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.
‘A poem is / a ripple of words / on water wind-huffed’
from ‘Wind, Song and Rain’ in Sap-wood & Milk, Caveman Press, 1972
The ocean is my go-to salve. Before we went into level-four lockdown last year, I went to Te Henga Bethells Beach near where I live. I stood by the water’s edge as the sun was coming up. The air was clear and salty. Not a soul in sight. I breathed in and I breathed out, and I saved that sublime moment for later. Like a screen shot. Over the ensuing weeks in lockdown, I was able to return to that spot, my eyes on the water, my senses feeding on wildness and beauty. Look through my poetry collections and you will see I can’t keep the ocean out. It is always there somewhere.
Unsurprisingly there is a profusion of water poems in Aotearoa – think the ocean yes, but lakes and rivers and floods and dripping taps. This was an impossible challenge: whittling all the poems I loved down to a handful. I hadn’t factored in leaving poems out when I came up with my theme-season plan. Some poets are particularly drawn to water. Kiri Piahana-Wong’s sublime collection Night Swimming is like an ode to water. The same can be said of Lynn Davidson’s glorious collections How to Live by the Sea and The Islander. Or read your way through Apirana Taylor’s poems and you will find they are water rich – and his poetry flows like water currents. As does the poetry of Hone Tuwhare. Again water rich. And of course the poetry of Dinah Hawken, with her lyrical eye bringing the natural world closer, water a constant companion.
I have so loved this water sojourn. The poems are not so much about water but have a water presence. I am grateful to all the poets and publishers who continue to support my season of themes.
Girl from Tuvalu
girl sits on porch
back of house
salt water skimming
like her nation
nowhere to go
held up by
An Inconvenient Truth
this week her name is Siligia
next week her name will be
Girl from Tuvalu: Environmental Refugee
her face is 10,000
her land is 10 square miles
she is a dot
below someone’s accidental finger
the bare-chested boys
bravado in sea spray
running on tar-seal
they are cars
they are bikes
they are fish out of water
moana waves a hand
a yellow median strip
moana laps at pole houses
in spring tide
gulping lost piglets
and flapping washing
girl sits on porch
Selina Tusitala Marsh
from Dark Sparring, Auckland University Press, 2013, picked by Amy Brown
The body began to balance itself
It started to rain
and it was not clear
if this would last a short time
or a long time
so I got my husband
and the librarian
and the owner of the local chip shop
and the humourless lady who failed me
on eyesight at the driver licence testing station
into a boat
though it was extremely cramped
and they rowed
out to the open ocean
and sat quiet
from Bad Things, Victoria University Press, 2017
The Lid Slides Back
Let me open
my pencil-case made of native woods.
It is light and dark in bits and pieces.
The lid slides back.
The seven pencils are there, called Lakeland.
I could draw a sunset.
I could draw the stars.
I could draw this quiet tree beside the water.
from The Victims of Lightning, Victoria University Press, 2010
Train of thought
I thought of vitality,
I thought of course of a spring.
I thought of the give inherent
in the abiding nature of things.
I thought of the curve of a hammock
between amenable trees.
I thought of the lake beyond it
calm and inwardly fluent
and then I was thinking of you.
You appeared out of the water
like a saint appearing from nowhere
as bright as a shining cuckoo
then dripping you stood in the doorway
as delighted by friendship as water
and beaming welcomed us in.
The ripples are small enough. The lake surface is the lake surface is the lake surface. All lakes exist in the same space of memory. Deep dark water. The scent of stones. I think of a swift angle to depth. I think of the sound when you’re underwater and the gravel shifts beneath your feet. I think of all the colours of water that look black, that look wine dark, that look like youth looking back at me. I can barely take it. I can see the lake breathing. I am the lake breathing. The lake breathes and I breathe and the depth of both of us is able to be felt by finger, by phone, by feeling. Don’t ask what you don’t want to know. I ask everything. I want to know nothing, everything, just tell it all to me. The gravel shifts again with the long-range round echo of stones underwater. I am separate parts breathing together. You say that I am a little secret. You say, as your brain seizes, that you have lost the way. Your eyes flicker and flutter under your eyelids as you try to find what’s lost, what’s gone forever. Nothing can really be found. I am never located when I want to be located the most. I am instead still that teenager on the side of the road with a cello hard case for company. I forget I exist. You forget I exist. I’ve forgotten I’ve believed I’ve not existed before. I’ve not forgotten you. Never forgotten your face. Could never. Would never. I don’t know how to communicate this with you in a way that you’ll understand. My mouth waters. I am back in the lake again. Except I’m the lake and I’m water myself.
