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Laurie Duggan reviews Gregory O'Brien

Gregory O’Brien – Whale Years 

(Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2015. Paperback, 104pp, $NZ 27.99)

Sometimes the poetics of the new avant seem all too pure. Commentators might shudder at the idea of a poet being taken on a scientific voyage in order to furnish reports even if these were presented in a language other than that of standard journalism. The results of such an exercise might be a little too hybrid for those who want the work to reflect only the principles of its own construction. But what if poetry happened to be ‘occasional’ of its nature. I don’t mean here the ‘occasion’ of a greeting card but the thought that a poem might be addressed to someone or to a group of people. Coleridge, I’m sure, would not have minded a commission in the least though he may have given his paymasters a deal of grief. Gregory O’Brien has been on at least a couple of investigatory voyages, employed as a poet (as well as an artist and art critic). In Whale Years his journey is very much one of the imagination rather than a journalistic exercise.
What exercises O’Brien is the strangeness of things encountered on actual voyages and in the transcribed voyages of others. For him the things (and the words) encountered are not exotic (like Gauguin’s Tahiti) but uncanny; they reflect back on ‘home’ life and its own buried narratives. What stands out in this volume (and in O’Brien’s work in general) is the awareness of language as sign. 
There are moments throughout the book when the writing becomes sign itself, as though the author is constructing a New Sparta of the South Pacific. There are indeed affinities with poets like Ian Hamilton Finlay and Thomas A Clark, an intense feel of making, and of making-do (with such things as flotsam). It is most obvious in a poem like ‘Rehoku’ (a section of the title sequence):
HIGH          SEA          LOW
LAND         LOW         SEA
HIGH          LAND       LOW
– but it is a practice underlying the whole volume. The poems are both repositories of knowledge and signs that knowledge itself might be impossible, mediated as it is by relative position and means of communication. Signs might themselves be ‘taken as wonders’, as in ‘A Schematic analysis of the first and only book of the explorer Raoul H. Rangitahua (page numbers in brackets)’
In the ocean, he encounters a rock that can speak
(15), a plume of smoke that could be a cloud (or,
Surely, a cloud that might be a plume of smoke?)
And an assortment of volcanic stones on a headland,
Scattered or thrown randomly (24). He meets
A nymph (25), who leads him through a grove of
Uprooted trees (27) . . .
                    He is ceremoniously joined to his new
Home through encounters with the last rat on the
Island, a mechanical replica, kept as a cautionary
Presence (43); two iron bed-frames left on a clifftop,
Possibly to memorialise the tragedy of two lovers
(44); a dog kennel with the name ‘Tui’ above the
Entrance (45).
The closer we get to a text the more the assemblage begins to dissolve. Little inaccuracies widen as chasms. Our ability to describe is itself called into question in ‘Guitar, Hanga Roa’, from the ‘Book of Numbered Days’:
. . . Bigger
than a fish-scale, smaller than the sky
how do your songs describe you?
Wider than a sardine, narrower
than the sea. Sing to us
of how, in this world of untimely things,
a man might also be defined –
half-way between a grass skirt
and a headstone, a mollusc
and an ocean liner . . . 
Narrative itself is the subject of many of these poems and it is a concern for narrative as a meta-form that differentiates O’Brien’s work from those static displays of dexterity we have become used to in official British verse. O’Brien often enough makes use of conceits though these relate back to a much earlier poetic: the riddles and puzzles of the early English poets. Perhaps an extreme example would be the poem ‘The Captain of the Rena on Astrolabe Reef’:
He might have been sharpening up on the sea, as the sea was
Sharpening its points. A Number Two, he was told.
The crew was looking sharp, to a point.
From point to point of a chart – and all points north of
The Point of Saying Goodbye. A man goes out on a rib – a point
Of departure. A point upon which
They disagrees or agreed to differ. A spike in the weather
Another barbed or pointed front approaching. This time
A Number Four Sea. There were other points
Of interest, distraction or contention. A compass or protractor
With its pointed readiness, a line following
The point of a pencil from this to that
Point. Not to put too fine a point on the matter, the point being
A pointed hull run aground on a pointed reef,
If you get my drift, what is the point in that?
More characteristic are these lines from ‘Luminosity’, where outside becomes inside (as the body itself is composed largely of water):
                          Other times you were
                              An aquarium
                A wet-land or
weather station – 
                I have this from
                              reliable sources – 
                a distant colony
of yourself.
                Or you resembled
                              the voyage itself
                with its exclamations
‘Don’t lean out too far’
                or ‘I think this must be
                              the island.’
                You were present
but not accountable
                as something seen
                              through a telescope
                a starless night – less than
the calcium in your bones
                or a sideways glance
                              across a room
                late summer
Description is meant to place things (or to put them in their place). If you were to stand in a particular spot and explain everything around you then you might have a perfect set of coordinates which in principle could function to orient someone else. But when you move on, you leave the description behind. Narrative assumes that a line between two or more points represents a story. O’Brien is as good a story-teller as they come precisely because he is aware of his own artifice and of the artifice practised by the authors of exploration narratives. 
As a reader you shift between the layers of these poems. In the concluding poem ‘Memory of a Fish’ it is the act of naming that comes into question
The night before you sailed I dreamt
     the far end of an island flickering
          like a television
     on the blink, around which went
a school of fish-like men
singing as they swam:
     ‘Roxanne’, ‘Gloria’, ‘Amelia’ . . .
     women’s names. Only then
I realised
     these were neither
          women’s names
     nor were they
songs: they were
the names of ships
     at sea. Next thing
          waves were dissolving
     the names, and the ships
were breaking into
smaller, rectangular versions
     of themselves – 
          red, white, yellow – and
     these I recognised as cargo
from the Rena
     into an oil-black
I was reminded while reading these poems of Paul Carter’s arguments in The Road to Botany Bay, a book about the construction of explorer narratives and the differences between the notebooks and the polished final accounts. ‘Orongo, Rapa Nui’ in the ‘Whale Years’ sequence gives a set of directions that might stand as a guide to the practice of these poems as well as to the practises of those who would take up a voyaging commission:
Easy on the oar
Steady the sail
Hold that thought
Let go the hand                               
26 November 2015