Photo: Bruce Foster, Gregory O’Brien and John Reynolds at Quintay, a short distance from Santiago on the Chilean coast, March 2013
Citizen of Santiago poems by Gregory O’Brien, photographs by Bruce Foster (Wellington: Trapeze, 2013)
As participants in the travelling exhibition, ‘Kermadec — Art Across the Pacific,’ Gregory O’Brien and Bruce Foster stayed in an apartment in Santiago de Chile between March and May in 2013 while the show was on. Both men went exploring the city, one with camera and one with pad and pen. The urban navigation resulted in Citizen of Santiago — a delightful collection of poems and photographs.
I have always been a fan of Gregory’s poetry and have often wondered what it is that draws me to it. Partly, I think, the uniqueness of voice; the quirky mind that accumulates detail as the poet inhabits the world, and then the way that detail prompts little tracks of thought that surprise and tumble and turn.
The opening poem, ‘sombrereria,’ goes way beyond the tourist snapshot. The poet takes hold of an object that catches his attention, ‘the hat,’ and then burrows in deeper (trademark O’Brien). This poem is modulated by place (we get details that might attract the tourist eye), but to me the poem goes beyond a specific location (the hat nourishes imagination and intellect, and acts as a pivot of meditation). Lines ring out splendidly: ‘A hat goes a long way/ to making up its mind’ ‘A hat is also an ear/ listening in on/ the head’s business.’
The afterword mentions the story that the Architect Cristian Valdes told of the origins of the Valdes Chair (in a nutshell, father and son were playing tennis, and then the broken tennis racquet was transformed into a chair). It also describes how Cristian’s exhibit at the Kermedes show (two free-standing, gib-board structures) might be a prototype for a summer house that could be folded away to one wall in the off season. Gregory’s poem replays the story told, but also acts as a metaphor for the way a poem can be unfolded and refolded. This gets to the heart of what I love about Gregory’s poetry: the way his poems fold in on themselves, delicately, wittily, not just at the level of syntax but also at the level of thought and the layering of music). His lines are flipping what you see or think or feel back in on itself (like philosophical or poetic peelings — you hold the potato peeler).
Bruce Foster’s photograph’s also sidestep the expected tourist snapshot. As with the poems, there is repetition, echoes, images folding back into themselves, (easels, legs walking). The photographs place human activity centre stage; a city is more than bricks and mortar, it is a psychological state of mind, communities of people. Strangenesses. Points of empathy. Universal registers (father and son laughing in Bruce’s photo). Accumulating narratives.
In one poem, I read: ‘It was all down hill from here/ as everything is/ in the sloping city of Santiagio.’ In one photo, there is a man half hidden by a slanted tree — the tree denies us access to his face (really we only ever get a partial view on any page), but the detail within the frame is electric. The bright pink, plastic crates match the man’s trousers; you leapfrog from the hole in the tree to the diamonds in the crates to squares in the windows. In both poem and photograph, the detail is fertile ground for visual, aural and semantic pleasure.
The book, through both image and line, sets you upon the slopes of reading and viewing, and then sends you skating and skimming and stalling in this foreign place. It is a poetic treat.
The Kermadec show- Artists in the South Pacific here
Kermadec Gregory O’Brien page
Kermadec Bruce Foster page
Gregory O’Brien Beauties of the Octagonal Pool AUP
Gregory O’Brien NZ Book Council page