To the stone, to the hill, to the heap, to the seep,
to the drip, to the weep, to the rock, to the rill,
to the fell, to the wash, to the splash, to the rush,
to the bush, to the creep, to the hush;
to the down, to the plain, to the green, to the drift,
to the rift, to the graft, to the shift, to the break,
to the shake, to the lift, to the fall, to the wall,
to the heft, to the cleft, to the call;
to the bend, to the wend, to the wind, to the run,
to the roam, to the rend, to the seam, to the foam,
to the scum, to the moss, to the mist, to the grist,
to the grind, to the grain, to the dust;
to the core, to the gorge, to the grove, to the cave,
to the dive, to the shore, to the grave, to the give,
to the leave, to the oar, to the spring, to the tongue,
to the ring, to the roar, to the song;
to the surge, to the flood, to the blood, to the urge
to the rage, to the rod, to the rood, to the vein,
to the chain, to the town, to the side, to the slide,
to the breadth, to the depth, to the tide;
to the neap, to the deep, to the drag, to the fog,
to the stick, to the slick, to the sweep, to the twig,
to the roll, to the tug, to the roil, to the shell,
to the swell, to the ebb, to the well, to the sea.
from Flow, Victoria University Press, 2017, picked by Amy Brown
as the tide
i am walking the path
around hobson bay point
nasturtiums grow up the cliff face
and the pitted mud has a scattering
of thick jagged pottery, bricks
faded edam cheese packaging
and a rusty dish rack
all of the green algae
is swept in one direction
i am only aware of the blanketed crabs
when a cloud passes overhead
and they escape in unison
into their corresponding homes
claws nestling under aprons
my dad talks about my depression
as if it were the tide
he says, ‘well, you know,
the water is bound to go in and out’
and to ‘hunker down’
he’s trying to make sense of it
in a way he understands
so he can show me his working
i look out to that expanse,
bare now to the beaks of grey herons, which i realise is me
in this metaphor
Ode to the water molecule
‘Our body is a moulded river.’ Novalis
Promiscuous, by some accounts,
or simply playing the field—
indecisive, yet so decidedly
yourself, you are
all these things: ice flow,
bend of a river,
on an aeroplane window, fire-
bucket or drop
in the ocean, dissolver of a morning’s
mountain range. We envy you
the way you get along
with yourself, as glacier
or humidity of
an overheated afternoon. A glass
of pitch-black water
drunk at night.
Catchment and run-off. Water,
we allow you
your flat roof and rocky bed
but there are also
tricks we have taught you:
papal fountain, water
feature, liquid chandelier and
boiling jug. It is, however,
your own mind
you make up, adept as you are
—‘the universal solvent’—
at both piecing together
and tearing apart. With or
without us, you find your own
structure, an O and two H’s
in the infinity
of your three-sidedness, your
triangulation, at once trinity
and tricycle. Two oars
and a dinghy, rowed.
Colourless, but for
‘an inherent hint of blue’,
molecule in which
we are made soluble, the sum
of our water-based parts—
resourceful, exemplary friend
kindred spirit – not one to jump to
as you would traverse a stream, but rather
as you would leap in. Fluid,
by nature—given to swimming more than
with rain as your spokesperson,
tattooed surface of a river’s
snowfall and drift,
you enter the flow
of each of us, turn us around
as you turn yourself around
first appeared (in a typeset and ‘drawn’ version) in PN Review 252, in the UK, March-April 2020.
First dusk of autumn here and i swim
through fish flicker through
little erasing tails
that rub the seafloor’s light-net out
that ink in night
down south winter warms to her task and
will arrive smelling of wet shale in
a veil of rain
bats flicker into leaves
to rub the tree-cast light-net from the grass
to ink in night
You yearn so much you could be a yacht. Your mind has already set sail. It takes a few days to arrive
at island pace, but soon you are barefoot on the sand, the slim waves testing your feet
like health professionals. You toe shells, sea glass, and odd things that have drifted for years and finally washed up here.
