by Gregory O’Brien
Gregory O’Brien is both artist and poet (among other skills and talents) so it is not surprising that the images that accompany his words in Whale Years are his work, too.
I’ve always had a fondness for whales and dolphins and those other lumberous creatures that inhabit the oceans, excepting those with sharp teeth and a taste for human flesh. Perhaps because in the sea, clad in matronly swimsuit, I’m a bit of a lumberous creature myself. I also like the multiplicity of smaller species that inhabit sea and shore.
So I did want to go on this voyage with O’Brien and find out for myself how he measured not only the length of his journey, but the discoveries he made. The structure is helpful, and it reads like a journal. Some of his language is exquisitely delicate and I responded to it almost viscerally. Much is robust. I liked the enigmatic, semi-mystical that sometimes lingered beneath the exact description.
If your business is to watch and follow the whales, to observe and record, O’Brien’s poems offer an ideal antithesis to purely scientific speak and have their own value in explaining the world he is exploring. Some of the stuff he writes about is known to me, and what he did with it never disappointed. So I took the unknown on trust.
I must ask, is the prose allowed to be poetry, too? Ah, we could have an interesting discussion on that. It’s ingenious. What has O’Brien borrowed to make it so? Perhaps he needed nothing.
A jolt when he talked of the lost, when:
‘…the black sand went about
its daily work, releasing the bones
of Moriori, centuries buried,
trussed and seated, as was custom,
facing the ocean…’
I shivered, though we’re not in the Antarctic. Does any Moriori DNA remain discernible in unknown descendants? I was grateful for the playfulness of the poems that followed.
Reading Whale Years is to go on a journey of discoveries generously shared, a perfect menu for dipping into, postcards from lands not all of us will visit. The ebb and flow of this and that, the death of a king, the flora and fauna, reverberations of the ocean underlying all…
Could you ever have imagined a conversation between the monolithic stone heads of Easter Island and a weather balloon? Me neither. So hurrah for the unexpectedness of much that is here, too.
I’m resident in Tauranga, and read the poems about the Rena catastrophe (from which we still suffer) with close interest. With all I’d heard about it, including a detailed and intelligent discussion among local kaumatua, I had never realised how far the oceans could carry the debris; the extent of the despoilment and the demise of so many ocean-dwellers.
You know, I think I’m right in believing poems can illuminate and enlighten us on almost any topic. (And wouldn’t a subject index of New Zealand poetry be a great idea?)
I shall continue to read Whale Years for my own pleasure, silently to myself, aloud to others. And I wish I was back in classrooms where I could use this fine collection for teaching purposes, too.
A well-worth investment, then?
Author: Gregory O’Brien
Publisher: Auckland University Press
ISBN: 978 1869 408329