Title: The Run Off

Author: Gregory O'Brien

In: Sport 18: Autumn 1997

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, April 1997, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Verse Literature

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Sport 18: Autumn 1997

The Run Off

page 160

The Run Off

(a letter to Laurie Duggan, July 1996)

The landscape, Laurie, where does it start and where does it
how far does it go and what lengths will it go to
to reach us? Aged thirteen at Sacred Heart College, Glen Innes,

a school famous for its rugby (fifty acres devoted largely to that end),
each morning I would stare across the fields
to the mouth of the Tamaki Estuary, the lush

trees and wavering grasses almost Poussinesque, awaiting
the arrival of the groundsman—Dave Dobbyn's father—
who would traverse the property on a high-speed

tractor-mower. This was our idyll, our pastorale: air
and water and light floating above the scene, like a landscape out of Lorrain
from which the muses had only recently fled,
pursued by flying rugby balls

and grunting, heaving scrum machines.
The kind of landscape you could hardly scratch the surface
of, like Jean Dubuffet's 1956 canvas, ‘Run Grass,

Jump Pebbles' or his ‘Paysage metapsychique’. Nor could you slide down it,
like the sloping Taranaki province where, as children,
we would holiday, considering ourselves somehow ‘native’

page 161

of that place, our expansive adventures later diminishing,
themselves victim of a kind of instability we observed
in the province as a whole.
What details remain

of that time: a whale with its jaw and teeth chainsawed out,
the de-horning of cattle. Someone—a cousin?—
was always setting fire to the Opunake High School.

A sloping province, as if everyone might, any moment now, be swept
down into the Tasman Sea.
The unpeopled landscape, Barbara tells me,
fulfils, some state of mind. But landscapes are never

without their figures, even if it is only the imagined figure of the
viewer—the painter—standing before them. The Frenchman
Pierre Tal-Coat
said ‘landscape is the great metaphor’. I ran into his paintings

in New York, 1985, at The New Museum. Small, luminous expanses.
I am still walking around that exhibition—
one day I could imagine myself
buried in it. Tal-Coat wrote, ‘One paints

as one takes a step… The earth moves. It is necessary to adjust each
realising the world isn't made of permanent materials
except perhaps
subsiding, fading, calming…What else is there—

a tentative industry around the edges
or instead of these things? The pursuit of
sadness or its more seductive allies? Which makes

me think of Erik Satie whose memory ‘registered
everything he read, including his apparently useless studies
at the Bibliotheque Nationale into the liturgy or Gothic

page 162

art. In this way he acquired a curious, fragmentary erudition
which had a considerable influence on his mind,’
quoting Pierre-Daniel Templier, ‘and his style’.

The earth moves but it doesn't
move. I'm writing to you on June 17, 1996, the Waitangi Tribunal
has ruled in favour of land claims by the Taranaki Maori.

I recall Lloyd Rees saying he kept returning to paint the Tasmanian
landscape because it obsessed and troubled him.
He said the land had a tremor or human cry underlying it—

something emanating from the extermination
of the Aboriginal population
by the first colonial settlers. You could say we felt
something similarly dark in the Taranaki landscape, also in

the Ireland our forebears left behind, themselves victims
of a botched, violent colonialism (did you know that Catholicism
was outlawed in ‘Great Britain’ until

the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829?), although they were accepting
of the maltreatment of the native population in turn, the only way
forward for them, or so it seemed, a single-minded agriculture— needing an amnesia

to deal with their own past, they adapted a similar
amnesia concerning the dispossession of the local population.
(That said, my mother recalls an elderly aunt's recollection of

the Parihaka siege—her description of a line of women singing,
surrounding the settlement as the troops approached.) What escapes us,
the land, kumara-pitted, remembers—adze heads recovered

from among boulders, the faded shadows that were trenches
around Te Namu pa. The site of the first fighting
page 163 between British infantry—the 50th Regiment,
‘the Dirty Half Hundred’—

and Maori. A subsiding landscape… just as the family's culture subsided,
their Catholicism eroded, as did their Irishness, assimilated
into the run-off. A place
intent on burying its past, which included theirs, replacing it

with a pragmatism and adaptability—these, the most
applicable virtues. How, then, do we inhabit this place?
I still see myself
on a trampoline, jumping up and down, lifting off,

