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House and Contents by Gregory O'Brien

Gregory O’Brien’s latest offering of poems and paintings, House and Contents evokes the feelings of going to an open home, one where the inhabitants are still there and we are the neighbours, there only to snoop and rummage through the inner workings of the house we have so long lived close to. Similarly, there is the feeling of knowing poetry and painting, but seeing something new and intriguing in the various spaces of the home.

There is, of course, the logical connection that can be made with the insurance industry and their dominance over the Aotearoa New Zealand landscape with the proliferation of natural events. It is, in fact, the logical connection to be made when looking at the poems within the collection, the impact of the Wellington earthquake on the landscape.

Of recent times, poets have tended to shy away from the phonological elements of poetry - focusing on imagescapes more than soundscapes. Yet, in this collection, so much is referenced through the sounds created by the syllabification and the (at times) rhyme - both internal and line endings.

O’Brien has a long standing history on the literary landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand, providing lovers of poetry and learners in schools a plethora of quality verse to contemplate and decipher. His works have been recognised with wide ranging awards and his prolific body of work - including the addition of his magnificent paintings - has shaped literature in this country for the better.

In poems such as “House” with its memorable imagery and tone, captures the human form in the guise of the structure of the house:

…the staircase

a spine, and the kitchen

an ear listening to all

the other rooms; the study which is both

mind and elbow, the corridor

an outstretched arm - and

what it holds in its palm

(“House” by Gregory O’Brien)

The colour reproductions of O’Brien’s art depict some of the emotion of the poems, but also create their own narrative, explosions of colour and light. One piece depicts the sun as a prismed facade aesthetic hanging buoyant over what appears to be a highly stylised view of greys interspersed with pockets of colour reminiscent of a recreated Wellington in the grips of an aftermath. The fearless image of a horseback rider striding through the cityscape. It’s a striking contrast to the poem which sits adjacent:

…We find ourselves listening

attentively to objects that we didn’t realise have sounds. We listen to

the music of toothbrushes jostling in a mug on the bathroom window


(“12 noon” by Gregory O’Brien)

Quite simply, the collection brings back memories of the events of the earthquake in Wellington and both the good and bad outcomes of the event. However, the curated selection is an expression of connection with the world around us. O’Brien has reframed the narrative, yet again, to create explorations of life, love and loss that transcends any one event, and captures the significance of our current times.

Reviewer: Chris Reed

Auckland University Press


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