You drop your towel and step out of your togs, ungainly, first your right foot, then
the other stepping down the sand to stand in the water.
There is no discernible difference in temperature. You breaststroke in the lazy blue.
A guy passing in a rowboat says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ And it is. Your body afloat in salt as if cured.
from Poetry, 2018, picked by Frankie McMillan
Write the sea in your heart, write the rain.
Only that. Words are a poor habit. Let
the wind slide under your ribs let the rain,
for no one will love you the way
you write to be loved,
and your name only a name – but the green
edge of a wave made knifish by light
or some hurtful winter clarity in the water:
a bright sheet of sky against the horizon as if
breathing, as if the air itself
is your own self, waiting. Only there.
And know how your heart is the green deep sea,
dark and clear and untame,
and its chambers are salt and the beating
of waves, and the waves breaking,
and the waves.
from Takahē, issue 90
Deep water talk
In honour of Hone Tuwhare
& no-one knows
if your eyes are
blurred red from
the wind, too
much sun, or the
tears streaking your
face that could be
tears or just lines of
dried salt, who
& you never can tell
if you are seasick,
drunk, or just
symptoms are the
& sea and sky merge
until the horizon is
nothing but an
endless blue line
in every direction,
so that you are sailing,
not on the sea, as you
thought, but in a
perfectly blue, circular
bowl, never leaving
& you wonder who
is moving, you or
the clouds racing
by the mast-head
& you wonder if
those dark shapes
in the water are
sharks, shadows, or
nothing but old fears
chasing along behind
& the great mass of
land recedes, you
forget you were
feeling the pull
of ancient genes
—in every tide, your
blood sings against
& food never tasted
so good, or water
never conserved water
by drinking wine
and coke; and rum
and coke; and can
after can of cold
& your sleep is
by the roar of traffic
on the highway,
but by the creaks
and twangs of your
ship as she pitches
and moans through
the dark ocean,
& you wonder—
where did that bird,
that great gull perching
on the bowsprit,
from Night Swimming, Anahera Press, 2013
Emma Barnes lives and writes in Pōneke / Wellington. They have just released their first book I Am In Bed With You. For the last two years they’ve been working with Chris Tse on an anthology of LGBTQIA+ and Takatāpui writing to be released this year by Auckland University Press. They work in Tech and spend a lot of time picking heavy things up and putting them back down again.
Airini Beautrais lives in Whanganui and is the author of four poetry collections and a collection of short fiction. Her most recent poetry collection is Flow: Whanganui River Poems (VUP 2017). Bug Week and Other Stories recently won the Ockham NZ Book Fiction Award 2021.
James Brown’sSelected Poems was published by VUP in 2020. He is working on a new book.
Lynn Davidson’s latest poetry collection Islander is published by Shearsman Books and Victoria University Press. She had a Hawthornden Fellowship in 2013 and a Bothy Project Residency at Inshriach Bothy in the Cairngorms in 2016. In 2011 she was Visiting Artist at Massey University. She won the Poetry New Zealand Poetry Award, 2020 and is the 2021 Randell Cottage Writer in Residence. Lynn has a doctorate in creative writing and teaches creative writing. She recently returned to New Zealand after four years living and writing in Edinburgh.
Dinah Hawken lives and writes in Paekakariki. Her ninth collection of poetry, Sea-light, will be published by Victoria University Press in August, 2021.
Lily Holloway is a queer nacho-enthusiast. She is forthcoming in AUP New Poets 8 and you can find her work here.
Olivia Macassey’s poems have appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Takahē, Landfall, Brief, Otoliths, Rabbit and other places. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and The Burnt Hotel (Titus). Her website
Bill Manhire founded the creative writing programme at Victoria University of Wellington, which a little over 20 years ago became the International Institute of Modern Letters. His new book Wow is published by Victoria University Press in New Zealand and Carcanet in the UK.
Selina Tusitala Marsh (ONZM, FRSNZ) is the former New Zealand Poet Laureate and has performed poetry for primary schoolers and presidents (Obama), queers and Queens (HRH Elizabeth II). She has published three critically acclaimed collections of poetry, Fast Talking PI (2009), Dark Sparring (2013), Tightrope (2017) and an award-winning graphic memoir, Mophead (Auckland University Press, 2019) followed by Mophead TU (2020), dubbed as ‘colonialism 101 for kids’.
