Dion O’Reilly’s debut collection of poetry, Ghost Dogs, is a fascinating portrayal of growth and perspective. The collection is separated into five sections and primarily follows the same nameless narrator. We follow this narrator’s life from childhood to old age and witness their growth as the poetry itself becomes more mature. While early poems are full of pain, regret, and anger, the later poems possess a wry wit and a sense of optimism.
The first two sections primarily regard the narrator’s childhood and teenage years, in which they suffered physical abuse at the hands of both her parents. She calls out her father’s hypocrisy in the poem “Liberal Father,” in which we meet a father who works tirelessly to promote social and political justice while beating his children.
The early poems are teeming with pain and the confusion that comes to a child who does not understand why the one who should love them continues to hurt them. “Ode to High Tea” wonderfully juxtaposes, “Apricot pie, lemon bars, scones, water biscuits…” and an overall idyllic California afternoon with their mother slapping the back of her head with a wet flannel dishcloth before yanking a fine-toothed comb through her matted hair. Suddenly, the rest of the family has joined them in the kitchen and she is left contemplating the origin of her tea.
O’Reilly does an incredible job of portraying the irrationality of young minds; one moment experiencing trauma, the next daydreaming about tea, “…carried on the heads of porters / a hundred miles across mud valleys.”
As the narrator grows, the poems begin to change. The narrator shifts from suffering at the hands of her parents, to suffering at the hands of men. Some are stories of bad relationships and some are of violence. The memories our narrator accounts are still portrayed as things she does not fully understand. There is still confusion in her voice and anger at her misfortune.
By part three, our narrator starts to look outward—Daydreaming about prehistoric man and a man who steals a plane. She begins to speak with more agency than in earlier poems. In the poem “Ex” she sees her ex-boyfriend exit a Trader Joes and unpack his groceries into his car. As she watches, she recounts their sex life and does so without shame or embarrassment but also without any remorse for the relationship being finished, illustrating the narrator’s growth from dwelling on the negative to embracing the positive.
In parts four and five our narrator finds her voice. These poems are more concerned with the present, rather than lost in the past and when they do go back in time, they do so with the wisdom and perspective of old age.
In the early poems you get a sense of the narrator feeling sorry for herself but in the later poems the narrator is poised and in control. She’s learned not to take life too seriously and to live in the moment. In the poem, “At 62” our narrator describes a visit to the doctor where she is told she has the body of an 80-year-old woman but her response to this troubling news is lighthearted, wishing for a physician who would, “list her body’s features / like a used-car-pitch.” Our narrator is no longer interested in victimhood or understanding the irrationality of abuse; she’s past that. She’s looking outside of herself with bravery and honesty. In “Birdman” she admits that her parrot probably doesn’t want to live in a cage in her house and in “Another Happiness” she humorously speaks of her struggle as a poet, “You can’t write like that. / You don’t read enough Virgil and Milton, don’t start”…
It’s almost as if our narrator comes to life in these last two sections, shedding the ghosts of her past and refusing to let them continue to haunt her. Because much like dogs, memories treat us the way we treat them. If you stick your memories in a cage, beat them and starve them, they will be sure to bite. But when we embrace our memories and take ownership of them, however bad their origins have been—when we rescue them and show them kindness, they will not hurt us. Instead, they show us all the good we have inside us; they show us how to be better people. Ghost Dogs shows us how this process unravels and I, as a reader, can’t help but take delight in the bumpy, violent, and beautiful journey.
In addition to being an Editorial Intern at Sundress Publications, Ada Wofford is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Library and Information Science and was recently accepted to the University of Rochester to earn an MA in English. They graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in English Literature and have been featured in a number of publications including McSweeney’s and Literary Heist. They are also a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib and the founding editor of My Little Underground, a music review site written exclusively by musicians. You can follow them on twitter @AdaWofford.