Originally published in Metro 229 (July 2000): 88-93.
On a soupy afternoon recently, Bob Orr hopped aboard an about-to-be-retired tugboat named the Daldy. He was at his day job, the place where he spends up to 70 hours a week, sweating, working and waiting on the tide. Orr’s other activity is writing verse, an occupation he says he feels most alive while pursuing. In this job he waits also, for love, the harbour, the city and sky to occupy the page.
Poetry and the water (rivers, too are acceptable) are the most consistent facets of Orr’s changeable life. He wrote his first poem at 12, a farmer’s son growing up on Hoe-o-Tainui in the Waikato. In 1972, Orr answered an advertisement for general work on what were then called the Blue Boats, a company that ferried people around the Hauraki Gulf. The suggestion was that the position might suit an active retired man. Despite being 23, Orr got the job. It was the full-employment seventies; no one else had applied.
On the drive to the Daldy and docks that afternoon, Orr piloted his Toyota Corolla past the University of Auckland which he had dropped out of in 1967 to end up – via a yoghurt factory in Penrose, turf work at Ellerslie racecourse, and time in a tomato glasshouse – on the Blue Boats. Professor Albert Wendt had invited him back to the university last year to read poems. His poems lived there in anthologies, but he was glad now to be heading for the company of guys whose conversation was about racing and rugby league.
Out in the flat Waitemata, a 200,000 tonne floating car park named Morning Bright was being piloted to its rendezvous with the Daldy and Waipapa, a new generation tug that looks like a glass house and requires only two men to work it, as opposed to the Daldy’s four. ‘Technology halves manpower, alive-alive-oh’: it’s the modern sea shanty.
Orr wore a cap. His ears stood puckishly from his scalp. When he was first published in his late teens, a mane of blond hair cascaded down his back. This, and a quiet, enigmatic demeanour at parties earned him the nickname The Blue-Eyed Angel. At 51, the hair is gone, but the angelic solemnity and politeness remain. And there are the five books of his verse on the bookshelf of his small Western Springs flat.
During most of the nineties, Orr published sporadically. But in the last 18 months, following the disintegration of tempestuous love affair, he has been back at his Brother 500 typewriter, producing some of his best work. Not only is he writing more, he is discarding more and drinking less. Coincidentally, he features in Big Smoke, an anthology of verse written in New Zealand in the sixties and seventies released this month by Auckland University Press.
A drunk in a graffiti cell
will swear he dreams
one tall slender cabbage tree
swaying slowly on the dance floor of his memory
dressed in a gown of shining green
with jewellery of white & cream –
in the early hours he hears it whispering.
By daybreak he will not remember
anything about a cabbage tree
between the pub
& the police station
-- from Cabbage Tree . . . Three Lamps
In the late sixties and early seventies Ponsonby was a suburb bursting from its skin. Locals called Ponsonby Road ‘Murder Mile’. Poet Peter Olds, who grew up in the area, and knew Orr, recalls that time like recalling musical phrases: gangs, the King Cobras, local identities, the Guttenbeil family, the boxing Kelly family, Tora George and Butch Perkin. The Gluepot public bar was advertised as the longest bar in Australasia. Stoned poets would walk through Margaret Street peering up at the enormous lettering that dominated the top of College Hill: H-Y-D-R-A, the name of a local meat company.
In those censored days the books that counted involved shocking and fucking. ‘My cunt is burning for you,’ wrote local poet Christina Beer in 1974’s This Fig Tree Has Thorns: Poems and Clay Paintings. Why not? Paris had burned in 1968, as had Prague. Orr inhabited this milieu, peripherally – his first marriage was into the Guttenbeil family, he drank with King Cobras in the Vista Bar. But when Peter Olds compares poetry then to rock stardom, Orr, who also had his day job and young family, replies: ‘I never felt like a rock star.’