Gregory O’Brien recently completed a new collection of poems Streets and Mountains and is presently working on a monograph about artist Don Binney for AUP.
Kiri Piahana-Wong is a poet and editor, and she is the publisher at Anahera Press. She lives in Auckland.
Mere Taito is a poet living and working in Kirikiriroa. She is interested in the way poetry can be used to revitalise minority Indigenous languages like Fäeag Rotuạm ta.
Louise Wallace is the author of three collections of poetry published by Victoria University Press, most recently Bad Things. She is the founder and editor of Starling, and is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Otago.
As the cloud reads the orchard, a swimmer reads the curve
of the bay, an ice-skater reads the surface of the half-frozen lake
and, in season, a fisherman reads the pattern of sea-birds. As a
chair reads its position at table, an aeroplane reads the evening
sky and finds a way through. The weather reads the furrowed
brow of the forecaster and is itself, in turn, read. As ever, a bird
reads the absence of birds above a certain field, just as the
streets read the mountains, the mountains the streets, and have
as much to say, as much to say.
An exhibition of Gregory O’Brien’s paintings–‘The Wading Birds of Drybread’–opened at the Millenium Gallery, Blenheim, on November 1. Recent projects include a new suite of seven collaborative etchings made with John Pule–see below.
Roadsigns for a highway without end, Liku, Niue, 2020, etching and aquatint
An exhibition of collaborative etchings by John Pule and Gregory O’Brien to celebrate the publication of Always Song in the Water
You are invited to an exhibition of collaborative etchings by John Pule and Gregory O’Brien to celebrate the publication of Always Song in the Water – An Oceanic Sketchbook, recently published by AUP.
John Pule and Gregory O’Brien will discuss the collaborative works they have made together over the past ten years, in Aotearoa and in numerous other locations around the Pacific. Many of these works feature in O’Brien’s Always Song in the Water.
Always Song in the Water ($45) is a book of encounters, sightings and unexpected epiphanies. It is a high-spirited, personal and inventive account of being alive at the outer extremities of Aotearoa New Zealand. ‘This is my field notebook, my voyaging logbook,’ Gregory O’Brien writes, ‘this is my Schubert played on a barrel organ, my whale survey, my songbook.’ It features works by John Pule, Robin White and Laurence Aberhart among others.
Tuesday 10 December
5.30 – 6.30pm
Conversation from 6pm
Gow Langsford Gallery
Corne of Kitchener St and Wellesley Street East, Auckland
From the Henderson House: eight poems is an exquisite chapbook penned by Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien. The first 18 copies feature a cover design lovingly handprinted by Brendan O’Brien on an Merlarue etching press at the Henderson House in Alexandria. The remaining 40 copies feature covers designed and printed by Brendan at Fernbank Studios in Wellington.
The eight poems were written while Jenny and Gregory enjoyed a year-long artists’ residency thanks to the Henderson House Trust. Each double page is like a set of open palms – with Jenny’s poem on one side and Gregory’s poem on the other. A loving couple. Here are the titles:
On drinking water
Styx Crossing, Upper Taieri
En plein air
Two burning cars, one afternoon
The poems rise from contemplation, from lengthy time in a place of beauty, from the small but fascinating detail. To read the poems is to absorb place; to delight in the ability of poetry to transport you physically to the uplift of elsewhere. Yet the poems also transport you along rebounding ideas, particularly along the verb ‘to be’. These are poems that speak of existence.
As I read I am thinking of a slow poetry movement (in keeping with the slow food movement) and that slowness extends to reader as well as writer. I travel from hawk to water to trees to autumn to fog to river to horse to burning car. I am taking my time and it is so very nourishing.
POSTCARD STORIES…a launching speech, VicBooks, Wellington, 12 April 2019
It’s over thirty years ago since Richard von Sturmer appeared on the cover of Robert Cross’s and my book about New Zealand writers Moments of Invention. Back in 1987 I remember Richard suggesting that Robert photograph him in his ‘most natural habitat’. So we went to Smales Quarry, near Lake Pupuke—a flooded, desolate, you could almost say post-apocalyptic zone—a lunar landscape with the occasional sprig of kowhai. After spending quality time in a trench-coat and mask (as the ‘Neanderthal businessman’ character, Mr Chipden), Richard donned striped overalls and a papier mache zebra-head.
