Odysseus in Woolloomooloo, by Bob Orr (Steele Roberts, 2014), 60 pp., $19.99
If James Joyce could reanimate Ulysses on the banks of the Liffey, why not bring the wily old wanderer to the South Pacific? As well as this handsome poetry book by Bob Orr (his eighth), Steele Roberts recently published a new version of Homer’s Odyssey – ‘an Antipodean translation for the early twenty-first century’– compiled by Brian Dawkins, an ardent self-taught classicist who lives in Ngaio. The near-simultaneous arrival of these volumes seems a fulfilment of the hypothesis offered in Landfall more than thirty years ago by classical scholar John Davidson. Riffing on the theme of ‘Baxter, Odysseus and New Zealand poetry’ in the June 1980 issue, Davidson suggested that the do-it-yourself methodology of the Homeric hero resonated with the male Kiwi psyche and observed that ‘the Polynesian explorers themselves, as well as Tasman, Cook, Dicky Barrett, even Samuel Marsden, could all perhaps be said to have a touch of Odysseus about them’.
James K Baxter was firm in his conviction ‘that the Greek myths and legends are never out-of-date since they form that mythical stratum in the mind of modern man which enables him from time to time to make a pattern out of the chaos of his experience’. This passage comes from the preface to the 1967 play The Sore-Footed Man, which has Odysseus has its protagonist. A little later, Baxter remarks, ‘The character of Odysseus had in fact haunted me for many years, from the time I began to realise that neither conventional ethics nor the theology of Aquinas were much use in determining what choices a man should make who wishes to win a war, or court a woman, or even free himself from the chains of family conditioning.’
While I doubt if Bob Orr was likewise guided to Odysseus as an alternative to Thomism (a binary opposition that has probably exercised few minds other than Baxter’s), I think he would give an assenting nod to the general thrust of Baxter’s conjecture – and a friendly wave to Dawkins and Davidson. Odysseus is not, in fact, all that dominating a presence in Orr’s new book, but he serves as a tutelary spirit, reference point and occasionally adopted persona, much as he did six years ago in Orr’s previous collection, Calypso.
Orr’s perception is double-sided, with the romantic in him continually chafing against the sharp-eyed realist. He has a tendency to deglamorise. Odysseus is pictured as a footloose old salt whose tales of battling monsters and being lured by sirens ‘nobody these days takes seriously’. The Ithacan palace has ‘become a backpackers’ hostel’ and once-beauteous Helen is glimpsed ‘behind the counter of a delicatessen/ in Courtenay Place’. Yet the poet nevertheless remains beguiled by the notion that elsewhere there might be realms filled with magic and adventure. The peregrinations documented in the book are mostly just small-scale trips to the seaside and strolls around inner-city suburbs, but as a mental traveller Orr knows no bounds. Thus in the wryly titled ‘Upanishads of K Road’, while sauntering ‘past bars and cafes’, he declares, ‘I begin a long journey to the other side of Saturn’. And throughout this new volume, as in Orr’s previous output, poems frequently end with a gaze towards the horizon.
In an author’s note on the back flap, Orr says, ‘Most of my adult life has been spent in Auckland working as a boatman on the Waitemata Harbour and Harbour Gulf.’ The majority of his new poems have Auckland settings. Why then does he locate Odysseus in Woolloomooloo rather than Waikowhai, Waterview or the Wairau Valley? Partly, I guess, because Orr in his Odysseus guise must be allowed to leave Auckland/Ithaca and make an ocean voyage. And partly, I think, because as a poet with a fine ear and robust sense of humour he enjoys the sheer sound of ‘Woolloomooloo’ – those lovely, long, improbable, cow-like vowels which apparently derive from early British settler John Palmer’s mishearing of the local Aboriginal language.
A three-word poetry collection title in which the first word is Greek and the third from one of the indigenous tongues of New South Wales suits Orr’s purposes well, for throughout his new book we find him marvelling continually at what a mixed-up cosmopolitan swirl the modern world is. On Auckland’s main street he spies ‘four or five languages/ on any shop window’ and a foodhall filled with ‘the aroma of Outer Mongolia’. After stepping into a spice shop on Hobson Street, he declares, ‘I sit by the Ganges/ river of rubies and garbage’. His five-year-old grandchild ‘speaks fluent Japanese’.
