Born in Matamata in 1961, Gregory O'Brien is a Wellington-based poet, essayist, artist and curator. Amongst his numerous books are a memoir, News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore (Carcanet/Victoria UP 2007), Whale Years (poems, AUP 2015) and monographs about painters Euan Macleod, Pat Hanly and illustrator Graham Percy. He co-ordinated and participated in the 'Kermadec' artists project 2011-16, travelling to Raoul Island and subsequently around the Pacific. He is Stout Memorial Fellow at Victoria University, 2015-16, working on a book about the relationship between the imagination and the environment.
‘The camera is a small room’ first appeared in The Caxton Anthology: New Zealand Poetry 1972-1986, ed. Mark Williams (1987). I have long been fascinated by the art of photography and, while working at City Gallery Wellington, I curated exhibitions (with accompanying books) by Laurence Aberhart and Peter Black. This poem is a ghostly presence in my book See what I can see--New Zealand photography for the young and curious (Auckland UP 2015), in which fragments of it resurface.
‘The mechanical rat of Raoul Island’ was written on Raoul, 1000km north of mainland New Zealand, during the 'Kermadec' voyage in 2011. A decade earlier the remote island had been rendered predator-free by DOC workers, enabling the return of ground-nesting sea birds as well as much native vegetation. A large clockwork plastic rat is kept in the Department of Conservation Hostel on the island--the sole remaining example of the species in the Kermadec region.
‘Ode to Futuna Chapel’ was written at the behest of Wellington gallerist Peter McLeavey. Peter had been asked to speak at the 50th anniversary of Futuna Chapel in March 2011. On account of his failing health, Peter delegated the speaking role to me and, accordingly, I wrote this poem, which was read out in the chapel on the anniversary-day. Designed by architect John Scott and artist Jim Allen, Futuna is a great fusion of Oceanic influences and those from much further afield. In 2016 I co-edited Futuna--life of a building (Victoria UP), in which this poem is reprinted, in the company of photographs of the chapel's marvellously subaquatic, ambient interior.
‘Childhood of Christ in Santiago’ was written in Santiago de Chile while realizing the 'Kermadec' art exhibition at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, 2012-13. The poem is dedicated to the great Chilean anti-poet Nicanor Parra, who turned 100 in 2014. Earlier in his still-ongoing career, Parra wrote a number of poems in which he transplanted the life of Christ to South America. My poem was published in Citizen of Santiago, in the good company of a suite of colour photographs by Bruce Foster (Trapeze 2013). Lines from the poem were included in a suite of collaborative works which Foster and I produced for permanent display in the offices of the Embassy of Chile, Wellington.
‘Moot and Pixie, a romance’ was written at Waihi Beach in the Bay of Plenty. It began with a carved inscription on a hilltop trig. I was imagining, vaguely, a grungy, provincial NZ revisitation of the Romeo and Juliet story. The poem will appear in Mannix and Culhane, with illustrations by Ken Bolton (Adelaide: Little Ester Books, 2016)
‘The captain of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef’ was written after the MV Rena ran aground not far from the entrance to Tauranga Harbour in October 2011. Having previously observed naval personnel on the HMNZS Otago using the traditional sextant to navigate from Auckland to Tonga, via the Kermadec Islands, I was made aware of the degree of precision and attentiveness the ocean requires of those who safely, sensibly cross it. When the 'Kermadec' exhibition opened at the Tauranga Art Gallery in November 2011 the Rena was clearly visible on the horizon, like a low-rise apartment building, slowly falling apart, leaching oil into the seas and, over the following summer, bestowing a great many shipping containers, with their stinking, rotting cargo, upon the beaches of the Bay of Plenty and Coromandel Peninsula.
