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,
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.