His poetic debut (he was yet to commute Robert to Bob) was quiet and distant, occurring in London in 1971 when young poets Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire created Amphedesma Press. An artist called Ralph Hotere supplied the cover’s line-drawing. The volume, called Blue Footpaths, cost 65 cents. Around that time Orr would sit in the Britomart with fellow Harbour Workers Union member Denis Carlisle and plot the downfall of the old guard.
Some navigational points. Blue Footpaths has become a collector’s item. Ian Wedde came to dominate the seventies, producing poems, criticism and a couple of novels. He now works at Te Papa. Bill Manhire cleaned up the nineties, speaking on National Radio with Kim Hill, running the creative writing class at Victoria University, and releasing, like fairydown, a collection of graceful acolytes who preferred wit to grit. Ralph Hotere’s large paintings currently sell for $100,000 plus, allowing him to indulge his passion for expensive German motor cars. Denis Carlisle is president of the Auckland branch of the NZ Waterfront Union. It’s a cliché: outsiders versus the establishment. Sturm und Drang, please, a double. The establishment responds with hostility then bemused curiosity . . .
When Orr released his third volume, Cargo, in 1983, he brought his friends from the wharves up to Unity Books in High Street for the launch. The men in their jackets mingled easily (and noisily) with the lit crowd. Practically, though, the two spheres remain separate. Orr has never personally received a single grant, scholarship, or residing-writership. This is not because he disapproves of such support, but he feels that because he works and has financial independence he doesn’t require funding. A friend says: ‘Bob isn’t the kind of guy to put himself up for that kind of thing.’
There is more to blame than that notorious shyness. Orr is a double outsider. Though he likes to paint the docks as a chummy place where all the old salts recite Walter de la Mare poems, he must come in for some teasing at his workplace. Poetically, he is handicapped also. Iain Sharp, himself a poet, and books editor for the Sunday Star-Times, notes ‘Poets in New Zealand tend to get noticed for the other things they do, the critical essays they write, the creative writing classes they head. Bob Orr doesn’t do that, he just writes poetry.’
Poem for My Mother
Waikato valley –
in summer moonlight
its metal road
one way bridge
the creek spinning darkly
used to talk in
I see you today
filling a red
by the bean row.
Where monarch butterflies
come & go –
through a green curtain.
Already I imagine them
Orr was born in 1949. His mother read Keats and Sir Winston Churchill; his father devoured every word Louis Lamour wrote. Many of these are admittedly the same words repeated over different books, but the plots (a structured play-act between good and evil) might divert a man who had been to war. Orr’s father flew a Corsair fighter in the South Pacific over Guadalcanal and New Guinea. One of Orr’s poems features his old man’s flying jacket, and the wonder at how small and young he had been while wearing it. Orr’s father startled his son by telling him that he never felt more alive than when he was flying this death machine, in fear of being killed. His father also told him that had John Walker cut his hair decently, he could have shaved even more time off his record-breaking run. When it comes to parental wisdom, you have to take your pick.
Just as Orr began writing poems, he was sent from the farm to St Paul’s Collegiate in Hamilton. He played on the First XV (as hooker), and contributed verse to the school magazine. The last time Orr was on a rugby field was also in Hamilton, during the 1981 Springbok tour, invading the pitch and ending the game.
Several years behind him at school was ‘a small guy with fawn-like eyes’ named Simon Upton. It was at St Paul’s that his English teacher introduced him to Rimbaud (a French poet who wrote beautifully, smoked heavily and eschewed personal hygiene when it cut into his cigarette money) and Bob Dylan (an American poet, etc., etc.). In his teens, in Hamilton hospital while recuperating from pneumonia, Orr first read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude ‘Oh’, bustled a nurse, ‘that looks like a good book, A Hundred Years of Sunshine.’
From the upper decks of the Daldy, the gloaming gloomed. The Waitemata was a pond, and the Warriors nth crucifixion in Australian sunlight was being televised in the cramped lounge below. The Daldy, built in Whangarei in 1977, is about three storeys high. Propellers extend about half that distance like eggbeater whisks from the centre of the boat, providing stability. Yellow six-cylinder Caterpillar engines, like amputated diggers, sit in the hold. And when they fire up the noise is deafening.