Was the zebra outfit a uniform or a disguise—an act of self-expression of concealment? Either way, the photo on the book’s cover raised the question, for me, of how it might be that writers, more generally, fit into this world. Richard was, and still is, proposing we should all look, listen and think beyond the obvious. Maybe the lesson of Smales Quarry is that we should look for answers in the direction of archaeology or possibly the analysis of dreams, rather than in the realms of sociology, cultural history or literary theory. The cover photo of Richard, zebra-headed and humanimal (in the adjectival sense), begged the question whether the life of the writer is ultimately an absurdity, a theatrical production or maybe even an inexplicable folly. More than anything else, the image reminds me of one characteristic of all good writers: they are up to something. They ask that we follow them somewhere new and surprising. ‘I think we should go into the jungle,’ as Barbara Anderson would have put it. Their jungle.
The cover photo was taken shortly after the appearance of Richard’s We Xerox Your Zebras appeared—a book which has long been something of a cult classic and which, infamously, upon publication prompted threats of legal action from Rank Xerox Corporation, on account of copyright infringement. Still in his twenties, Richard’s creative trajectory as a genre-bending, world-expanding writer was set, as was his now longstanding allegiance with, and commitment to, the unexpected, the odd and the illuminating. He struck me then, as he strikes me now, as an improving influence not only on the world of letters but on the world itself.
Over the three decades since then, there have been collections of poems from Richard and –to much-deserved acclaim upon its publication three years ago–a memoir about his father and grandfather, This Explains Everything. Yet, as the new book reiterates, nothing is ever really explained. Explanation is too often simply a misreading, simplification or a reduction of the matter at hand. Reality is full of live circuitry and ongoingness and expansiveness. We reach conclusions at our peril.
Richard’s books are working documents of a life-in-progress, a sensibility in the making and constant remaking. Reality is put, much of the time, through a Zen Buddhist filter, yet his writing can be as rowdy and colourful as the line-dancing Filipino women on the cover of Postcard Stories. Such a paradoxical, contrary state remains at the heart of his creative project. Also worth noting is a curious propensity for the transmutation or transubstantiation of the mundane or the misguided into a state of meaningful joyfulness.
What sort of narratives are on offer in Postcard Stories? Are these stories about postcards or inspired by postcards—or are these the stories the postcards themselves might have told, if they could speak. Through the first half of the book, Richard performs a visual/verbal two-step, offering short sequences of text—a hybrid of short story and haiku—to enhance, elaborate upon, subvert and embrace the images which they accompany.
Quickly enough, the book gets one thinking about the nature of postcards. It becomes a protracted meditation on that endangered if not dying species. In the era of the jpeg and digital file, postcard stands are becoming fewer and further between. Postcard Stories offers the gentlest of interrogations, a backward glance at these printed images, their industry and their format. It asks questions, but without, of course, requiring any kind of answer.
Most of the time, postcards relate to a specific location yet, as this book manifests, they often reflect a certain lostness, aimlessness, waywardness. You would not want to use them to get your bearings in the physical world. I remember, years ago when Jen and I were spending six months in the South of France courtesy of the Katherine Mansfield fellowship, Richard sent us—in Menton—an antique Greetings from Menton postcard which he had procured from a South Auckland second hand shop. As Richard’s new book attests, postcards, like the rest of us, lead paradoxical, complex and unreliable lives. In his bright and user-friendly introduction, he goes so far as to describe postcards as ‘cells in a giant, universal brain’ then adds, instructively: ’I like to dream with postcards’.
Traversing such inner and outer realities, the texts in Postcard Stories feature a surprising number of flowers. Ditto monuments, towers, clocks and water features. In deep amidst the imagistic ebb and flow, we are asked to consider how flowers flower differently in words than they do in pictures. We are back in the quarry. We are back at the beginning of the world, and the beginning of the word. We are once again keeping company with a zebra-headed youth in his wasteland-quarry. Yet we are also in the world of a film-maker, one half of the Humanimals who is now one half of a group called the Floral Clocks (greetings to the other half, Gabriel White, here with us tonight)… We are in the world of a man- or person-of-letters, an exemplary citizen of Aotearoa, a Buddhist, activist, free radical and traveller in the universe of postcards; a surveyor also of the lives contained in these most wistful of images and of the lives that continue to swirl around them long after they have been posted, received and put to one side.
