Cassandras of the power lines.

Dion O’Reilly, ibid

In so many of Dion’s poems, especially involving her mother and sister, I hear so many echoes of  American Sharon Olds, the great so-called confessional poet. And it seems appropriate that one of Dion’s poems in the collection is called  ironically, Confessional Poetry is Dead. And in this poem she mentions a famous poet who no longer writes about working as a janitor in Saskatchewan. Who is that I wonder? And, of course, as she says she is hearing that  confessional poetry is dead, this poem and so many of her others state the  opposite: it’s alive and well. This ending of the poem:

from Confessional Poetry is Dead

I’m sorry I must confess again.
It’s like a tic. I can’t help myself.
I’m hurting because my mother
was a sadistic lunatic because her mother
was a passive aggresive lunatic,
because her mother had twelve dead babies
before her liver wasted away-
all of it a huge secret
in our Perfect Rich White Nuclear family.
Perfect. Rich. White. Nuclear.
Are these words enough
for you to like me?
To hate me? For you to see
this pain I need to confess
in a small part
of something terribly broken.

Dion O’Reilly, ibid

At the last, the first lines of a poem that directly addresses graphically the violence Dion grew up with. The poetic power of Dion’s rage that does not devolve into a rant. A necessary witness to the unspeakable. I commend Dion’s poetics, her selective use of irony, her courage:

from When I think of my sister’s happiness

as she watched our mother strip me,
begged our father to beat me,
how she left me once, concussed,
in a tub, I want to feed her a scrap
of my own meat. She seemed so hungry,
so lit by the love of my blood.
Well, we were both hungry, though
we ate and ate. There was so much food. We were rich!
Dion O’Reilly, ibid

When it comes to a title that is so utterly undercut by the first two lines in the poem, this title must take the cake. How she subverts the title into something quite the opposite of happiness! And the awful irony of: We were rich! The skill of Dion O’Reilly.


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