The tug’s kitchen evinced a masculine orderliness: cups on holders, magazines safely stowed. It was reminiscent of Orr’s home kitchen: spare, but organised. Untidy boats, said Orr, depress him. As might untidy poems. ‘Bob’s poems have a beginning, middle and end,’ says John Pule, an artist and writer who met Orr 20 years ago at the Globe Hotel. ‘He’s the purest romantic lyric poet of his generation,’ asserts Iain Sharp. ‘Bob Orr’s poetic voice is surely the quietest to emerge in a decade of new poets,’ wrote Russell Haley in 1979, ‘but when he speaks in Poems for Moira we are compelled to listen.’
‘The best poems here are haunting and profound,’ wrote Greg O’Brien of Orr’s fifth volume Breeze, which was published in 1991.
The poems are focussed. There are repetitions of locales. There is the sea, but he’s tired of that whole schtick. ‘I don’t want to be portrayed as that Saint Bob Orr, poet of the docks thing,’ spluttered Orr when I first approached him. ‘I write about other things,’ he said, ‘growing up in Hamilton, men and women. Read those.’ He gestured at the envelope that lay between us, white and fat with verse. Of the eight poems it contained, six featured the sea.
But he’s right, other preoccupations fill the stanzas. Reviewers have remarked on how Orr depicts Auckland as a Pacific city, one where it is summer more often than winter, a place of vibrant colour. Orr’s Auckland is fantastic in the way that Marquez’s depictions of South America are magical. A reader of his poems might see the poet ride an elephant through an intersection on K’road, or catch Jack Kerouac staggering down Jervois Road with a flagon of throat-murdering acid from Mother’s vineyard in Henderson.
When the writer Isabel Allende visited recently, Orr – who is a fan – attended a lunch where she was speaking. Afterwards people crowded around her, wanting their scraps of glory. The crowd separated, Orr stepped forward, handed her a poem he had written for her, then walked away. A similar emotional quality inhabits Orr’s work. Iain Sharp says, ‘People like Bob for two reasons: (a) because he has a total absence of malice, and (b) an absence of bullshit. If he writes emotionally, then it’s because he’s been emotional. If you think that’s mawkish then you can fuck off.’
Many who erupted into print at the time Orr did have done the latter. Christina Beer has ceased writing poetry, and is now called Christina Conrad. She paints. Some time in the seventies Peter Olds developed a tranquilliser habit; the poetry stopped. Ian Wedde ceased in 1994, comparing the act of writing to bucketing into his consciousness. Wedde and Olds (now recovered) have since returned to writing. That Orr has continued to write is more surprising given that romantic lyric poetry is often inspired, as Greg O’Brien observes, by the dynamism of youth. When life ceases to be as dynamic, the sap withers. Rimbaud never wrote another poem after turning 20.
But his best work was often executed while he was glutted with life. For life, read in part booze; an integral substance in the mythology of sailing, and of poetry. ‘Absinthe,’ enthused 19th century poet and decadent Ernest Dowson, ‘makes the tart grow fonder.’ Many of those who appear in Orr’s poems, his heroes (Jack Kerouac, Jack London) drank. So does he.
Almost everyone, it seems, has a Bob Orr story, and they do occur in the environs of drinking. One must hasten to add that they are mild, of the ‘he was noisy at a poetry reading’, or ‘he recited rather than sang the words to a Righteous Brothers’ song at a karaoke pub’ variety. John Pule recalls how Orr would sometimes tap on his window looking for somewhere to crash. Pule would let him in; the poet would fall asleep. When Pule awoke, Orr was gone. Some days later, a volume of poetry (not his own) would arrive.
