Saturday, August 24, 2013

John O'Connor

John O’Connor is a Christchurch poet and critic. He was co-winner of the open section of the New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition in 1998 and winner of both the open and haiku sections of the same comprtition in 2006. In 2000 his fifth book of poetry, A Particular Context, was voted one of the five best books of New Zealand poetry of the 1990s by members of the NZPS. He is an editor for Canterbury Poets Combined Presses and was founding editor the poetry magazine plainwraps, co-founder of Sudden Valley Press and Poets Group, occasional editor of Takahe, Spin and the NZPS annual anthology. He is a past chair and long-term committee member of the Canterbury Poets Collective. His poetry has been widely published and is represented in Essential New Zealand Poems (Random House/Godwit, 2001). His haiku have been internationally anthologized and translated into eight languages. In 1997 he received an Honorary Diploma from the Croatian Haiku Association and in 2001 a Museum of Haiku Literature Award, Tokyo, for “best of issue” in Frogpond International, a special issue from the Haiku Society of America, featuring haiku from 52 countries and language communities.

For a Time – after Manet

two penny-roses
              in the
                       wine glass
                             by red and green bottles


                              stands behind them…

                   you look
                                 into her eyes

you’ll see
           the full moon’s     out

                      he doesn’t see

       place your order;

               the corsage
                                on her breast

(Takahe, 1988)

The River

Laconic temperament

      bank to brink

        touching the

       doesn’t stray
                even in winter

its head.

     In December



the bank-

the light
             that doesn’t seem to move.


‘When did you arrive?’
‘Today. I
came right here.’

Reflections of willow in her eyes

(plainwraps, 1989)

Pink Shutters

a fabulous figure
a snapshot in a bio facing p

120 king of the cuckolds she is
being rowed so innocently

to another bay if it weren’t for
the caption you would never

know except the sun is maybe
too easy he poses by a deck

chair holding an iced
drink like an olympic torch

and you know
there’s a little man strumming

a mandoline not five minutes
over the water in the shade of

that small white house with pink

(Takahe, 1993)

At Governor’s Bay


This is where Curnow wrote
    ‘At Dead Low Water’ or

signed it off, ‘December
    1944’, five years before

my birth, fifty-seven before
    his death. The publican

tells us that fog beyond
    the heads will roll up

harbor at nightfall,
    as traffic crabs past

the general store/restaurant
    the eye follows

a road to Cresswell Ave
    & the primary, once site

of Kai Tahu stockade


Blue gum smell. The odour
    of death in life heavy

in the light air follows
    us down from tarseal to metal

to the long wharf pointing
    nor’east. To the right

Quail Island, home of wrecks
    once home to lepers & further

east the rock Ripara, armed to
    repel Russian ‘threat’ in

Victoria’s ’88. Agapanthas only
    attempting to clamber

from foreshore to the higher
    ground impervious to them,

music that could
    be Shostakovich – or Elgar as

background to a full-on domestic


If I too love to be
    an old man I’ll sit

in the sun & smell the
    ‘sump of opulent tides’,

& watch the kids
    drift out from the

playground past
    the convenience &

up the main road
    to disappear into their

own futures leaving
    behind my shaking hand

& the glow of Monteith’s Black

(Kokako, 1999)

Wind & Fire

i.m. Bill Sewell 

I (closure)

when all the talk
    & all the poems are over

when the lights go
    out at the MCB & the WEA’s

redeveloped & the computer
    whizz & the Net-head

are old hat &
    no-one remembers Twiggy,

when Bo & Bic
    are no longer chic &

Mick reverts to coke
    when 9/11 implodes to a list

of infinite grievance &
    academics draw fine distinctions

on matters yet to
    evolve from simplifications, when

the self-promoters & writing course
    junkies find their places

usurped by monkeys & nothing stops
    (for nothing stops) – &

all the world’s precisely
    as it was, someone might say

having read your poems, that
    you caught it all/everything

that rushes towards inevitable closure

II (the Sunday papers)

the dust settles –
    we look around
        & wonder why it happened

adept at cliché
    (rather than analysis) we express
        unqualified approval

of those who set it up,
    put it right, turned the
        tables then

buggered off to write
    their final testaments for
        the Sunday papers

III (the most we can hope for)

we can hope for
a disinterested report

that says simply
that love is not

something we all have
(is all we have)

