Poetry Shelf review: Gregory O’Brien’s House & Contents

House & Contents Gregory O’Brien, Auckland University Press, 2022

What is this particular brightness we expect of poetry? And on what or whose account? If the times are dark, oppressive, tunnel-like – as they seem presently – maybe poetry can be a lantern. Or a firefly, or the glowing bud of a cigarette on a dark night. But for poetry to be these things it can’t simply reflect its times – it has to radiate on its own terms, within and beyond that darkness. It is poetry’s job to flicker and glow and, with luck, emit some mysterious luminescence. At times I feel those are its only real criteria.

Gregory O’Brien ‘Notes to Accompany the Poems and Paintings’

I love coming to a new book with no idea what the book is about. And here am I about to share some responses to Gregory O’Brien’s magnificent collection House & Contents with you. I have had the book sitting on my desk for a month and every time I walk past, I stall on the title and the cover. The skeletal tree, the blocks of cloud, sky, hill and roof. The nod to insurance policies, and an expectation the collection might transform ‘house’ into home, ‘contents’ into Gregory’s ability to amass fascinating detail.

In the endnote, Gregory talks about how in the past he has used paintings to shed light on the poetry, and poetry to converse with the artwork. In this collection however, where there is a substantial presence of both image and word, he wanted the artwork and the poem to have a ‘co-equal’ relationship.

One poem, ‘House & contents’, acts as a fractured faultline of the collection. It records experiencing an earthquake in Wellington Te Whanganui-a-Tara – a poem in pieces over the course of a day, over the course of the book, little interruptions. It lays a thread of uncertainty, a stave of different sounds, and shifts how I view the title and cover.

The artwork, with motifs repeating like embers on the canvas, like lamplight, like mysterious tugs and echos, is magnetic. No question. You bend in and become hooked on the light and dark. Full of questions. Breathing in the mysterious because there is anchor but there is also instability. Hill might be corrugated boat might be corrugated house might be hill. The echo of chimney smoke might be that from a volcano. I think of the cigarette butt glowing in the dark. Bend down into these paintings and you are wrapped in mystery – the bed outside might be resting on the hills or in the sky or driving a dreamscape. Words loom small not large, and might be bookshelf or textured wall or miniature poem. There is a brick red burnt umber hue signalling earth, and there are the infinite possibilities of blue.

The poetry is an equal compendium of fascinations, an accumulation of rich motifs and hues, knots and splices. The wading birds by a Canterbury river are the poet’s acupuncture. The world is an open book, where streets and mountains, sky and weather, are busy reading each other. Nothing exists in isolation. A library floor might catch a waterfall or flood of books. The poet tracks an interior world and then stitches it to a physical realm, whether present or mourned. The intensely real might collide with the surreal – ‘coins dance / in an upturned hat’. At times I am reading like a chant – both hidden and out-in-the-open lists that make music, that beckon heart and drifting mind. You can’t skim read, you need to enter the alleyways with a flask of tea, and set up camp for ages.

A poem that particularly stuck with my heart is ‘For Jen at Three O’Clock’, the final poem in the collection, a love poem, a luminous list, an ember glow upon the stretching canvas of life. Here are the opening lines:

With us, ice melt and low land
fog, creaking thornbush,

sandarac and walnut lawn. With us
towers and minarets

of the asparagus field, each blink
and muffled cough, each

recitation and
resuscitation, mountain

torrent and gasping stream.


Glorious. That is the word for House & Contents. No question. The light will flicker and gleam in artworks and poetry. Reading this collection is retreat and vacation and epiphany.

Gregory O’Brien is an independent writer, painter and art curator. He has written many books of poetry, fiction, essays and commentary. His books include A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (Auckland University Press, 2011) and the multi-award-winning introductions to art for the young and curious: Welcome to the South Seas (Auckland University Press, 2004) and Back and Beyond (Auckland University Press, 2008), which both won the Non-Fiction Prize at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. His book Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook was published in 2019, and a major work on the artist Don Binney will appear in 2023. Gregory O’Brien became an Arts Foundation Laureate and won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in 2012, and in 2017 became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit and received an honorary doctorate from Victoria University of Wellington.

Auckland University Press page

Poetry Shelf: ‘Streets and mountains’

Conversation with Lynne Freeman on Standing Room Only, RNZ National

NZ Booklovers interview

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