I also have an anecdote which may be filed under self-effacement (the restraint that causes him to stand before you sit, those old St Paul’s Collegiate manners), or drinking. Magazines demand images, and for the pictures we had arranged a photo shoot at a poetry reading in a bar. Over several drinks, Orr expressed a strong reservation about having his photo taken, even about doing the story. He was, he said, uncomfortable. ‘If I don’t like the story, I’ll, I’ll . . . ’ he struggled for a word. The gin and tonic trembled before him.‘What,’ I offered, ‘will you hunt me down?’ His eyes flared. ‘I’ll kill you!’ he exclaimed. The next day he rang to see if I had made it home safely.
‘I enjoy drinking, but I hate the price,’ says Orr. ‘A good night on the turps means I can’t write the next day . . . I’ve had to become a lot tougher on myself.’ He has long since given up marijuana, and no longer drinks for inspiration (‘It’s great at the time but the next morning you’ve got to throw it away’). Oh, he also recently stopped smoking cigarettes . . . at work.
The men’s toilet
in the Gluepot
is like a place
come to piss
plains of Ponsonby.
Our World’s world (Orr-land-o, if you like) is an old Auckland, old New Zealand that is sinking, Venice-like, from sight. It is a geography of drinking, the names of pubs long since closed: the Occidental, the Bridgeway (which opened at 7am), the Schooner (which opened at 8am). The Gluepot has become Three Lamps, and the entrance to the corner bar now admits you to Serville’s (drop an ‘l’ and you have the essence) hairdressing. When they tore down the Hydra, it was said that a plague of rats poured from the building’s foundations. A cynic might argue that they have since returned, better shod, and better dressed, now that the site houses an advertising agency.
Nothing remains the same, which may be why Orr’s current typewriter is a portable, as was the model before that. He has lived in Orakei, Ponsonby, Herne Bay, Western Springs. Greg O’Brien, who has compiled several anthologies containing Orr’s work, says there is always a hunt during the production of said volumes for a signed release from him. Where is Bob Orr now? It was the same for Big Smoke: a message left on a friend’s answerphone, the poet calling at the last minute from parts unknown.
The people Orr nominates for me to speak with further this impression. Robin Dudding, the ex-editor of Islands, a literary journal which first brought many of Orr’s contemporaries to prominence, says, ‘I don’t know why you’re speaking to me.’ He denies being the first to publish Orr’s work, then frets about having words placed in his mouth (it’s called journalism, Robin). Bill Payne is a writer who used to hole up in a boarding house in Ponsonby to write Shortland Street scripts. He is obviously fond of Orr in a brawny fashion, and tells me how during an argument over the morality of writing for telly soaps late one night, blows were exchanged. ‘Well, I exchanged a blow,’ explains Payne. Poet Roma Potiki enthuses that his poetry is like hearing music from a window, adding that because she lives in Wellington, she sees him irregularly. Denis Carlisle says his friend calls . . . once a year on Christmas morning. Everyone likes Bob Orr, no one knows where he is.
marmite / Neil pretends he’s christ
every day they both
get worse / I count the atoms
in the wall / I’m leaving soon
with my barefooted heart
-- from The X
The poems too have the feeling that the narrator is just on his way out, or in, something confirmed by Bill Payne, who says, ‘The best days are the day you arrive, and the day you leave.’ The stuff that fills these parentheses must be lived, though not written about. Fun to survey, but difficult to organise. One can already smell dinner burning, an emotional discontinuity of which the poet is aware.
During discussions for this piece, Orr asked whether I was going to enquire about his private life. Well, as much as possible. Orr has been married twice. He has three children, two boys and one girl. One son is named Ezra, after the American poet Ezra Pound, the other Eliot, after T.S. Eliot. This follows a vague tradition. Ian Wedde named his first son Carlos, for William Carlos Williams. Allen Curnow named his son Wystan, after W.H. Auden. Roger Horrocks called his boy Dylan. It’s the poetic equivalent of John Jnr.
