Poetry Shelf classic poem: Siobhan Harvey picks Bob Orr’s ‘Remembering Akhmatova’


Remembering Akhmatova


Of course they are not

spacecraft. The seed packet

described them as ‘Giant Russians’.

Nevertheless they are looking down

as if to find a place to land.

They are not Van Gogh’s sick hospital flowers

neither are they William Blake’s eternal time machines

nor even Allen Ginsberg’s gold Harlem recognition of self.

These are the sunflowers

that looked over my shoulder

at Frankton Railway Station

as I sat in brown shadows

awaiting a train out of Hamilton.

In the heat the tracks trembled like mercury.

In the pages of a book of poems

I was abducted by a Russian –

her black and yellow words

her giant symmetry.


Bob Orr   from Valparaiso Auckland University Press 2002



From Siobhan Harvey:

I’ve always admired Bob Orr’s poetry for his rare ability to entwine narrative, atmosphere and intimation. So much in ‘Remembering Akhmatova’ is said, and so much inferred. Of the spoken, Orr manages to use few words for maximum activity. Within six early lines, for instance, we are transported from a humble seed packet of sunflowers to a stretch of iconic artistic representations of the Helianthus. Van Gogh, Blake, Ginsberg – the diaspora of their artistry, history, geography, inspiration and output is collected and counterpoised seamlessly. There’s weight there too, of course: the burden inferred by the work and legacy of these great artists which carries through the remaining lines of the poem, as the narrator – located in humble Hamilton – waits to leave; but for what? For a life of writing, assuredly, as Akhmatova – directly referred to in the title, but not in the poem – anchors the end of Orr’s work and its story. It’s her poetry which has stolen the narrator’s imagination, something tellingly revealed to us only at the point of his escape. Yet, in its covert concluding reference, it speaks to – and connects – everything which has gone before.

This is said without mention of form or lyric in this poem, both of which deserve discussion of course. Where Orr’s verse stretches to include mention and inference of the work of significant creatives (painters, poets), it also extends its lines; and the musicality of the work expands too. So the first eight lines steadily lengthen, guiding the eye and ear into the rhythmically exquisite, “nor even Allen Ginsberg’s gold Harlem recognition of self.” Cleverly, such extension occurs at the point when the narrative is built upon dissent and negation, ergo “they are not spacecraft” and “are not Van Gogh’s sick hospital flowers”. Then the poem – its tale, form and lyric – tips into ten short lines, all of which are affirmative in tone (“They are the sunflowers …”), tight in form and symphony sharp.

So much is packed into these eighteen lines. As a reader and an artist, I return to this poem so often, listening to it, looking and deconstructing it, searching to make sense of its deep craft.


Siobhan Harvey is an emigre author of five books, including the poetry collection, Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014), which won the Landfall Kathleen Grattan Award. She’s also co-editor of the New Zealand bestseller, Essential New Zealand Poems (Penguin Random House, 2014). Her work has appeared in multiple journals both in New Zealand and Internationally. She was long-listed for 2019 Australian Book Review Peter Porter Poetry Prize (Aus) and won 2016 Write Well Award (Fiction, US). The Poetry Archive (UK) holds a ‘Poet’s Page’ devoted to her work. She lectures in Creative Writing at The Centre for Creative Writing, Auckland University of Technology where she’s completing a PhD in Creative Writing.

Bob Orr grew up in the Waikato, and has subsequently lived most of his adult life in Auckland. He has published nine collections of poetry and won the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry in 2016. His writing has appeared in a number of collections, journals and anthologies and he has recently published the new collection One Hundred Poems and a Year (Steele Roberts, 2018).



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