A review of Dion O’Reilly's Ghost Dogs, from Terrapin Books
Updated: Jun 30, 2020
By Nina Bennett
Dion O’Reilly’s debut collection reflects her life in California. The book is divided into five numbered sections. These poems reveal fresh connections that take the reader by surprise. “Pilgrim” starts as a poem about surfers who “can’t stop traveling west, an endless summer/ of shore breaks and peak breaks to a sun that never sets.” And then the turn that grabs the reader and doesn’t let go: “I knew a man who wanted me like that.”
The title poem, included in the second section, is an ode to “companions/through the long years of childhood.” A lovely premise, until the speaker tells us these dogs were mastiffs, followed by vivid descriptions such as “ferocious muzzles breathing steam.”
O’Reilly masters the unexpected with twists and turns like a kaleidoscope; her poems start with a universal and turn inward, the connection subtle, or the reverse, as in “Scavenged,” where the speaker tells us about a burn so severe it required hospitalization, where “Each day, they peeled me/like velcro from my sheets.” She then shares that, like those who want to know what happened to her. She’s “stared/at a leg’s nubbed end” and “wanted to know how that man was alive.”
One of my favorite poems is “Scars.” It took me two readings to recognize this as a list poem. The poem begins with obvious scars received “from playing barefoot all summer,” progresses to “knee-bruises of childhood,” and concludes with emotional scars, the speaker wondering “if these are lacerations so deep/there is no greater pain.”
While O’Reilly doesn’t hold back on the hard stuff-subject matter includes child abuse and dissolution of relationships-these poems are so well-crafted that the reader will keep returning to them, looking for more connections, and delighting in discovering them.