“And I was marooned/half way through a poem called/‘Beauties of the octagonal pool’,” writes Gregory O’Brien, in a tender poem to his wife, poet Jenny Bornholdt.
Perhaps he stayed marooned, as no poem with that title appears in this, his first poetry collection in seven years. The title is on the cover, though, and it alludes, O’Brien explains in an afternote, to the Waitemata Harbour, which is “definitely not rectangular, but neither is it round; octagonal feels about right”. The book itself is divided into eight sections, one of them also bearing that title, and each section offers a point of entry.
Where to jump in? It doesn’t matter – it’s always the ocean (a word that is repeated in poem after poem, along with fish, boat, sail, sea, swim, shore, coral, island), but like Heraclitus’s river, it’s never the same ocean. This is saltwater poetry, populated more by marine creatures – dolphins, anemones, octopuses, frigate birds, the humble anchovy – than it is by people. The poet travels widely, as islanders do, with an islander’s sensibility.
Even the outcome of the 2008 New Zealand election is seen in briny terms: “There were fishes somehow/set apart//the silver surface of them/shining//but not necessarily as we would have/this world shine.” These poems, so absorbed, saturated in the natural world, also closely engage with art: painting especially, but also fashion, music, architecture, printmaking, photography – and, of course, poetry. Nature is the subject of art’s framing, focusing lens: in The camera is a small room, “Trees grow/instantly to any size that suits.” In The Ailing Wife, “these dolphin-besotted waters” is surely an allusion to WB Yeats’s stunning last line in Sailing to Byzantium: “that dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea”.
The effect is a blurring of the division between nature and art: our observation of the one is aestheticised, permeated and enriched by our experience of the other. This points to one of the values of art outside the auction room: it may not help us see more clearly, but it helps us see more splendidly. It also catches what is fleeting, elusive, temporal. The beauties of the octagonal pool are many and various in these wandering, wondering odes to the inexhaustible present moment.
BEAUTIES OF THE OCTAGONAL POOL, by Gregory O’Brien (AUP, $27.99); O’Brien is appearing at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, May 9-13.
Tim Upperton is a poet and teaches English at Massey University.