Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook

‘I keep a dinghy on or beside the front lawn of my home in the ridgetop Wellington suburb of Hataitai’, reads the opening lines of 'Always Song in the Water'. In his exploration of the ocean and the role it plays in the lives and imaginations of New Zealanders, Gregory O’Brien enlists his anecdotal dinghy as a trope of ontological travel – into oneself, the world, into life and death. ‘With its keel and skeletal framing, it is a human torso with spine and ribcage, or the interior of a church or a place of habitation’, reflects O’Brien, ‘It could as easily be a lifeboat as it could be D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Ship of Death’.’

Gathering a group of local artists and writers, the book reveals the poetry of living on an island where only one seventeenth of the total territory is made up of dry land. Using the work of creative spirits such as Janet Frame, Ralph Hotere, Robin White,Phil Dadson, Fiona Hall, Euan Macleod, Laurence Aberhart, John Pule and Epeli Hau’ofa as touchstones, O’Brien presents encounters and unexpected epiphanies that paint a portrait not only of the ocean but of those who traverse it, ‘caught up in the great rhythm of the sea’. The unique collection of writings is a spirited, personal account of his experiences at sea; ‘this is my field notebook, my voyaging logbook. This is my Schubert played on a barrel organ, my whale survey, my songbook.’

The book is divided into two parts, first delving into a road trip through Northland then launching out into the Pacific, to ‘lead us into some under-explored territories of the South Pacific imagination.’ The second section largely relates to formative voyages to the rarely visited Kermadec Islands, just under 1000 kilometres north of mainland New Zealand – an oceanic artist expedition that carved open an expanded notion of Aotearoa New Zealand. O’Brien’s journeys are accompanied by photographs, film stills and artworks – including many by Sydney-based painter Noel McKenna, who produced numerous works specifically for the book. His delicate sketches and oil paintings provide the visuals for O’Brien’s poetry and writing, reflecting on his travels through the land and ocean. Interspersing these are the author’s own acrylic paintings, as well as a collaborative series with artist John Pule. The aquatint etchings echo the oceanic themes that bind these pieces of writing, and also literally bind them as the artwork on the front and back cover.

Stories of the dinghy’s past endeavours into the ocean are interwoven with O’Brien’s diaristic entries as he details his pilgrimage through his country and the ocean beyond. The boat is imbued with meaning, sometimes serving as a symbol of discovery and arrival, or of escape and rescue from danger. O’Brien explains that in addition to its travel on water, ‘or laid, mollusc-like, on dry land, I think of the amphibious, multi-purpose vessel as also being carried water-wards on my back (as was often the case in my youth) or strapped to the roof-racks of a car and clocking up land miles.’

The 250-page text is a love letter to both New Zealand and the ocean at large, ending with a three-page poem titled Ode to the Kermadec Trench, a thousand-kilometre linear ocean trench in the south Pacific Ocean. This is a personal and poignant reflection of O’Brien’s expedition through his motherland into the Pacific, positioning the reader feel as though they have sailed alongside him.

Always Song in the Water: An Oceanic Sketchbook by Gregory O’Brien
Paperback, 264 pages, 80 colour illustrations
Auckland University Press, 2019


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