This poem was included in a painting of mine in the Water Project exhibition, curated by Shirin Khosraviani at the Ashburton Art Gallery. The exhibition has just come down–but will be touring the nation over the next year or two. Pic of the painting, ‘Ode to a South Island water molecule’:
Gregory O’Brien is currently living in Alexandra, Central Otago, where he is working on a new collection of poems and finishing Always song in the water, a book of travels in Northland and aquatic regions north of there.
2017 seems to be the year of enviable launch speeches. Gregory O’Brien did a cracking job launching James Brown’s new book; Greg had taken the poems up to Palmerston North to read before writing his speech.
Jack Ross has launched Michele Leggott’s Vanishing Points (Auckland University Press) with similar incandescent word flare. I have read the book twice so far and he is right on point: this is one special poetry collection.
Well, needless to say, I felt very flattered when Michele Leggott asked me to launch her latest book of poems, Vanishing Points. Flattered and somewhat terrified. It’s true that I’ve been reading and collecting her work for well over 20 years, and I’ve been teaching it at Massey University for almost a decade now, but I still felt quite a weight of responsibility pressing down on my shoulders!
One thing that Michele’s poetry is not, is simple. It’s hard to take anything in it precisely at face value: what seems like (and is) a beautiful lyrical phrase may be a borrowing from an unsung local poet – a tangle of Latin names can be a reference to an obsolete star-chart with pinpricks for the various constellations.
The first time I reviewed one of her books, as far as I can see, in 1999, I ended by saying “the reading has only begun.” At the time, I suspect I was just looking for a good line to finish on, but there was a truth there I didn’t yet suspect. Certainly, I’ve been reading in that book, and all her others, ever since.
But how should we read this particular book? “Read! Just keep reading. Understanding comes of itself,” was the answer German poet Paul Celan gave to critics who called his work obscure or difficult. With that in mind, I’ve chosen two touchstones from the volume I’m sure you’re all holding in your hands, or (if not) are planning to purchase presently.
The first is a phrase from the American poet Emily Dickinson, referred to in the notes at the back of the book: “If ever you need to say something … tell it slant.”  The second is a quote from the great, blind Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges: “I made a decision. I said to myself: since I have lost the beloved world of appearances, I must create something else.” 
With these two phrases in mind, I’d like you to look at the cover of Michele’s book. It’s a painting of the just-landed Imperial troops, camped near New Plymouth in August 1860. The wonderful thing about it is the way the light of the campfires shines through the painting: little holes cut in the canvas designed to give the illusion of life and movement.
“War feels to me an oblique place,” wrote the reclusive New England poet Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in February 1863, at one of the darkest points of the American Civil War. Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, was the Colonel of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, the first officially authorized black regiment in American history. He was, in short, a very important and admirable man in his own right. Perhaps it’s unfair of posterity to have largely forgotten him except as the recipient of these letters from one of America’s greatest poets.
New Zealand’s Land Wars of the 1860s may have been on a much smaller scale, but they were just as terrifying and devastating for the people of Taranaki – both Māori and Pakeha – in the early 1860s. In her sequence “The Fascicles,” Michele transforms a real distant relative into a poet in the Dickinson tradition. Just as Emily Dickinson left nearly 1800 poems behind her when she died in 1886, many collected in tidy sewn-up booklets or fascicles, so Dorcas (or Dorrie) Carrell “in Lyttelton, daughter of a soldier, wife of a gardener”  provides a pretext for “imagining a nineteenth-century woman writing on the outskirts of empire as bitter racial conflict erupts around her.” 
There’s an amazing corollary to this attempt to “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” (in Dickinson’s words). Having repurposed one of her family as a war poet, Michele was fortunate enough to discover the traces of a real poet, Emily Harris, the daughter of the Edwin Harris who painted the picture of Taranaki at war on the wall over there, whose collected works so far consist of copious letters and diaries, but also two very interesting poems. “Emily and her Sisters,” the seventh of the sequences collected here, tells certain aspects of that story.