& given few options
can still choose

how to speak. that
choice defines us.

it holds the bank
against the elements

for a time
which then prevail –

turning all
to wind & fire.

(JAAM, 2001)

At Kaoukourarata / Port Levy

with Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Helen Jacobs and Mark Pirie, 3 June 2001

we parked the car by a memorial
to Taawao, the Nga Pui missionary

which greets you as you arrive
on the final flat that horseshoes

round the bay to the wharf and
a collection of sheds and boatsheds –

it was full tide, a spring tide,
the water foreshortening the hills by

a myth or two. we were too close
yet close enough to see. somebody

wisecracked about the gullibility
of biography – or biographers – as

an afterthought from thinking that
Mick Stimpson – Dirty Mick – had

humped his load of fish past here
many a time, as we turned back

and walked together towards the
cemetery beyond the gum tree

just off road, two gates
and you’re there, standing above the bay.


and I’d never seen the bay
so beautiful, in the winter air

smoke rising and the magpies
absent, for once, that weren’t

even the usual sheep in the grave-
yard that had so disturbed

my American guest a few months before.
just Stimpson’s grave at Port Levy

a bare headstone that as you say
may or may not be above the right

person. Alistair, you also said
that the mistakes don’t matter

and quoted Auden on Yeats who
hadn’t died in the depths of winter

but in Spain, sunny Spain, and
as we left the spot the Maori

kids ran after us, playing and
also visiting the graves, who

stopped by the gate before leaving
and washed their hands and flicked

the drops away. I
latched the gate and followed

you all downhill. and the kid
who asked were we old –

a naïve and unexpected question
which I liked and you replied to –

you later said she was the spirit
of the place. she had come

from the creek that cuts the road
and afterward went back to the

smoky yard of a Maori family’s
home or bach. how do you

end a poem like this without
saying that all poems are about

love and death – as you had?

Note: Yeats in fact died in Menton on 28 January 1939. The poem follows my (no doubt fallible) memory of what was said that day. The essential point, of relative warmth rather than bitter cold, is clearly correct however.

(Kalimat, 2001)

Mother & Child

for Alistair Te Ariki Campbell 

round the edges
of the photograph time

is reclaiming you, still
for a moment in

your European shoes
cane chair

& photographer’s back-drop –
your left shoulder

drops & the outsized
collar of your

dress leaves shadows
at the base of your neck –

a Polynesian face
at odds yet not at odds

with all of this
as if something in

the brown air said
that time’s irredeemable

& yours almost up


along the coasts
the rusting hulks

stand above
the tides & waves

lap about them
or crash about them

when the wind’s high –
& in the still air

fishermen carry
their lights moving

slowly as if they’ve
done this for as

long as the lagoons
& sky can remember

– as long as the sand
& moonlight – which

curve toward the
south – the grey

acidic smoke of Otago


Teu, over thirty
years ago I rode

the waves of your
home islands as

the oarsmen struck
their rhythm

to the call of
a master standing

by the transom –
they timed

the breakers, surfing
tiny gaps

in the reefs
to sheltered water. &

now I write
about your son who

turned the rising
mists of the south

to lighter & darker
shades, whose photograph

also stands beside
 me – old man /

child – his outsized
collar too forming

shadows – his
eyes searching the

middle distance
just above my right

shoulder. something there

(Tiny Gaps, NZPS, 2003)

The Jester

A Jewish sunset. A particularly grey sunset

or perhaps it’s red

it’s as old as the hills beneath it

a tear

runs down one cheek constantly.

