t. 93, Michel O’Leary, Collected Poems 1981-2016.

Collected Poems 1981-2016
by Michel O’Leary.
Wellington: HeadworX Publishers (2017).
RRP: $35. Pb, 260pp.
ISBN: 9780473388317.
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.

Michael O’Leary is a poet, novelist, publisher, performer and bookshop proprietor. Collected Poems 1981-2016 is a thirty-five-year retrospective from an important Irish Māori influenced writer. The collection is divided into five parts, with an Introduction by Iain Sharp and a short biographical note by Michael 0’Leary. The book is illustrated with photographs and block drawings.

Part One, “T.A.B. Ula Rasa and Other Best Bets”, (p 16) begins with the long title poem, with its sublime lines about the boy’s first experience of art and artists:


But as he walked through the large,

Forbidding double doors he

Entered the world which emulated

The spirit of all the artists mentioned. In the shabby, fractured,


Flaking plaster statues and effigies

Surrounding the walls and altar

Of the suburban holy place he

Experienced the same grandeur and expectation inherent.


The references to artists, religion and spirituality hint at the primary influences on the poet’s life and work. These are not the only influences in these poems, however. O’Leary writes about many other influences on his life: art and artists, writers, musicians, railways, working-class values, his Irishness and Māoritanga.

For the most part these are lengthy lyrics, well-judged and living primarily in their closely observed detail. There is a fine sensuousness in the language.

“Shake Speer’s Faith” (p 21) is a lengthy poem in six parts, about the Third Reich, which ends with this verse from the “Epilogue – In Hell” (p 36):


So, the cycle of life turns yet further onwards

Grinding well beyond the historical inevitability

As each turn of the wheel reveals a new vulnerability

Enabling us to see, through each person’s story

The fight with themselves to discover the unknowable


Many of the poems are haunted by history. This tendency is perhaps best exemplified in the poem, “Neo-Sticky Fingers” (p 39). It is easy to see why O’Leary was drawn to this subject. In a world filled with verbiage and babble the poem imagines moving south from the horrors of war:


The German in him left for the South with his sister, Morphine

AK Offenbach’s opera-bouffe, at once with two fingers

And the evil eye, rang out from the oversized stereo speakers

Bruno Il Piccolo Mondo – a filosofia e necessario amore!

Preparing a concoction of olive oil and beta Urbs


Part Two “The ‘Kia Aroha’ Poems” draws on O’Leary’s Māori heritage. Here there are short lyrical poems. The grasp of detail is confident, the language precise, the phrasing sure across line and stanza breaks, as we see in “Kia Aroha – toru” (p 43):


to describe thoughts and feelings

these in reality have already gone

what is left that lingers on

in fact has only just begun

the love that dares not speak

can only whisper

small, soft words.


“He Waiatanui kia Aroha” (p 45) is a lengthy poem in thirteen sections. The poem opens with these lovely lines:


twilight falls

among the large stone buildings

grey monoliths – but undemanding

to the modern eye

as we walked towards the taxi

I stopped and wanted to kiss you

And you said maybe

then we did kiss


“On the Death of your Mother” (p 55) begins:


That morning I woke up and I put around

My neck the black and white scarf

Which several years ago I stole from your house

As a close memento of you to wear.


Part Three “Sonnets Songs Satires” contains poems for various friends. A beautiful poem “Hone Tuwhare: A Personal Memoir” (p 64) celebrates the life and death of the famous Māori poet:


E hoa, you have gone to a place beyond

that tug-of-war which was your life: that

struggle between North and South which

even continued after you were laid to rest.


While “Only a Poem” (p 69), is a wonderful love poem, which begins with a description of Lion Rock:


In the large shadow of Lion Rock

I stood alone watching the breakers


Rolling across the horizon from the ocean

The moonlight and the cloud-cover conspired


To flood my mind with memories and

I longed to be part of you again.


