Men come to me with a headful of this
and that. A hat goes a long way
to making up the mind.

I am often asked what a hat
contains: a lost train
of thought, patch of displaced sky. A well-situated hat can be

many things: ice bucket, dormitory, a nesting place
for the tropic bird or rocky outcrop of some 
distant geography. The hat is

a commentary on all that is wrong
with the world. It knows
the true shape of

the head beneath it. Among the racks and boxes 
I go a long way 
out of my way. Necessarily, the hat completes
      the man, the man

the hat. Wind-resistant
yet weather dependent, a Panama, Fedora, Porkpie or
Sombrero is not an approximate thing—

it is an island, as a man
is not. With a minute adjustment of the rim
a man becomes a priest

or cowboy or hired killer. Yet there are
certain things a hat refuses to be. A hat is 
not a helmet—and, despite being man’s

crowning achievement, it is
never a crown. A hat of mine would not stoop
that low. In this windless

hat-friendly town, the world goes past
my window: a pram, a flamenco troupe,
a coup d’état. A hat maketh

the man. There is enough inconclusiveness
in the world as it is. Snow-like
my hats fall upon the heads of

the citizens of Santiago. In warm weather
they make themselves 
scarce. The moment a stranger

enters my shop, the tilt of his head
tells me where he is from; his hair speaks to me
of wind-flow, humidity, proximity to coast.

Dents, scars and undulations 
I note, on forehead or temple
or crown. Only this afternoon,

one customer had been struck 
by the boom of a yacht, the next scratched
by a low-flying bird—

my guess, a giant owl. Another
had recently encountered
a cupboard door or chandelier, and this last

knocked out by the wooden leg 
of a double bed, crossing
a windswept field. It is these events

that propel men towards my store—the felt hat
offering shelter, protection or, at least
an early warning system.

Homberg or Poor Boy—a hat 
consolidates the thinking beneath it. 
The innermost lining of a hat

is a man's life. By the time 
a customer departs
he has grown to the height of

his hat. Or such is the thinking and so
one day, will be the forgetting.
A thin man is a stem upon which

flowers a tempestuous hat.
My role is that of a baker—a hat 
properly fitted, must rise up above

itself. And bear its wearer skywards. 
A hat should bring a man to
fullness, fecundity, as the hat itself is

a well-upholstered bird
flightless, except in a Valparaiso southerly.
The shop-window a well-fed

multitude. Less contented the Coquito palm wine
which rampaged through my youth—
the opposite of a hat, it does not clear the head.

Each evening, my hats extend towards
the edges of the city, like taxis or library fines.
Or they reach skywards

above the Santiago Underground
where the hatless dead make what little progress
is allowed them. Broom-like, my gaze

sweeps a man out from under
an ill-suited hat.
In this regard, I am a janitor

a doorman also, 
or more correctly a keeper or custodian 
of the space within each hat.

The body is a creaking 
stairwell spiralling upwards
to this hilltop observatory.

A hat is also an ear
listening in on
the head’s business, with the same exactitude

I record the sound of a hat lifting off
and then landing again—I think of myself also
as Air Traffic Control.

A hat is an underlining
of certain things. A hat thrown high 
the monkey puzzle tree casts its cool light

upon our feverish brows. Longshoreman
as well as harbourmaster, I am a wearer
of many hats, a man of influence

beyond the polished floors
and racks, these grey banded hats
which lie in wait like battleships

of the Chilean navy—the tall, leaning vessels
of Valparaiso—becalmed yet
hungry for the tumultuous future

as a window full of hats is
for the light of each new day.

Gregory O’Brien is an independent writer, painter, literary critic and art curator with many books of poetry, fiction, essays and commentary to his name. Recent projects include the poetry collections Citizen of Santiago (Trapeze, 2013) and Beauties of the Octagonal Pool (Auckland University Press, 2012); and the art books Hanly (Ron Sang Publications, 2012), A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy (AUP, 2011) and Euan Macleod (Piper Press, 2010). With David Craig and Haru Sameshima, he co-authored His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell (AUP, 2013).

O’Brien comments: ‘Somewhere along the way I started entertaining the notion that, while the population of the planet is increasing dramatically, the number of serious hats in the world never changes. More recently, I decided that I would start wearing a hat as soon as my father’s hat-wearing days were over—I would be his stand-in or replacement.

‘About a year ago, my elderly parents moved from Auckland to Wellington and, on account of the turbulent air currents of Lyall Bay, my father replaced his porkpie hat with a flat-topped, aerodynamically viable cheese-cutter—a cap. I was aware that my time had come. A few months later, I was in Santiago de Chile, installing the exhibition Kermadec—Art Across the Pacific at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Painter John Reynolds alerted me to the fact that one of the world’s truly great hat shops was just down the road from where we were staying: Donde Golpea el Monito is located on a busy corner of Avenue 21 De Mayo—the street-name of which marks the day on which the past glories of the Chilean Navy are commemorated. (I was particularly pleased with this street address as May 21 also happens to be Jenny’s and my wedding anniversary, as well as the birthdate of my distant, late relative, the poet Eileen Duggan.) Over the past century, the shop has been frequented by international film-stars, intellectuals, writers (the hat-savvy Pablo Neruda was a regular) as well as, no doubt, dictators and freedom fighters.

‘The shop’s name translates as “when the monkey strikes”—alluding to the mechanical monkey/bell-hop located in the shopwindow. Supposedly the first robot to reach South America, the straight-armed figure has been tapping its cane against the window-glass since 1922 (an enactment can be found on the store’s website).

‘With its polished wooden floor and counters, its massive gilded mirror, and its shopwindow crammed with fedoras, porkpies and sombreros (punctuated by the occasional poncho), Donde Golpea el Monito is a cathedral to the hat. A fourth generation hatter, the salesman placed one hand under my chin as he installed each hat on my head. It was like receiving holy communion.

‘The poem “sombrereria” (hat shop) is narrated by the noble and serious-faced hat-salesman I met at Donde Golpea el Monito. When we spent an hour together last May he spoke no English at all, but now, in the poem, he does.’

Poem source details >


‘Gregory O'Brien: Poems from the Valparaiso Daybook’ at Carcanet Press’s blog
Arts Foundation Laureate author page
New Zealand Book Council writer file