for Denis O’Connor


[If I gave you nothing else, he said]

If I gave you nothing else, he said
I gave you
                     a roof over your head.
The sort of answer to the sort of question
we would have thrown our Irish fathers: What does the snow know
          about snowing. Or the clenched fist
of what it holds. And was it winter
or was winter
what you left behind.



Skills learnt on the violin applied to guns

There was something of that
in the leaving

            or the reasons
left behind. A tenacity born of ploughing
applied to the High Seas. Theirs was

a long afternoon at the far end
           of the quieting day
laid on their backs, creaking
like dinghies. Oars tucked
           neatly inside. White paint visible

under the blue.
            At the far end of the long bay
                      of fatherhood.




Fatherhood a museum of optics
         hall of mirrors: the smaller you get
the bigger you become.
         Our sons the oldest people
in the room, their lives extending furthest
         into the future. And
our daughters have become archaeologists
         of a world so dizzyingly far
                    above us.





Seldom the dying--
it is the living darken
the day. A dying man walks
to the running sea.


Between voyages

A dexterity acquired
in the pit

applied to dancefloor
or morning harbour

our fathers, exiled from their
former selves, glided

marriage-wards, as lightly
as stones or shells

skimmed across water.




Days on earth spent

Listening to the roof slates
a man sleeping the deep sleep
of a brass instrument

all the spume-flecked day
his chisel a long boat traversing
the night waters of the stone.




From the Box of Most Things

At the end of his life
he had reached the end

of his father’s tie
a further life’s journeying

to circumnavigate
his father’s hat.



The visible sons

One’s feet dangled midair
another played the goat while
the oldest mastered the birdcalls
of species that had never reached
these shores.

Sadly, with fortitude.

One wrestled a chair while
the youngest stood atop the house
as though it were a ship of state
a pilot, like his father
untucked shirt and school tie
to steer by.



A seaward glance

If they left the world
it would be by long boat

and by long boat
be brought back.




Down the home straight, the invisible fathers
were on the pace         
                     the coal black horses

clamouring beneath them; the churchless fathers
who crammed
                     both choir-loft and public bar

with their singing; in the courtroom
of their pleading
                    their only defence

a range of herring-bone jackets and a few dance-steps
learnt in a mine
                    by helmet-light and waving

a race-card; the winged fathers on their perches
tarred and
                      bird-feathered; the absent fathers

long ‘gone upstairs’
in their borrowed suits

the dancefloor or harbour they once crossed so lightly
the field mowed,
          the boat rowed.

Gregory O’Brien is a poet, painter, art curator and essayist based in Wellington, New Zealand. His most recent book is News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore, which will appear shortly from Carcanet (UK) (see He has published numerous collections of poetry including Days Beside Water (Carcanet, 1994) and Afternoon in the Evening Train (Victoria University Press, 2005). With Jenny Bornholdt and Mark Williams, he edited the Oxford University Press Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (in English), which appeared in 1996. O'Brien is a contributing editor to the poetry journal Fulcrum (Cambridge, Massachusetts).