John O'Connor (d. 12 May, 2015)
all down the Jewish lane children are falling. it’s a game called autumn, a pastiche of drifting leaves and gathering. yet one stays out, has not joined her companions in what they suppose is a fine tumble, quick in the wind, now still.
just one moved towards the vents. a photograph shows them piled in a corner, naked and shaved, almost as if stacked up. yet one figure is in front of the group — as if she had something important to say.
This is the prose-poem "Something to Say," By John O'Connor, included in David Howard's anthology Complete with Instructions. It's always been a favourite of mine - among the very many poems of his I liked.
David Howard, ed.: Complete with Instructions (2001)
It was David Howard who introduced the two of us, in fact. I was going down to Christchurch to teach a weekend writing course, and David suggested that I take the opportunity to interview a bunch of the local poets down there for a possible feature in his new magazine Firebrand (which eventually, after many vicissitudes, turned into the anthology pictured above).
I was happy enough to do it, and had a fascinating time driving round the city and talking to the likes of Julia Allen, John Allison, Kenneth Fea, David Gregory, Rob Jackaman, Graham Lindsay, Mike Minehan, and - John O'Connor (you can find complete texts of the various interviews, which I ended up calling "Imaginary Toads in Real Gardens," on my Opinions blog here.
John O'Connor had recently helped to set up Sudden Valley Press, and was active in the Canterbury Poets Collective, and seemed in many ways a natural organiser. It was quite a surprise to me to find out just how delicate and subtle his poetry could be. He wrote in many voices, some of which appealed to me more than others, but in every one of his many books there was always the chance of turning the page and finding something quite extraordinary - something like that haunting prose-poem I've reprinted above.
Here's a list of his books, as accurate as I can make it from my own notes and reviews of his work over the years. There could well be some missing. These are the main ones, though:
John O’Connor: haiku
- Laying Autumn’s Dust: Poems and Verse 1974-1983. Concept Publishing, 1983.
- Citizen of No Mean City: Poems and Verse 1983-1985. Concept Publishing, 1985.
- [with Bernard Gadd]. Too Right Mate. Hallard Press, 1996.
- As It Is: Poems 1981-1996. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1997.
- A Particular Context. Christchurch: Sudden Valley Press, 1999.
- [with Eric Mould]. Working Voices. Auckland: Hallard Press, 2003.
- Home River. Auckland: Hallard Press, 2003.
- Bright the Harvest Moon. Wellington: HeadworX, 2004.
- Parts of the Moon: Selected Haiku & Senryu 1988-2007. Teneriffe: Post Pressed, 2007.
- Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-Class Verse, 1996-2009. Teneriffe, Queensland: Post Pressed, 2009.
- Aspects of Reality. Wellington: HeadworX, 2013.
- Whistling in the Dark. Wellington: HeadworX, 2014.
John O’Connor: Whistling in the Dark (2014)
There's a brief bio / bibliography up at the Aotearoa NZ Poetry Sound Archive, but it dates from 2004, over a decade ago, so is pretty out-of-date. He'd done a great deal since then:
John O’Connor is a past winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society’s International Prize, founding editor of the poetry journal plainwraps and has edited various issues of Takahe, Spin, and the NZPS annual anthology. With David Gregory he founded Poets Group and also Sudden Valley Press of which he is managing editor. John’s haiku have been internationally anthologised on a number of occasions, translated into 6 languages and were recently chosen as “best of issue” in Frogpond International, a special issue of the leading US haiku periodical, Frogpond, featuring haiku from 26 countries. His criticism and non-haiku poetry have been widely published in New Zealand and overseas, and his work has been anthologised by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell in Essential New Zealand Poems. His last book, A Particular Context, was chosen by members of the Poetry Society as one of the 5 best books of New Zealand poetry of the 1990s.
I guess one of my own fondest memories of John is the roadtrip we did together out to Banks Peninsula in 2003. The ostensible reason for the jaunt was to look for the grave of D'Arcy Cresswell - in which attempt we were singularly unsuccessful (though we did find the grave of a Douglas Cresswell), but actually it was really just to explore a bit. We ended up at Port Levy, as I recall, and John did a good deal of quoting from Denis Glover's Towards Banks Peninsula along the way - not to mention his own poem "At Port Levy."
I wrote a poem about our trip, in fact: probably too allusive to make much sense without the context of that day out in the hills, but I give it here as a little tribute to that good man and good poet John O'Connor - "A red libation to your good memory, friend":
i.m. John O'Connor (d. 12/5/15)
1 - The Summons
Feed, propagate, be fed on; please someone; die.
– Kendrick Smithyman
didn’t mean to
sun breaks through
2 - Searching for the Original
D R I V E
Dog gobbles up flies
from the floor of the church
with his wife
Look up at the hills
the fairies lived there
girl could tell you more
I'm glad I was able to include two beautiful translations by John in the last issue of Poetry NZ, together with a notice of his latest book. I didn't then fully understand the significance of its title, Whistling in the Dark.
John O'Connor is a man who will be sorely missed, and I'm sorry that there won't be any more of his wonderful books to leaf through, with curious surprises lurking behind the most unobtrusive pages.