Grey Lynn Library was packed to the brim (I am talking as squished as sardines here) with poets, fans of poetry and Bob’s friend to celebrate the launch of his new collection, Odysseus in Woolloomooloo (Steele Roberts, 2014). The crowd was testimony to how much we love Bob’s poetry as I don’t recall seeing so many poets supporting an Auckland launch before. Grey Lynn Library is a beautiful old building and a superb place to launch a book. The photo only shows the left-hand side of the crowd (there was also the middle and the right-hand side!). Roger Steele sang a waiata with Brian Potiki.
Lovely to see these kind of events in libraries! Roger Steele kicked off with a impassioned introduction and Bob read some poems that had the audience whooping with delight.
Here are my speech notes:
I am delighted to launch Bob’s new poetry collection. It is the eighth collection from a poet who was an active figure in 1960s and 70s poetry scene in Auckland and who has been writing ever since. [Roger picked me up for saying Bob is an underrated treasure on NZ’s literary landscape but I was suggesting this, not in terms of his extensive fan base, but other spotlights that miss him!).
This stunning new collection is that of a seasoned traveller — not just the harbours and seas of his working life, but also the harbours and seas of poetry (along with dreams, memory, city streets and so on). His poetry always takes you to far-off places with names and details that make your feet restless.
On the back of one of my favourite books of his, Valparaiso, he writes: ‘When I wrote this book, each poem was the beginning of an adventure.’ I am sure it is the same with this book.
I will declare from the outset that I love this book. This is what I love about it.
Travel, voyaging, the seas, foreign places have often featured in Bob’s poetry — the ocean is his personal seal upon a poem — but Bob shows so terrifically that poetry never renders any subject redundant.
I walk along the black sand at Te Henga early most mornings with lines of poems flicking in and out of my mind. I fell upon these of Bob’s with delight:
‘the broken blue urn of a east coast beach’
‘down an iron sand creek that glitters to the sea’
I love the way detail becomes gold nugget in the poems and the eye of the traveller is not immune to the details of home. Place names chart routes (KRd, Surrey Crescent, CircularQuay, Ithaca, the other side of Saturn). And then there are the juicy pockets of food: melons, apricots, nectarines, sandwiches. I love the way each poem is full of quite surprising turns. In ‘Foodhall Sutra’: ‘Jane from Thailand wonders if I’m a “rich man”/ How can I tell her/ that after eating a dish of Hainan chicken/ I feel that I most likely am.’
It is as though Bob as a poet has the ability to pause the clang and clatter of life and absorb a moment — and then leave traces of that clang and clatter (and life) in his poems.
Some poems are dedicated to other writers — holding and reading this book I get a sense of a poetry family: David Mitchell, Cilla McQueen, Martin Edmond and so on.
In one poem, Bob says, ‘I have no odyssey worth mentioning,’ as though the past is shadowy and hard to grasp. But, then, in the next poems, he steps into the shoes of Greek heros and heroines, smudging past and present to shine a different light on both. In one poem you get a Waikato farm, The NZ Women’s Weekly, a one-eyed giant as tall as an oak. Marvellous.
As a collection, Odysseus in Woolloomooloo, is tender, meditative, witty, measured, finely crafted, intimate, moving, lyrical. So many standout poems — from the understated narrative and emotional kick of ‘Afghanistan’ to the gentle confession to Cilla McQueen in ‘The South Island’ to the reflective turns in the title poem to the spare and haunting lyricism of the last poem, ‘After Villon.’
And from that final poem: ‘I’ve only got left the roads of this year/ catching their breath for the future.’
Reading this book is a way of catching your breath. Congratulations Bob!
Thanks to Bob and Steele Roberts I have a copy of the book to give to someone who likes or comments on this post.