Trying to prise biography from poetry is fatuous, but other names feature. Poems for Moira was clearly not about a pet budgie. An Adelia is mentioned in Cargo, but then other (male) names are used in the dedications. Emotions might be more indicative; and in Orr’s work you often find melancholy, the byproduct of excessive coming and going. ‘Inside his manner,’ says Ian Wedde, ‘and also the manner of his writing, a great anguish and suffering are very strongly present. They spill out into his view of the world.’
Loss, replies Orr, makes him suffer. Loss of what? He lists abstracts (‘of love, of belief in the political system, of innocence’) but one feels that the genuine losses are much more particular. But he won’t speak about the relationship that collapsed 18 months ago. His friends hint at a general trend. ‘Bobby often takes up with people who are just the most unsuitable outsider people,’ says Denis Carlisle. ‘And you say, ‘oh, you’re wasting your time there mate.’ But he’s immensely loyal to them. And more often than not, they leave him.’
‘A lot of people,’ says Orr, ‘choose’ – he corrects himself – ‘allow themselves to be chosen by those who are not too good for them.’ Enter more discipline, and more poetry. There is no one special in his life at present. ‘Solitude is all right,’ he adds, ‘but loneliness is a shocker. I’m learning to stare it down.’
I stand on the deck
of a port company tug
and watch the ghost of R.A.K. Mason
make its way past the latest shipment
of second hand Japanese cars,
like any stevedore
with his duffle bag of contraband
beneath the wheeling gulls
as green waves walk between wharf piles.
A complex man, his lines were drawn tight –
at the end of this wharf
his books floated clear and out of his life …
-- from R.A.K. Mason
The Daldy lights flashed out, and then returned as we changed from shore to ship power. We wheeled around and headed into the grey where already the Waipapa appeared to be nuzzling against the stern of the Morning Bright. Up close, the vessel seemed vast, of comparable size to the former Air New Zealand building a couple of hundred metres away on shore. Perhaps this was one of those trick played by perspective, but trick or not, the surprise and horror of the comparison remained. I looked down and saw that here, on this boat, at the peak of our irony-fixated age, Orr was wearing boat shoes.
What is docking a ship like? A parking procedure involving two villas connected by rope to something that feels like it’s the size of the former Air New Zealand building. It is also occasionally dangerous. Smallish ropes with weighted ends are wound on, giving way to thicker, less wieldy hawsers. These multi-fibred lines, when they get wet, (and remember, we are all, at this stage, standing on the professionally wet ocean) triple in weight. They may also rot, and then become prone to snapping. The steel cables may rust and do likewise. Try to stay out of their way if they do. The strains are so immense that snapping ropes and cables have been known to slice a man in half.
‘That was an orderly docking,’ said Orr, as we were deposited on the too-solid wharf Back into the Corolla, and past the lines of imported cars and planks of American cedar to the Maritime Club in Anzac Ave, known once in taxi slang as the Salty Dog. It was early, the atmosphere smudged with the remorse of any Sunday evening. A friend greeted Orr. They chatted about the sea, and a place called Shelby, in Great Britain, where the tide falls 30 feet. Directions were given nautically: ‘Go to the top of Queen Street, then go starboard.’ The friend shook my hand, and was careful to use my first name when he addressed me. First names, in such circumstances, once offered are remembered, and used with care. Truly, the Righteous Brothers played on the jukebox.
A heroic tone is difficult to avoid when discussing Bob Orr. He’s not materially wealthy, so the urge is to make him spiritually so. He’s not lionised in the way of his noisier colleagues, so one longs to promote him. But his interests are his own, and chosen because they satisfy him. ‘He’s highly astute,’ says longtime friend, writer Olwyn Stewart, ‘and something in him hasn’t hardened. It’s not that he’s immature either, it’s a sensitivity . . . If there’s something of pain in Bob it’s alloyed with joy and beauty.’
At about 7.30pm, Orr drained his glass of red wine and stood. He had to be back at the docks at 4.30 the next morning for another 12-hour shift. ‘I was just beginning to enjoy myself,’ he frowned, and then he left.