Ghost Dogs by Dion O’Reilly / Terrapin Books / 978-1947896239 / 106 pages / February 17, 2020
Ghost Dogs, a witness to evisceration in five untitled parts, begins with pure gore. The poems appear to flow from the exigencies of the poet’s life, and like many poems in the collection, the opening poem, “Insides,” presents a narrative. It tells the story of a child carrying the internal organs of a recently slaughtered bull to her mother after the butcher tells her “how he loved / warming his hands inside a steaming beast.” Anxious to bring the bounty to her mother “before the raw power waned,” the speaker reveals her child-self to be under the spell of blood and guts as much as the adults.
The child-self remains enthralled even when she is the victim, and even years after violence. From “Safety”:
You can stand, blank, letting light
beam over the battered face
of everything. . .
How can you forget
the look of the sky
as they beat you?
Violence marks us, whether we are perpetrators or victims. And, the poems suggest, it marks us as human. The collection takes up the task of reconciling brutality with the great beauty present in both the human and animal worlds. At first, these worlds are presented as separate by the poet, and when they meet, bloodshed is often the outcome, as in “Insides” and a poem that follows it, “Mare in the Road,” in which the speaker/poet comes across a bleeding, broken horse. The animals, though, begin as blameless; it is only the human beings like us who can be complicit in butchery.
Like many debut collections, Ghost Dogs creates a personal mythology, as if the task of the poet is to first understand the motives and situations of the self, and through the self, the world. The defining events in this personal mythology include early child abuse and a fire that burned both house and flesh. I’m a survivor of child abuse, but not a burn survivor. Still, both narratives resonated for me thanks to O’Reilly’s storytelling and descriptive skills.
O’Reilly pushes the edges of her personal experiences, aiming for the universal through detail, suspense, imagery, and sonic resonance. “Burn Survivor Auguries” is a good example:
What became smoke — tips of fingers, the nail bed,
the sole of your right foot,
all the skin from neck to knee —
you might be breathing it right now. No wonder
you see yourself everywhere.
The pain and horror of burning alive transforms into a powerful self that, unraveled, can be everywhere at once. And yet, within these unraveled boundary lines, the central irony of Ghost Dogs coalesces. The poems flow out of a singular, confident, experienced voice. There’s no projection here, no taking on of personae, only the “I” and a rare third person, yet the voice is obsessed with how the self becomes multiple, how it literally transforms: human to animal and back again to human, or a tracery of stickmen into flesh-and-blood escapees, or skin into smoke. And transformation leads to compassion. In “Ode to the Dog,” the boundaries between human and animal blur:
And don’t we also pay a price?
Our human lifespans so much longer —
We must watch the same old friend,
Again and again, die a different death.
O’Reilly also takes a few turns with love affairs and longing here, but these are perhaps the least interesting poems in the book. She is at her best when soaring into the wider world, even as she grounds her poetics in a specific landscape. In “Apple Orchard,” O’Reilly leads us into the heart of all matter: the expression of self shared by human, animal, plant, and stone. None of us can help announcing who and what we are.
for all things mention themselves,
even if they’ve been silenced
or have no mouths.
In Ghost Dogs, Dion O’Reilly refuses to turn away from horror. Instead, she plows back into it for redemption, offering readers the beauty she’s found there and promising the same redemption for those who can also keep from turning away.