Self ashore

Updated: Jun 30

Always Song In the Water

By Gregory O’Brien

Auckland University Press (September 2019)


Reviewed by Catharina van Bohemen


Always Song In the Water is Gregory O’Brien’s new collection of reflections about what it means to live in Aotearoa New Zealand, and indeed, what Aotearoa New Zealand is: dry land is just one seventeenth of what constitutes New Zealand territory. It is also, by my reckoning, his fifth book with a watery title. Earlier works, After Bathing at Baxter’s and News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore, are prose meditations as much about swimming in water as being submerged in rivers of poetry, painting and thought. Beauties of the Octagonal Pool and Whale Years are poetry collections whose subject matter is essentially marine: Reading Poetry at Waihi Beach, or Memory of a Fish.


Always Song In the Water opens with O’Brien locating himself, and his boat:


I keep a dinghy on or beside the front lawn of my home in the ridgetop Wellington suburb of Hataitai. Each morning when I pull back my blinds, the second or third thing my eyes fix upon is the upside down dinghy. This is how it goes: The sun on its way up; the four cabbage trees, sometimes a tui, And the dinghy...

The first half of Always Song In the Water, however, concerns a road rather than a boat trip to Northland with his friend, Australian artist Noel McKenna. The second half hovers, floats, springs and swims around a voyage with eight other artists, some of whom are also O’Brien’s friends, to the Kermadecs (the northernmost part of New Zealand) aboard the HMNZS Otago. ‘The challenge’ as he saw it was ‘to present this remote unvisited reality with openness and intimacy – to in a sense take people there.’


‘Taking people there’ is how O’Brien exists in the world. ‘Taking people there’ implies companionship, collaboration and conversation. His clematis-covered dinghy, lyrically photographed by Bruce Foster, and once shared with his brother, immediately recalls a dinghy in a painting by Euan McLeod. It summons up the last lines of Bill Manhire’s poem for historian Michael King:


Here in the place of posts

I think I can just make him out


A man in a boat

Rowing across the last half-mile of twilight


And the car O’Brien drives around Northland reminds him of Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka: it will hug the coast, ‘take on the function – imaginative as well as practical – of the waka; become a vehicle for discovery.’ Underpinning this quest is pianist Glenn Gould’s speculation that people who travel north ‘become aware of the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents; they become philosophers.’ Travelling with O’Brien is both a physical journey and a richly imaginative one, interweaving personal memoir with poetry, painting, music and film.


They drive to Ninety Mile Beach, where Florian Habicht filmed Land of the Long White Cloud, about the annual surfcasting competition, or, as film publicity touted it, ‘Fish meets Philosophy on Ninety Mile Beach.’ O’Brien writes that the ‘self-styled thinkers’ in the film would have ‘brought tears to Glenn Gould’s eyes.’ En route, he considers McCahon’s love of Northland, Hotere’s PINE collaborations with Manhire and brother Brendan O’Brien, and the importance of pianos in our country’s cultural life, to mention just some of his mercurial meanderings. Beside him, McKenna consults the racing pages, looks out the window and draws: horses, bedrooms, a white wolf, and several pianos.


The voyage to the Kermadecs on the HMNZS Otago lacks the intimacy of the car trip, but the immensity of the Pacific compels him and his fellow artists to consider the ‘realm’ of New Zealand as a ‘vibrating coastline’ rather than bounded by definitive fettering lines. He quotes John Pule: ‘the sea is an enormous giant in my blood’, and many of the illustrations of the Kermadec project are collaborations between him and O’Brien: both painters and poets, they have worked together for years. Another example of collaboration is a monumental tapa cloth, The Avenue between Robin White and Ruha Fifita and the women of a remote village on Tongatapu which O’Brien describes as both a ‘map of the ground and the ground being mapped’... ‘the Great Mind of the Pacific.’


The ‘Song’ in the book’s title is whale song. A cetologist told O’Brien that a healthy ocean makes whales sing. And this beautiful blue book sings too. It’s not only a window into O’Brien’s mind; his friendly, generous writing shines mirrors on where we live and on the work of our poets, painters, photographers and musicians. For anyone who wants to fathom the ‘immense fluidity’ of Aotearoa New Zealand, Always Song In the Water is a peerless companion. The words floating over the book’s back cover perfectly capture its essence: ‘I come from there and I have Memories.’


First published ArtZone #81

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