Everything Itself Even More So – The Poetry of American Poet Dion O’Reilly

American poet Dion O’Reilly from California

Burned Body Contemplates the
Bottom Sheets

Not razors exactly, more like
powdered glass. Gunpowder.
Asbestos maybe. Superglue,
so when I moved it wrenched
the dendrites of my skin.
I had no skin. I’m sorry.
I had no skin.
What I really mean is
the sheets were slim silver
whips. As slim and silver
as millions of threads, stitching
their silver through
what shouldn’t be seen.
The undergarments of flesh
should be secret.
I mean the body is a fruit
that should never be peeled.
Never eaten by air.
Never touched behind
the thin curtain of its cover.
The sheets were touch.
Not touch. There was no
touch. There was a diamond-
bright rake and flay
I sank from. Into the dark-
red halls and caverns
of my guts. To the proper hush-
and-flow machine
of a living girl.
Breath. Nephron flow
of urine. Pancreas
ooze of insulin. The wish
wish wish of the heart
crying itself out
to the sheet.
The sheet holding me.

Dion O’Reilly from Narrative, Fall, 2020

If I had bruises from reading some of the hard-hitting poems in Dion O’Reilly’s recent poetry collection, Ghost Dogs, published last year, then from her new poems published on-line in Narrative in its Fall 2020 issue, I have more and they aren’t shadowy marks, they are purple-blue. And don’t get me wrong, these are good bruises not the ones the speaker in O’Reilly’s poem shares from Ghost Dogs. And oh the fierce cry of her escape from all that:

Her mother with whatever she used
against her children’s shining faces-
flat of the palm, butter knives,
thin branches pruned from apple trees.
Her father watching, grim and satisfied-
they can’t catch her.

Dion O’Reilly from her poem Eighteen from Ghost Dogs, Terrapin Books, 2020

Okay the bruise in me from this has purple in it, too. But it is the kind of brusing I want from a poet giving me an is-ness in her writing that makes the words burn. The kind of experience Charles Wright writes about in his poem Clear Night: I want to be bruised by God./ I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out./I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed./ I want to be entered and picked clean.

The the intensity of the brusing I get from Burned Body Contemplates the Bottom Sheet draws me in with its lyric brilliance and keeps me breathing and reading. I mean this:

The undergarments of flesh
should be secret.
I mean the body is a fruit
that should never be peeled.
Never eaten by air.
Never touched behind
the thin curtain of its cover.
The sheets were touch.
Not touch. There was no
touch. There was a diamond-
bright rake and flay
I sank from. Into the dark-
red halls and caverns
of my guts.

Some of you might recognize Dion O’Reilly’s name from a previous feature post on her (click here)and from some previous mentions in posts on Tony Hoagland and Danusha Lameris. But I think she is going to get even better known since she was short-listed for the prestigous Narrative Poetry Prize in the Fall which is why her poems can be found in Narrative’s Backstage section on-line.

I so appreciate the new poems! because they flesh out, quite directly, more of the speakers experiences after a horrific burn. There are at least four specific poems on that burning  in Ghost Dogs and one in particular, Scavenged, horrific in its descriptions but the new poems add a lyric amplification. Here is another from Narrative:

Time in the Burn Ward

Maybe I split in two, witnessed my mind
like a fly on a broken clock.

Maybe the window, high up, let me watch the dusk
as it was entered by night. Buzzards

etching thin lines in the clouds. The flags
below me, cleaning their bucking sides in the wind.

I missed my horse. Amazed
I once galloped bareback in a bikini and an open bathrobe.

Maybe my life was never mine. I only passed through it,
smudged by whatever I looked at or remembered.

Daffodils. Stained-glass wings of migrating monarchs.
My brother’s eyes when he caught a spiral.

Maybe what snapped in me
was my hardness. I lengthened inside the pills,

learned the shiver-love of being threaded with IVs.
Flowers burning like candles in a death room.

Dion O’Reilly from Narrative, Fall, 2020

But before you begin to think that O’Reilly’s most recent book, in particular, is some kind of book-house of horrors there is also a redemptitive and hopeful sense in this book. The speaker in this book got out of her travails alive, both in body and spirit although she may wonder how she did it as she does in this next poem. This poem is not all happiness, for sure, but it celebrates a survivor, maybe a survivor who for moments can’t imagine how she did it, but she did. Survive. And make beauty out of that survival.


No bone snapped clean,
no bare-chested bully,
no bell calling you in.
No blaring heat. Safe,
your blood warm, abandoned
dog at your feet.
A husband who loves you
like a bird’s nest of careful eggs.
You can stand blank, letting light
beam over the battered face
of everything, the barbed
nettles, tarred leaves
of the bay tree, the pitter
of river birches
raining their catkins.
You can feel how broken you are.
You can’t be happy
in all this quiet. It frightens you,
knowing salvation
is a point of light
the eye follows downstream.
Not God, not the angry men
you fell in with, nor the mother
who silenced you
with backhands and bruises,
not ther bile-green bitterness
you learned to carry
close like your own beloved.
How can you forget
the look of the sky
as they beat you?
Telling you nothing
of the beauty in your flash.
You’ve heard it takes one person
loving a child
for a child to survive,
and you say, “Even if it’s a dog”.
It might be enough-
this wind you listen to, the thin limbs.
Whater it was given you
that you don’t know you have.

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

O’Reilly in her poem All the Hungry Falcons becomes one of those feral hunters and there is a well-earned sense of triumph in a world she sees transformed. As she has been transformed. And in that way can inspire and transform us. Thank you Dion.

Oh, the world feels tidal
when I get like this, when I can’t stop
hunting for something intimate and filling.
I see it lift from the soil.
The sun, a muzzle flash,
turnin g hte meadow bright, burning,
off the haze. I soar in, see it magnified,
everything itself only more so.


  1. Posted January 11, 2021 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this great review! I so appreciate it!

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted January 16, 2021 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Dion Such a pleasure to know you through your poems! The iron and sweetness in them. The voice of a woman who has survived. ANd then some. You have brought us the is-ness of your (your speaker’s) life. Its fragrances. Thank you.

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