It’s nothing but the strictest truth to say, then (as Michele does at the back of the book), that one should:
walk away from the painting when it is lit up and see how light falls into the world on this side of the picture surface. Is this what the artist meant by his cut-outs? Is this the meaning of every magic lantern slide? 
I despair of doing justice to the richness of this new collection of Michele’s – to my mind, her most daring and ambitious work since the NZ Book Award-winning DIA in 1994. There are eight sequences here, with a strong collective focus on the life and love-giving activities which go on alongside what Shakespeare calls in Othello “the big wars”: children, family, eating, painting, swimming. One of my favourites among them is the final sequence, “Figures in the Distance,” which offers a series of insights into the world of Michele’s guide-dog Olive – take a bow, Olive – amongst other family members, many of whom, I’m glad to see, have been able to come along here tonight.
This is a radiant, complex, yet very approachable book. It is, in its own way, I’m quite convinced, a masterpiece. We have a great poet among us. You’d be quite crazy to leave here tonight without a copy of Vanishing Points.
[Jack and Michele then had a discussion on how the book came into being. I am going to do an interview with Michele so Poetry Shelf readers can also get different entry points into the collection.]
from ‘Figures in the Distance’
In he comes, bouncing and sweaty, to borrow a towel and go swimming at Duders. Voice out front, key in the lock, just passing through. A voice on the phone from an airport far away, saying early morning is the time to go and see the ruins outside the city when there’s no one else around. One heading for the beach each morning with a thermos of coffee and that same ragged towel. Breakfast. The other drinking something from a coconut on a beach in Mexico. One in this city, one in that city, two brothers crossing the sea. Camper vans gather down at the bay. Two people sit with their feet in the waves, looking out to sea and drinking wine from glasses they fill from the bottle hung off the side of their aluminium deckchairs. The house at the corner has been flying a tricolore since the Paris attacks. The house next to it is flying a flag that says Happy New Year. Here’s a man walking up the street dripping wet and asking if he can stick his nose into the buzzing magnolia flowers at the gate.
I saw the Maori Jesus walking on Wellington Harbour but his pool in the shadow of the museum was drained for repairs and the words were no longer lapped in fishscale light. I saw John Baxter in the pool ecstatic in arcs of water he was splashing over his father’s words on the day the writers’ walk opened. I heard the mihi that was sending Wellington Harbour over the father’s words. I heard the camera catch water light and send it to the eyes of beholders who were a great crowd on the waterfront that day. We took the train as far as Woburn, crossed the platform and came back along the side of the harbour. We took the ferry to Day’s Bay and back riding on the top deck and talking about other excursions. We had a dance at the mardi gras and kept walking along the waterfront to Roseneath. When we turned back there was the young woman walking towards us with bags full of produce from the market. Look, holes, she said.
We know what the dog of tears will do next, he who has been trailing the woman standing on the balcony looking up at the sky. She is the woman who wept, he is the dog who licked away her tears. They have gone on like this for some time, the only woman who can see and the dog who is now more human than he wants to be. His nails scratch the wooden floor. His belly is as empty as everyone else’s but he does not mind. He is walking towards the woman on the balcony. When he reaches her she will bring her eyes down to look at the ruined city and become blind. Everyone else will have their eyes back. She will have the dog of tears. The dog will bark holes in the last page of the book and lead her through one of them. There they are, the dog of tears and the woman who wept. His nails click on the rough stones. She who can no longer see begins to tell a story. They pass the street of crocodiles, the pool of tears, the hill of forty days and the hill of forty nights. They pass the little seahorse in its salty pool. They pass a white rose, a black swan, a blue biddy. The dog kills another hen and they roast it over a small fire. They can hear the sea, its fronding on smooth sand, its talking against rocks, its clapotis bouncing off stone walls. What might we not do with the hot bones dripping fat, she says. Two birds rise into the air on wings the colour of ash. Did you hear that she asks the dog licking away the salt on her cheeks.
The boy in his green turban the girl in her purple tunic dancing around each other under the old clock on the waterfront. Voices float in the morning air. One says, I had always imagined Paradise as a kind of library. The other replies, It is a bowl that one fills and fills.