The Kermadecs

Gregory O'Brien

A crown and a bell for the Kermadecs

The poems and drawings I made during and after the voyage resemble, in my mind, structures raised on the edge of an ocean— constructs not that dissimilar to the derrick and flying fox at Fishing Rock, with which our belongings were taken ashore. The poems and drawings lifted details from the voyage (and our time on Raoul) and placed them back down in another realm. The flying fox in the paintings links land and sea, a state of voyaging/movement and of landing/coming to rest. While the cogs, pulleys and dangling hooks hint at processes of over-fishing, industrialism and offshore mining, these same mechanisms played an essential part in our getting on and off Raoul Island. Just about everything that comes onto the island comes by way of a hook and derrick.

In the late 19th century, settler Tom Bell imagined himself as ‘the king of the Kermadecs’, but learnt eventually that Raoul Island and environs were a kingdom unto themselves. In some paintings, Raoul Island configures as a ‘Crown for the Kermadec King’—a regal, jewel-like assemblage located at the apex of the underwater Kermadec Ridge, a realm which lies, for the most part, beyond the sight and comprehension of humankind. The vessel moored offshore in some of the paintings is HMNZS Otago which, when viewed from aft, bears a striking resemblance to the Ratana Church at Raetihi.

What else besides words and visual images did we gather along the way? There were the sounds of nature—birds, wind, the omnipresent sea. Accompanying the island’s music, I listened to Antoine Brumel’s polyphonic ‘Missa Et ecce terrae motus’—also known as the Earthquake Mass—appropriate listening in such a seismic zone (as indeed it was on the rolling, rumbling sea). Walking along the rim of the crater, I listened, on my Ipod, to the Keith Jarrett Trio playing Frank Loesser’s 1950 standard, ‘If I were a bell’—a song which made a serendipitous sense, given the Bell Family’s lengthy tenure on Raoul Island from 1878 until 1914. As Frank Loesser’s song concludes: ‘Ask me how to describe this whole beautiful thing / Well, if I were a bell, I’d go ding dong, ding dong ding’. I think we all heard a bell ringing on Raoul Island, a strident, rejuvenating, energising sound, a note struck in defence of that which is worth preserving on this planet.


GREGORY O’BRIEN (born in Matamata, 1961) is a Wellington-based poet, essayist, painter, anthologist and curator. His books include After Bathing at Baxter’s—Essays and Notebooks (VUP, 2002) and News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore (Carcanet/VUP, 2007), as well as two publications introducing art to young people. Between 1997 and 2009 he was a curator at City Gallery Wellington; he returned to that institution to co-curate the exhibition ‘Oceania—Imagining the Pacific’, which opened in August 2011. His ‘Kermadec’ poems are included in his forthcoming collection, Beauties of the octagonal pool (AUP, 2012). He exhibits his art at Bowen Galleries, Wellington, and Jane Sanders Art Agent, Auckland.

Reflections on a voyage

Greg's reflections on the voyage - flimed by Bruce Foster

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