Though there are several divinely commanded genocides committed in the stories of the Old Testament, only one is against a kingdom ruled over by a giant. That kingdom was Bashan, populated by the Amorite people, and its sovereign was Og, which translates literally from the Biblical Hebrew to mean ‘long-necked’. Og is identified in the Book of Deuteronomy as the last remaining member of the Rephaim, an ancient race of giants, and spends his nights in a bed nine cubits long and four cubits wide. That is, until Moses and his followers slaughter the entire population of Bashan, “utterly destroying the men, women, and children, of every city” (Deut. 3:6). It is this biblical myth that forms the basis of Mark Reid’s new book of poetry, Looking out from Bashan: The Republic of Og.
Presented as a collection of individual poems, together they form a biographical narrative of the character ‘Og’. Reid’s Og is both mythical and modern, a gigantic child – intensely curious, bullied in his youth by the girls at his school, and later finding friends and love – with a profoundly developed inner life that follows him throughout his life. With the collection prefaced by the relevant biblical quotes, the fate of that Og looms over the entire book, marking the protagonist as a tragic hero.
To do justice to this book, the poems have to be read together or, at least, recognised as forming a continuous narrative. Individually they appear to range from the almost child-like to the absurdly obtuse, but when read in context they display the development of Og’s mind, from consisting purely of sense-perception, to something capable of creating an imaginary nation, Bashan. Reid litters the poems with references, from the novels of James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and Graham Greene, to tropical fish, Epicurean hedonism and Puccini’s Nessun Dorma – “No one sleeps”. These references play well, both with the idea of Og creating a culture for Bashan that draws from reality, and his journey to discover and understand this world of bodies beyond his own.
Og is not only a tragic hero, but stands as a kind of phenomenological figure – almost Heideggerian – escaping from direct experience into his consciousness.
He is Og.
He is in the world.
He is & is & is.
Reid’s words are understated, sometimes stark, and are employed with precision. This is a highly approachable collection that will be enjoyed by readers of poetry and short fiction.
Looking out from Bashan: The Republic of Og is available now from Fremantle Press.
By Graham Hansen