A Small Ode to Faith

for Bill

Seated, as we were, eleven rows
            inside the hungry belly

                      of the faithful, our religion was
fishing. And it was our religion

          made us fishermen. We were ushered
                      down the long aisle of

a pier, at the end of which murmured a vast
                       green harbour. Between

                       a bucket of slop and the entangled talk
of a dozen water-logged men

          we professed all that we now clove to:
                     the fish with piano accordion gills

stirring in an orange bucket
           the detachable heads of trumpeter

                      and damselfish, blenny, spotty
and leatherjacket. It was not

            their small minds we were drawn to
                    but their shining fuselage

held like a pen in one hand — a model
         proposed for us: well-schooled and rendered

                     in great detail, expelled from their
natural element

their aloneness. You must be fishers
          of men, we were told, with our alphabet of

                    hooks, lexicon of sinkers, lures
and spinners. While down the non-fishing end

            of things
                      under-sized boys kept

throwing themselves back, we
          made of this

                     our pier-bound profession:
the backward somersaults of faith

            between tide table and filleting board
                        beyond which a factory ship lingered

like the Church of Scotland, emptying its icebox into
            the mid-summer sea. Deep in this

                      thicket of rods, these faithfully
                                 rendered waters

with our next-to-nothing fish
          and meagre vocabulary

                    our fishing only a dream

of swimming
a chimney of birds
           to smoke the fish king

                      and being rescued.

Gregory O'Brien’s most recent books are News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore (Victoria University Press / Carcanet UK, 2007) and A Nest of Singing Birds, 100 Years of the School Journal (Learning Media, 2007). He has also contributed a poem sequence to the forthcoming book on Denis O’Connor’s art, What the Roof Dreamt (read excerpts from the poem). A poem not unrelated to ‘A Small Ode to Faith’ appeared in the on-line journal Jacket. 2006 was the year of small fishes.

O’Brien comments: ‘I was standing on a jetty at the northern end of Tauranga Harbour — January 2006 — dragged reluctantly by my young sons into the bloody business of fishing. Some fishers on the other side of the wharf were pulling in big ones, which they disembowelled showily on the platform just along from us. We were more than content with our tiny sprats and spotties. Small fry. Their skinny, shining bodies resembled ballpoint pens. So I picked one up and started writing…’

Poem source details >



Carcanet author page
New Zealand Book Council writer file
Victoria University Press author page
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre