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.
On drinking water
pure water a glass
of water contains:
of the sky nothing
necessarily, but always
of the cavernous
the wooden ladder we climb
down into the chasm
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.
©Michele Leggott, Vanishing Points Auckland University Press 2017
Auckland University Press page
Jack Ross’s blog The Imaginary Museum – his extended launch coverage
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.
You’re dreaming. In the
dream you fall asleep and dream
you’re writing. If to
write is to reflect
what you’ve already read, and
thus to reread, to
read is also to
rewrite. What are you saying?
Wake up, you tell me.
©James Brown 2017
And for an extra sample you can read the magnificent ‘Janet and John Go to the Book Launch’ here
The launch speech:
James Brown comes from Palmerston North
There are numerous questions that arise, like a lowland mist, from this collection, as from all of James Brown’s books: For a start, why did he ever leave his home-town of Palmerston North, to which he is so manifestly linked. Or maybe he did never leave? Or when is he due back there?
Taking this, Brown’s sixth poetry collection, as a kind of provocation, two Fridays ago I drove north to Palmerston North and checked in for the night at the Hotel Coachman, a neo-Tudor confection on Fitzherbert Avenue. Not far from ground zero—the address where Brown spent his formative years—I had decided to read this new collection on its home turf—on the south side of ‘the bustling go-ahead city at the heart of the Manawatu Plains’ as Brown once memorably wrote.
According to the Palmerston North Creative Giants website:
‘Of all Palmerston North’s Creative Giants, poet and short fiction writer James Brown stands out…’ Expectations of the new book were, accordingly, running very high in Room 102 of the Hotel Coachman. In the company of an increasing platoon of sopping tea-bags and an intermittently boiling kettle, I lay down and made my way across the flat, bicycle-friendly territory of Floods Another Chamber. . .
Despite the fact she appears in Brown’s new collection a much-remarked-upon four times, Jenny Bornholdt had earlier in the day declined the invitation to accompany me northwards on this hyper-literary excursion. . . Alone, I was consigned to my carpark-facing double room—$160 the night, which included breakfast in a rowdy dining area filled with travelling salesmen and at least one sports team. While the scrambled eggs resembled a Manawatu wetland and the spread, generally, was lacklustre, I was up to my ears in Brown’s book by breakfast time, which made it all not so bad. In fact it was as if James Brown had scripted the whole thing.
Later I drove past the Palmerston North Public Hospital, where the poet was born at 12.40am on April the 1st, 1966; a moment’s respectful silence, also, near the birthplace of Sarah Laing and the childhood home of Karl Maughan—and on Broadway Avenue where painter Pat Hanly, aged 15, was an apprentice hairdresser at Bert Pratt Limited.
The early things in life determine how we evolve. In Brown’s villanelles and quatrains, I can detect the orderly grid of the Palmerston North street plan, and the inspirational, idiot wind that crosses it. This is the place where, as Brown writes in ‘Childhood’, the days ‘inched by… Glue, glitter, galaxies. Things shone. Broke. You laughed / until you cried. There was no escape.’
While James Brown delights in poetic constraints, and is dazzling within them, he can also blast away and, like the late night motorists on Fitzherbert St, has been known to throw beer-cans and drop donuts, or their literary equivalent. . . On the subject of provincial psychology, ‘Erotic Snowdome’, from the new book, contains possibly the best, rudest line in all of New Zealand verse—or first-equal with Hera Lindsay Bird. (You’ll have to read the poem to discover this for yourselves.)
Brown is the New Zealand poet laureate of torpor, resignation and exhaustion (or maybe loss of interest), with intermittent bouts of fanatical bicycle riding. The miracle is that he can make it all so interesting and darkly humorous and weirdly moving. The poems are characterised by a process of subtle inversion whereby the personal is rendered impersonal and the impersonal becomes personal. The end result is a poetry that is simultaneously lop-sided and true. At times, it’s like L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, but definitely, to use a word from Brown’s book, funner. . .
Like the hometown, the poetry gains a certain intensity through its sprawl, pragmatism, volubility and absence of long term planning. . . Just as Palmerston North has its New Zealand Rugby Museum, Brown embraces the sacred paddock and has written the odd rugby poem (most recently ‘True Blood’ in Warm Auditorium). For such a flat place, Palmerston North casts a long shadow. Echoing the city’s single Beds R Us outlet—at 133 Rangitikei St—Floods Another Chamber includes a similarly stocked poem titled ‘Beds R Us’. . . With its conference centre, in-house training and local dialect, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa—Brown’s recent long-term place of employment—configures in much of his poetry as a kind of rehash of Palmerston North, but on three or four levels.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, there are a great many poems in Floods Another Chamber about the other place, Wellington, but as any true son or daughter of Palmerston North will tell you, Wellington is only the southernmost suburb of Palmy—a feeder city or satellite. All roads, as indeed all bike lanes, lead to the one true Square.
After giving a talk at the Palmerston North art gallery—which was the other reason for my trip north two weeks ago—I fell into a conversation with a member of the audience, a district planner. When I put it to him that Palmerston North was just a theme park based on James Brown’s poetry, he appeared not to hear me and proceeded to outline, in some detail, the myriad cycle lanes that the council was now investing in—riverside bike trails, designated lanes, scenic diversions. . . According to my new friend, the place would soon be like Copenhagen—although with Fonterra and DB in the ’hood, and the Manawatu River rolling through and occasionally flooding everything. Having just read James Brown’s new book, it was crystal clear to me that the city was preparing itself for the imminent return of its most illustrious son, its cyclist-poet laureate.
Floods Another Chamber is our latest, biggest chance to bask in the life and work of a genuine Creative Giant of Palmerston North and of everywhere in the world that does not call itself Palmerston North. The overnight trip to Palmy is an optional extra. In some very fundamental ways, this indispensable collection will take you there anyway.
Gregory O’Brien October 2017
James Brown’s previous poetry collections include Go Round Power Please (1995), which won the Jessie Mackay Best First Book Award, Lemon (1999), Favourite Monsters (2002), The Year of the Bicycle (2006), and Warm Auditorium (2012), as well as the useful nonfiction booklet Instructions for Poetry Readings (2005). He edited The Nature of Things: Poems from the New Zealand Landscape (Craig Potton Publishing, 2005), the literary magazine Sport from 1993 to 2000, and the online anthology Best New Zealand Poems 2008. James teaches the Poetry Workshop at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
Iain Sharp presents Gregory O’Brien, Freya Daly Sadgrove, Bill Manhire, Jenny Bornholdt, Lindsay Rabbitt, and more.
The end of the ‘6 o’clock swill’ was a defining moment in New Zealand’s social history, one which changed the way we drank and socialised. New Zealanders’ unique and often fraught relationship with drink has been both a stimulus and an inspiration for some of the country’s great poets from Denis Glover to Apirana Taylor.
To mark 50 years since the end of ‘the swill’ the National Library is bringing together some of the country’s best poets, and poetry, both new and old, featuring ‘the drink’.
The event will comprise some special related Alexander Turnbull Library collection items, music from the collection of the National Library and films from Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision.
Refreshments available with tastings and craft beer and cider.