never touching the ground, but moving
between the canvas
of the trampoline and the air above.
No one ever claimed for a moment money had been paid

for the old farm, it was always ‘confiscated’ land—what we inherited,
what we woke up to. So it was
the entire family was handed down an anxiety—

leaning over aerial photographs of
their farms with furrowed brows, as if they had to always explain
their claim on the land. And the Maori, of course, were ‘bad’

farmers, because they didn't buy into a culture of productivity
and profitability—that lessened their claim.
Mostly, the farmers were hard on the land—effective if not brilliant

in the rotating of crops and grazing, it would have
to be said, but also given to the alteration of land for practical
purposes. Their county council would locate rubbish dumps

on the coastline or adjoining Te Namu Stream.
They were known to create artificial lakes in anticipation of
duck-shooting season; dead tractors, farm bikes and

page 164

surreal farm implements littered the sides
of tanker tracks, as did shanty towns of dog kennels,
and the odd Ford Prefect, still operational but maroone0d

in an adjoining paddock, its roof cut off, rain and chickens
pouring in. One summer, confined to a non-dairy food diet
on account of asthma, I arrived at Opunake to find

such constraints on nature's bounty met with
complete disbelief, then disdain.(The fact
I was allergic to dairy products, eggs, horses, cows, dogs, bees,

pollen, dust and cats underlined my emerging foreignness
from the place—
I was no longer the ‘native’ I once thought I was.)
Decades later, the morning after my grandmother's funeral, we

are driving down the rolling
sealed road past Parihaka, past the new sewage ponds
overlooking the Tasman Sea and the fortified gang headquarters,
the car rising and
falling on its suspension, floating, drifting

as far back as the trampoline, the mountain
going up and down.
Whatever else the land yields: this rising and falling. Which
ever way you look at it, as my young cousin was forever

saying, you have to ‘get it on the good foot
and take it to the river‘. Whatever that meant.
How much life
gets in, I ask myself,
how we went about
where we lived. And how we wrote ourselves, darkly, into

that place—a cousin crushed under a tractor the day after
my parents’ wedding. Another cousin, younger than me, who had
page 165 her arm all but ripped off by a haybailing machine.
All of these pasts,

none of which can be walked away from. Today, in Auckland,
I visit Rodney Kirk Smith gallery, staring into the black canvases
of his predicament. Cancer. The end of a gallery.

The way he would linger on the ‘o’ in
Hotere whenever he read the painter's surname on the back
of these full, empty expanses. Then he would sleep,
sitting there, where he sat, at his desk with
the ‘Requiem’ drawings around him. I ask you,

he asked me and closed his eyes, dimly—
for the moment, the moment being
all there ever is. We dragged the stretchers

across the floor. Black and blackened windows, a pebble
dropped in a dark pond, light
circling outwards. How much life gets

away. The picture, half painted, awaits its surface, as we await
a particular relationship to time—a permanence—be it an abundance or
a lack, ‘content’ or
an expressive gloom. When the public galleries should have been

buying from him, they wouldn't even step into Rodney's gallery—
preoccupied, again, by less permanent materials.
The picture, an article of faith, will eventually find its surface, he would
have said, something to set its ‘curious,

fragmentary erudition’ to. Returning to Taranaki,
what else am I left with
except, at the funerals of both my grandparents, the heartfelt singing
of the Te Namu Maori for those of us who had gone,

page 166

in spite of everything, before—that we could
somehow have remained
in their affection as well as
remaining on their land. What else, then, are we left

to contemplate? The mountain as seen
from a trampoline. Everything we have held on to,
everything we might wish for.



‘ With Gregory O’Brien as guest editor, Sport 15 takes the form of a succession of visual and written road works, with a collective focus on journeys through childhood and along New Zealand's highways… Visual centrepiece is the series of eerily arresting photographs that make up Peter Black's 1987 portrait of New Zealand from the road, Moving Pictures. It's a portrait whose effect, according to Ian Wedde, goes beyond the vicarious to take us back to the ‘learning-to-see of children” Such a description might also apply to much of the poetry and prose sitting alongside Black's images. Keri HulmeElizabeth KnoxDamien WilkinsIain SharpBill ManhireAndrew JohnstonGraham Lindsay… Number 15 in the series is another winner for Sport; a great idea—and a quality of execution that lives up to it.’—Neville Byrt, NZ Herald
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