Patrick O’Reilly is a bona fide discovery. I met him in an undergraduate senior projects creative writing class at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. He was wearing a tweed suit. With his mustache and parted hair, he looked a bit like pictures of E. M. Forster — Edwardian, an aesthete. He is from Newfoundland. He’s got poetry in his genes. His poems have an Irish registry, something in the rhythm, phrasing and diction. That gives him a glorious air, an authority, which, coupled with what he has learned from the Imagists and the early Moderns, renders him unique amongst the young poets I have come across. He already fits within the tradition. He has read and absorbed tradition. But then you’ve never read anything quite like this. Biblical, epic, dramatic, hammers and tongs, surgical phrasing. You just wish he’d go on.
What Wolves Eat
Twice-banished, blood-spotted Cain
limps across the barrens,
the mute, unyielding ground of Half-brother Country,
far-far-east of Eden.
Eight wolves sprawl and watch
they will not eat scavengers,
Cain does not know what wolves eat;
he keeps walking, keeps not breathing.
He walks ’til sundown. Every limb pleads
“It wasn’t me. The first murderer was God.”
Adam in furs. Adam forcing the plough. Amateur.
Shivering among twigs,
his back to the cold cold ground
his chest to the cold night air,
he falls asleep inventing names for himself:
Cain the First Born Man,
king and government and nation.
Then, always, the vivid dream:
a fist reaching into the wheat,
clenching a paleolithic stone,
red tendon, white knuckle, black stone
raised high against the sun,
smacking him into wakefulness.
I’m sitting on a rock,
throwing rocks at the harbour,
chewing on the word husband.
Love is a corset word,
snug on the girl
that can hold her breath.
That’s a word about a house,
and I’ll be good
god-damned if I’m hitched
to three rooms, seven youngsters.
His collar’s been dry this ages.
I heard nine different places
his ship spun round
like a crumpled needle.
But he won’t talk about it.
What monsters, murders
in that crumbling ocean-close
I’d only be making up.
Rubbers sob at every step.
He’s come to the high place of the meadow
this first thawed day of spring.
The Ground quivers – swelled belly,
starved for whatever’s near:
booted feet, the heads
of shovels, picks, beads of sweat.
The constant striking aches – strike, strike,
gaffing the ground,
gouging down to the meadow’s toothless maw.
He feeds the meadow his horse;
junk by salt-stained junk she falls
into the ground like coppers.
Last New Year’s Eve (or day, it’s hard to tell
’cause every other soul was gone aloft),
while the dregs of rum were settling in the keel,
himself stayed up with the backhoe driver, Croft.
The bottle drained, Croft stumbled to his feet:
“Before I go, now, do one thing for me.
You sang a song once, this time years ago,
sing that song – I’ll dig your grave for free.”
Half-dreaming in the hallway I could hear
how, instantly, that voice shivered with shame,
but then the old man’s voice came, keening clear,
smashed to Hell, but singing just the same.
On the day they put the body down,
Croft shivered with the handful dressed in black,
and cried to see that casket in the ground,
then turned to go and never would turn back.
At any rate, that grave was dug for free.
No one knows this story, now, but me.
Clothes He Never Wore
His pallmen hitched their gloves around the rail
and down he crossed the bar.
We waited, sole in gravel,
until the drizzle dried into our coats
until the paper flowers burst
until we knew he’d never
pull himself from the dirt.
Just the same, we backed to the truck.
Just the same we left.
That night we ransacked the closet, mined
a trashbag’s worth of oily sweaters, the shoes
from last Christmas, laces curled beneath the tongue,
three piece suit, sans mourner. But no
secret will, no pirate’s map, no
letter from a bastard brother.
Nothing but the clothes he never wore.
In a disaster of movement, accordions gasping,
their feet flash off the floor, sounding claps like sparks
flying into the awestruck eyes, mouths of the guests.
Awestruck eyes – the bride’s, the groom’s
fixed to each other: her brown hair shaken
against the fine lace patterned shoulders, a smudge
of blackberry wine on her upper lip, moving too fast
for a kiss. It must have happened then:
some time in the dance, suddenly.
The next morning he rose
and she rose,
announced the arrival,
the spark flung between them,
Oldest Man in Town
One afternoon he might have
one memory after another
against his idleness.
His eyes are vices
squeezing every flinch
of every dog for scrutiny.
Things have changed here.
Sundays from his window,
watching the procession,
the long procession
heading to mass,
he can see
what others must miss:
the bodies shifting in time,
their clothes rising and falling
in and out of fashion, their bodies
rising and falling from old age
to fresh youth over
and over and
A for Argyle
On the day the Argyle was first due in spring
the baymen waited for hours at the landing,
sitting with their chins in their hands like girls
waiting for the boys to come dancing.
When they heard the steamstack’s trumpet
they followed it to the water’s edge:
the loud mechanical trumpet blast that beat just once
before she rose above the horizon, a plated beast,
the bowels belching soot, the rivets straining
like a harness around oxen shoulders.
They lifted their eyes in terrible faith,
but I was watching the little girl
cowering behind her mother’s sepia dress,
her eyes grown big enough
to reflect the whole of the monster.
His was a body in want of a bar –
a corner of West Country shebeen,
his face lit by a mug of punch,
scratching doggerel on a scrap of rolling paper.
Instead he’d sit on the daybed,
browned and bow-shouldered
like rum out of the bottle.
Instead he’d sit on the daybed,
his breath barely white on the window,
and his bones not content with the room.
Sure he was never big.
Still they say he starved himself
right down to the ribs, as animals do,
and excused himself to the quiet
shelter of his stable.
Patrick O’Reilly was raised in Renews, Newfoundland and Labrador, the son of a mechanic and a shop’s clerk. He is studying English with a Concentration in Creative Writing at St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, and expects to begin work on his MA this coming fall. Twice he has won the Robert Clayton Casto Prize for Poetry, the judges describing his poetry as “appealingly direct and unadorned.”