Some say it’s a spotless lamb
that springs in the slaughter house

some say
it’s just an old croc
that takes a child playing
by its mother working by the river…

The sunset doesn’t need to say anything

it’s seen it all before

it’s as old as the Mount of Olives
as old as a man carrying a jar of water
as a colt & donkey
as the dusty streets & the girls
who don’t know the language
but do a brisk trade anyway…

By Ground Zero & in Gaza
it mourns the dead in its own way –
in the language of the tribe which
it cannot purify –

as old as the old wives’ tales

as young as the kids in the beat up wagon.

(The New Zealand Listener, 2008)

A Left Hook

an early experience
of the left hook (admirably

tight if open-handed) came
at the beautific hand of

Monseigneur O’Dea – too
old to be a parish priest – who

about to impart the very
body & blood of Christ found I

was not holding the paten
correctly. a few years later

an equally irascible boxing
coach imparted impeccable

advice on how to throw it,
though he didn’t know the bit

about feinting with Jesus.
when the good Monseigneur

had his final photo taken
he bestowed a copy on our family

– old friends should be so blessed –
for a decade it sat on the mantelpiece

between a bunch of plastic grapes
& a glass bowl that snowed if shaken.

(Climbing the Flame Tree, NZPS, 2008)


left school at 12 /
                  other things to do

       like “helping the old man out”
       or washing sheets & towels
                                              for Mrs Roach.

       once trundled “classics”
       door to door /
       trouble was she couldn’t
       lie convincingly
                                    preferring local stories
               news / wasn’t all that keen
                                               on overseas.

       at 18 married Jack
                            – shotgun wedding –
               Cousin Kath
               took Tim /
               within a month
               or 2.

       quick learner though
                            aptitude for figures

               kept the books for
               small businesses /
               despite the lack
               of formal training.

                              but basically / increasingly
                              the Royal felt like home /

                              she liked the cheek / &
                              meeting someone new

                              once Jack cleared out.

(Cornelius & Co, Post Pressed, 2009)

Speculations on a Birdcage

A geography
                        of tumbleweeds

everywhere you look the same old man

a rusty bike
a mote of dust in God’s eye /
                         a city
                        white & entelechious

its down-pipes announcing the beginnings of spring


            No moment’s eternal
            eternity’s the absence of time (as large as a peanut

            as golden as autumn lovers

            black as a swan or bread loaves)


Each spring creates the LANGUAGE of its own

            At the roadside – an old man fixing a puncture

            his dog asleep beside him

(Bravado, 2009)


Albrecht considers the Great Fire of London
he knows you can’t go there
but buys the ticket anyhow

Twilight is the colour of closed hands
the page (of a book) that flips over
in black light

In the Synagogue of Larks
                                                the heart rises…
that’s what A reckons

(he said the ceramic air-vents are particularly lovely)


“If silence is the absence of sound
how come we hear it?”

“That’s a good question,” replied A
who didn’t believe in it anyhow


                        (All stratifications reduced to a riccocino
                        a sidewalk caff

                        they did their post-doctoral work in fifteen minutes
                        all you need to know

                        to repeat the data of post-colonial histories)


an alphabet of sighs / alphabets of conflict

the simplest ‘actions’ /
like diplomacy

the Prince of Time

multiplications of illusions
(a mirror in a mirror

in a mirror)


A said it was all skylarks

& mountain passes

(Poetry NZ, 2009)

Cutting Wind / Taxi

“If it were a bloody cat
I’d take it home and feed it,”

businessman re streetworker
in inset doorway. midnight.

the girls with him think that’s
quite funny / being well dressed

& all. outside it’s bitter cold.
sleet off the windshield. I knew

the one he meant. you
don’t see her around anymore.

maybe AIDS… maybe. maybe
the wind made her that thin

night after night after night.

(Bravado, 2010)

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