Part Four: “e tangata, e tangata, e tangata” is composed mainly of short lyrics. The contrast between the styles of poetry in this volume is marked. “While Your Guitar Violently Wails” (to George Harrison), (p 117) is a brilliant and funny lyric that succeeds by means of its jaunty rhythms:


Despite the high-walls fortress

Of your many-roomed mansion

It seems that living in a convent retreat

Could not keep the madness out


The Beatle-Witch which you

Had become in the mind of a fellow

Liddypoolian was to be extinguished

As an aspect of evil in the material world.


The clarity, simplicity and understatedness in O’Leary’s lyrics have a lighter texture than poems in the previous sections. This delicacy, restraint and lyricism give a coherence to his work, whether he is writing about the nuclear family, his father and mother or about the senses, as in “Touch and Smell and Taste” (p 121). The poem begins:


touch and smell and taste

on my tongue of you

I remember these thigs

as I lie aloe in my bed


“Make Love and War”, (p129), which is a poem in three sections, is highly effective in its contradictory verses. The second section is a love poem:


My love comes to me

And baring her beautiful breasts

Before my loving gaze

And soft caress

She gives me the gift

Only a young woman

Can bestow on an older man …


At odds with this simplicity are the poems which include grief, such as the three-part poem, “Flip Side of the Ballad of John and Yoko” (p 133), bout the death of John Lennon. The poem begins:


There I was sitting on a sofa

By one of the southernmost cities of the world

Listening to the radio whilst thinking about cooking tea


Well, how can you be honest about how you feel?


I’d just turned the station over

To get the “real” news of the world

When I heard the words written above: well fuck me!


Another elegy is for Leonard Cohen: “So Long Leonard Cohen . . . A Farewell” (p 143):


Beginning life as a middle-class son

Comfortable in your Jewish Catholicism

Tailor-made for the family’s business

You chose the more difficult artist’s path.


In “The Ballad of Ryan O’Corky” (p 160), O’Leary is adept at using sound, particularly alliteration and rhythm to give life to the poem. So, we distinctly hear the rhyme in the opening stanza:


His skin was bumpy, pallid and chalky

Yet never held him back

For he was ethnic without being black

If you like a story that’s a little bit salty

Then listen to the ballad of Ryan O’Corky.


In Part Five, “Nga Taiwhanga a Nga Haerenga”, there are evocative descriptions of places in the poet’s life: Onhehunga, Oscar Wilde Park, his work as a Poet Hole Digger, train journeys, Torbay, Takapuna and more. This section opens with a rhyming poem in which O’Leary reminisces about his life and equates it with a train station: “Walking Beside Shadows in Soft Rain” (p 174):


Walking beside shadows in soft rain

I see faint images of what has been

These shadows form mirages on a wall

Which I see is my life and it is all

Behind me now. All that I have been

Is beyond me like a distant train

And as the train moves further from this station

I look on, filled with anticipation.


“Return Journey” (p179) is one of O’Leary’s ‘train’ poems:


Saturday evening, rain falling down

Waiting for the train

Black hat and dark night

I am taking flight

On some long ago lost express.


A fitting poem to end this review, is another ‘train’ poem, “ManukauHarbour” (p 188), which shows us the view from a train window:


looking from the train window

towards Mangare Bridge


between a redundant Southdown

freezing works

and long re-aligned Otahuhu station

at sundown


see the beauty of the natural cliffs

of the harbour heads

reflected in the stillness

of the Manukau Harbour


as shades of purple

enhance the land and water


the train pulls southward

out of Westfield.


The poems in Collected Poems 1981-2016 are simple, deceptively so – the language moves with ease. Though very moving, and at times sorrowful, there is tranquillity here. The poems mostly look back; there is found understanding, a resolution, sorrow rather than torment. They may sometimes be quiet and dignified, at other times, loud and raucous and forceful. The portraits of friends, lovers, poets and others are fascinating, layered, some of them soaked through with descriptions – or memories – of time, place and event. The images are haunting. The poems are told as small stories, with clarity and simplicity. A common thread runs through many of love, loss, wonderful people. The portraits are intensely profound; the poet present everywhere.

Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).