‘Whale Survey, Raoul Island, with Rosemary Dobson’ was the basis for an installation at the public art-space ‘Slot’, Redfern, Sydney, in 2013. The work was accompanied by the following note:
I was between Tonga and Easter Island when I heard the Australian poet Rosemary Dobson had died. Martin Gascoigne emailed the news from Canberra on 2 July 2012. I had corresponded with Rosemary briefly in 2004 while curating an exhibition of work by her very close friend Rosalie Gascoigne for City Gallery Wellington. Hence the email from Martin. Rosemary was well into her eighties at the time of the Gascoigne exhibition. Her son Ian, a classical violinist, came up from Christchurch, where he was living, for a poetry reading in honour of the artist. He read a memoir which his mother had written especially for the occasion. Among the poems Ian also read was ‘Grieving’:
Upstairs there, in the mind:
Beating of wings, loud weather
Days, nights together
To force on the mind order...
In the small world of things, my father had known Rosemary's late husband Alec Bolton, a hand-press printer and renowned publisher at Brindabella Press. Between my father and my brother Brendan, our family owns a complete set of every Brindabella book ever produced.
In her heyday Rosemary Dobson would drive Rosalie Gascoigne around rural Canberra, collecting road signs and old softdrink bottles for her assemblages. These two exemplary figures would careen around the rolling country, riding the soft suspension of their hulking Holden station-wagon, often reciting Romantic poetry.
When I heard Rosemary Dobson had died, I decided I would have an imagined last conversation with her. And the best place on the planet I could think of for this dialogue was the very remote Raoul Island. Rosemary would enjoy such a Romantic setting. We would time the conversation so that it occurred on 8 October, which is the day the migrating whale population in the waters around Raoul is surveyed by the DOC workers on the island. Last year 126 whales were recorded during one four hour period. Hence ‘Whale Survey, Raoul Island, with Rosemary Dobson,’ a poem based upon Rosemary's ‘Poems from Wang River,’ offered with gratitude and respect. This is how we leave things. Two poets talking, immersed in land and sea and sky, counting whales, basking in the wonder of it all, now and for all time.
i. m. Rosemary Dobson 1920-2012
One of the very few ‘rugby’ poems I have written, ‘Sprig’ appeared in the NZ Listener in 2007 the week before the All Blacks were shame-facedly expelled from the Rugby World Cup, after an unexpected defeat by a lacklustre French team. I had recently visited the location in Nelson which is believed to be the exact, geographical centre of New Zealand. Not surprisingly, given the national obsession, there is a rugby park adjoining that precise point.
The title of ‘The Surfers’ Mass’ refers to the Sunday early-evening Catholic Mass which I used to attend, as a teenager, at St Michael’s Church in Remuera, Auckland. Timed for 5.30pm so that it didn’t interrupt an early morning’s surfing or a day at the beach, the Mass was a ‘trap’ to gather in the congregation of aspiring surfers. The Mass was also a hub of teenaged hormonal activity into which the young of both sexes were inexorably drawn. For a time, I fancied myself as New Zealand’s leading Surf Poet and would fire off surfing-poems to New Zealand Surfer magazine. Strangely, the magazine never acknowledged receipt of any of my contributions, although some of them were published subsequently in Days Beside Water (1993), Seven Letters (1996) and Winter I Was (1999). ‘The Surfer’s Mass’ appeared in Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (2012)
‘Rue Obscure’ is the name of an underground avenue in the village of Villefranche, on the French Riviera, where we stayed for a few weeks in 2009. Earlier, I had spent much of a year of my life washing dishes in the aptly titled ‘Basement’ nightclub in Sydney. I became well-acquainted with the subterranean perspective. And the sense of meals being served—and life-in-general going on—just above my head.
‘Luminosity’ began as a meditation on the phenomenon of bioluminescence in the oceanic realm. As the Smithsonian website notes: ‘Bioluminescence is the ability of organisms to create and emit light… it exists in 90 per cent of the animals living in the open ocean, in waters below 500 metres.’ I was also thinking of Robert Bly’s 1967 book, The Light around the Body, and the multitudinous narratives concerning, and usages of, light in the history of art. Inadvertently, somehow, it becomes a love poem.