Beauties of the Octagonal Pool, by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, 2012), 120 pp, $27.99.
Greg O’Brien’s early poetry books, such as Location of the Least Person (AUP, 1987) and Man with Child’s Violin (Caxton Press, 1990) showcased his willingness to experiment with language, form and subject-matter. From an early point in his career, however, his work has also engaged with images, as in Great Lake (Local Consumption Productions, Sydney, 1991). Since then, O’Brien’s publications have explored and pursued word-image connections. In this vein, O’Brien’s new collection, Beauties of the Octagonal Pool, combines poetry with artwork, both created during or else inspired by his 2011 voyage on the HMS Otago through the Kermadecs to Tonga. With its compliment of verse and illustrations, and a beautiful lyricism informing both, Beauties of the Octagonal Pool is not just an authorial continuation of a long-standing poetry-picture intersection but a high point in his ongoing artistic trajectory.
Shape is structure, and structure is form in poetry. O’Brien’s use of the octagonal is an inventive emblem. At one level, it offers a clear and clever representation of the local and everyday as O’Brien proffers that icon of Auckland, the Waitemata Harbour, at once real and pictorial, as his eponymous eight-sided symbol. In essence, with the poems placed in the first section of the collection, such as ‘Whangaparoa, 1975’, the work holds a mirror up to ‘us’ (that is, to New Zealanders past) and by extension, as North Auckland was the heartland of O’Brien’s own upbringing, to the poet himself,
…….. We toiled and troubled,
we swam home
after the dance. There were indentations in our bodies
from sleeping on couch grass
or next to unfamiliar object – a magnet,
a stray bone or broken
necklace. Someone read a book, another became
a priest. We all went
overboard. Someone put that book
down. It was love.
The reference to corporeal pockmarks gives significance. The octagonal pool, with Whangaparoa being one sharp point at its perimeter is, for O’Brien, a body, scored with its own serrations: the ever-shifting waters might represent or allude to variable time, changing memories, passions begun in adolescence and ongoing. Poems which follow include devotionals on love, matrimony and remembrance as in, ‘A consort of flower parts’, ‘Line’ and ‘Love poem’.
If this first section is the journey back into the author’s history, the other seven sections of the book are springboards to places beyond the familiar and local. Section two: ‘The sea of where it was we went’ is informed by O’Brien’s travels in the Kermadecs. Work such as ‘A naval exercise (for two hands)’, ‘The mechanical rat of Raoul Island’ and ‘A mule, Raoul Island’ chart that journey in real and imaginative ways. The latter poem, for example, begins:
As steep a track
by any other
means, we were
prodded. This was how
treated us. A meandering commentary
each corner of
the winding track.
Here, though the section emphasises departure and release, a counterpoint to what went before, the first section’s engagement with the imaginative is revivified, as in the poem ‘An artist’s guide to the layers of an ocean’ where,
The first as much a layer of sky
as it is a cloth
laid between islands and
across which nib
and quill manoeuvre
as if on a naval
Other sections extend the poetic and geographical landscapes of Beauties of the octagonal pool to Russia, Monaco, France, Italy and Waiheke Island. Of these, it’s the fourth section, ‘Red square, black square’, and the fifth, ‘Little Oneroa’, which resonate most. The work in ‘Red square, black square’, for instance, perfectly compliments O’Brien’s ability to alight upon the terrain shared by ars poetica and the artistic, as in ‘Words sung by a Russian soprano’, which blends creative experiences in language and imagery such as these:
a ladder up to your voice,
a wind-blasted steppe
upon which we stand
and fall. But the song upholds
the singer, just as birdsong
does the bird
Birds have been a constant refrain in O’Brien’s poems, and he uses them here — as connectors, chain-links — to good effect. So, the non-specific birds which appear in ‘Red square, black square’ become, amongst other things, in the following section ‘Little Oneroa’: ‘a chimney of birds’. His poetic eye isn’t solely concerned with the ornithological though. Trees, oceans and marine animals are equally and skillfully threaded through (and thereby thread together) the sections. So the sea cucumbers, starfish, plankton and artistically rendered ‘palette fish’ inhabiting ‘The sea of where it was we went’ are swept together to be transmogrified into a piscine homage to the work of slow-lensed photographer Laurence Aberhart, concluding the fifth section in a manner which reinforces the intense, purposeful sense of O’Brien’s inter-textual referencing:
Given, as taken, from a westward-leaning wharf
trailings of rust buckets,
evening ferries. And, later,
a sheet of photographic paper adrift in the windowless room.
There is only one fish in the sea.
Many times over.
Along with the likes of Michael Shepherd, Ken Bolton, John Jenkins and Bill Manhire, Aberhart acts as part of another series of associations layered into this book: the creative artist and creative artistry. For O’Brien, both wordsmith and artist, this particular association finds its natural outlet beyond the words in one of his new collection’s high-points, a series of evocative black and white illustrations. A bird blossoming into a flora, fish and buildings; a dark sky and diagrammatically segmented sea backgrounding a series of objects; a crab, an onion-domed cathedral and a stellated image: these are the visual delights set amongst the many ‘beauties’ in this book.
Lyrical, expansive and thought-provoking in both visual and written content, Beauties of the Octagonal Pool is an excellent collection, and ranks amongst O’Brien’s finest yet. His recent art books and editorial works, such as A Nest of Singing Birds (Learning Media, 2007), have marked him out as one of our best and inventive literary practitioners. This new collection only enhances his reputation.
SIOBHAN HARVEY‘s poetry has recently been published in The Evergreen Review (US) and Meanjin (Aus). Her Poet’s Page, complete with recorded poems and texts, has just been launched on The Poetry Archive (UK).
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