Poetry Shelf Spring Season’s poetry fans: Paul Diamond picks Gregory O’Brien


Ode to the Sarjeant Gallery


Likened, on occasion, to a boom-box on a grassy shelf,

Sarjeant Gallery, I think of you mostly


as a tin

in which the finest bread

is baked, with your airy dome


and ample intelligence, your south-facing wall

on which the paintings of Joanna Paul


and Edith Collier sing to the river birds,

and are sung back to.


A steadying influence,

above which clouds like

thought balloons moor a while


and around which gather

the moonlit streets of Whanganui.

On your lawn this morning I watched


a film crew being washed down-river, an empty shoebox

blowing towards Moutoa Gardens – but all I could hear


was a distant burbling of the mayor

and his accountants

marooned in the small towns


of their suits, nose-deep in their yellowing pages,

in whose minds


the Whanganui River would be diverted

so it comes out

at Patea, and by whose good judgement


Pak ‘N Save would be enlarged

to enclose the whole town,


and the marble wrestlers in the Sarjeant foyer, this goes

without saying, would be replaced with


jelly. In the council chambers, a hundred years

of Whanganui River fog would seem


to have obscured the mayoral judgement,

the mist outside

clearing to reveal, on the forecourt,


a bullroarer and baby’s rattle – emblems of the town’s

leadership – and towering above it all,


our observatory

of earthbound constellations,

your patient dome, looking down on


the dust-gatherers and nay-sayers, the elected

and the naturally selected. It all comes down,


like the Whanganui River,

to this. And every city

has its limits.



©Gregory O’Brien  NZ Listener April 2-8 2005 Vol 198 No 3386


Note from Paul:

I’m writing a book about Charles Mackay, a former mayor of Whanganui, who was a driving force behind the building of the glorious Sarjeant Art Gallery in Whanganui. In 1920, Mackay shot D’Arcy Cresswell, who threatened to expose the mayor’s homosexuality unless he resigned. Subsequently, the mayor’s name and title were erased from the Sarjeant Gallery foundation stone (but restored in 1985). Spending time at the Sarjeant Gallery and getting to know its staff and collections has been one of the highlights of my research visits to Whanganui. Greg O’Brien’s poem came out of an unhappier, divisive time in the life of the city and the gallery. More than a decade on, fundraising for the gallery redevelopment plan is well underway, and there’s greater awareness of the significance of the Sarjeant building and its collections for the nation, as well as Whanganui. I like to think Charles Mackay would be proud.


Paul Diamond (Ngäti Hauä, Te Rarawa and Ngäpuhi) was appointed as the inaugural Curator, Mäori at the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2011. He worked as an accountant for seven years, before switching to journalism in 1997. He is the author of two books (A Fire in Your Belly, and Makereti: taking Mäori to the World) and has also worked as an oral historian and broadcaster. In 2017 he was awarded the Creative New Zealand Berlin Writer’s Residency, to work on his book about former Whanganui mayor Charles Mackay, who was shot in Berlin in 1929.


Gregory O’Brien is a poet, essayist and writer, currently finishing a non-fiction book, Always song in the water–New Zealand art, letters and the environment. ‘Ode to the Sarjeant Gallery’ was written at a time when the Sarjeant was getting a very bad rap from the local council under mayor Michael Laws. It appeared in the Listener and hasn’t surfaced again until now.

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