Far from being the sole, or even the central, Odyssean figure in the book, Orr presents himself as just one amidst a host of wanderers and migrants. Among the subjects of Orr’s poems are the heartsick Afghan refugee who has become his neighbour, foodhall cashier ‘Jane from Thailand’ who works for an outlet serving Hainan chicken, sagacious bottle-store proprietor ‘Ravi from Mumbai’ who greets every customer as his ‘best friend’, and Peruvian author Cesar Vallejo who pines for his homeland during his last years in Paris. Nor should we overlook the old friend to whom Orr dedicates the collection’s title poem, expatriate poet Nigel Roberts, born in Wellington but a resident of Sydney for decades.
In his youth Orr was an uncommonly taciturn poet. He seemed to come from a place where words were severely rationed and he went in fear of wasting any. Several of the poems in his first collection, Blue Footpaths from 1971, contained fewer than thirty words, including the title, and offered a single gnomic image. I recall, too, my sense of unease when reading his second book, Poems for Moira from 1979. Since I wasn’t Moira, how dare I read her mail? I felt like an intruder into a private conversation.
With the passing years Orr has grown more expansive. He takes time nowadays to set up a scene, and occasionally even gives us the view from the different angles. Instead of talking to someone else over his readers’ heads, he now treats his audience as trusted confidantes. That said, however, he remains chary of over-explaining. The reference to ‘a giant in a wheelchair’ in the poem ‘Circular Quay’, for instance, might perplex some readers, particularly those who know little about the poem’s dedicatee, David Mitchell. For those aware that Mitchell died in Sydney in 2011 after struggling with motor neuron disease, and especially for those who knew Dave in his brisk, athletic heyday, the lines are a deeply moving tribute. But Orr does not spell things out for the uninformed.
Likewise, in ‘A Bridge in Penrose’ Orr – or, to be more careful, the poem’s narrator – takes ‘cover from a storm in a bus shelter’ outside One Tree Hill College and encounters ‘an apparition of R A K Mason’. Why the ghost of that particular poet in that specific spot, one might wonder. There are several good reasons, but Orr elaborates on none of them. The house in Penrose where Mason was born and spent part of his childhood and adolescence was on land now occupied by One Tree Hill College. As an adult he did not drive but moved around the city by bus. His work as a secretary for the Auckland Builders’ and General Labourers’ Union took him back to Penrose factories. If you’re familiar with these facts, great! If not, tough.
One last example: in ‘An afternoon in the life of an ant’ Orr assumes the persona of an insect crawling across an atlas ‘left open on a map of Mexico’. Why Mexico? Orr does not say, but I have heard that he has a son who lives in Batopilas, Chihuahua, so I doubt if the choice is random.
For that matter, I doubt if any of Orr’s linguistic decisions are happenstance. In a rare interview granted to the New Zealand Herald on 5 March 2014 he revealed that he habitually puts his poems through thirty or forty drafts before publication. It takes a lot of hard work to create the illusion of fresh-thought words skipping spontaneously off the tongue. I’m sure there are some allusions and intimations in the book that have eluded me. Perhaps they will become clear on my thirtieth and fortieth re-reading.
Although there are moments of sadness in Odysseus in Woolloomooloo, overall it is distinguished by a quietly joyous, celebratory tone. What is celebrated exactly? Everything, really – the whole skew-whiff, ramshackle, confused shebang. The poet strolls hither and thither, glad to be alive in spite of the odds, and delighted, or at least not displeased, by what he sees. The book’s epigraph – ‘to the mysteries’ – is a beautiful little poem in itself. Nor is Orr just thinking here of grand life-and-death concerns and the sands of eternity. There are unfathomable and bemusing components in everyday occurrences. As Orr puts it in one of my favourites among his new offerings, the witty and humane ‘South of Capricorn’, he writes ‘for all the mysteries/ contained within a lamb and pickle sandwich’.
There’s a cheering warmth to this collection which encourages frequent revisits. There’s something deeper, too, that prompts me to arc back and look again at Baxter’s quest for moral exemplars. It has become unfashionable to turn to poetry for ethical instruction and I suspect it will embarrass Orr to be cast in the role of a moral tutor. But when I ask myself why in the end I love this book rather than merely like it, it’s because I see Orr’s bigger theme as being how to carry yourself in the world, particularly in regard to your fellow citizens. And, in Orr’s case, this is as lightly, gently, generously and benignly as you’re able, without sacrificing your principles.
IAIN SHARP is an Auckland writer, poet and librarian, and former literary editor for a number of publications, including Metro magazine and the Sunday Star-Times.