Book Review: Cornelius & Co, Collected Working-Class Verse 1996-2009

I posted John O’Connor’s poem A Left Hook as my Tuesday Poem this week, and now it’s time to review the collection from which it comes, which is published by Post Pressed in Queensland and costs NZ $25.00 from its New Zealand distributor.

This is the eighth book of poetry from Christchurch poet John O’Connor, and it consists of a selection of poems from John’s previous collections, plus a number of new poems, and is a generous 144 pages long.

I have to confess (and I’m not saying it speaks well of me) that when I saw the subtitle “Collected Working-Class Verse” I thought the collection might be too polemical for me to enjoy. Regular – or even occasional – readers of this blog will know that I can get pretty durn polemical myself, especially about environmental issues, but, with a few exceptions, I usually avoid this in my poetry.

Well, there would be nothing wrong with a book of polemical poems, but “Cornelius & Co” isn’t that book. Instead, as the Preface and Notes to this book make clear, the poems in this book are drawn from lived experience, as a resident of the working-class Christchurch suburb of Addington, as a boy growing up in an Irish-Catholic household and parish, and as a taxi driver observing the coming and goings of his fares.

These poems of full of observation, compassion, and a dry and sometimes dark humour. If I was reminded of any other New Zealand poet, it was Mark Pirie: there’s the same sense of a wry narrator who’s slightly – but not very – removed from the goings-on he describes, though the characters John O’Connor is writing about are far removed in class, age and circumstances from those Mark often uses in his poems.

Another aspect of the book I expected to find off-putting, but didn’t in practice, was its experiments with typography: experiments it’s difficult to reproduce here, with text running across and even up the page, and words replaced by dingbats. I like to focus on the words, not the presentation, so I can’t say that these innovations strengthened the poems for me – but, once I got used to them, they didn’t pose any barrier to my understanding and enjoyment of the poems.

The bottom line: this is an excellent book that gives poetic voice to people and lives which rarely make an appearance in modern New Zealand poetry. Well worth reading, well worth having in your collection.

The NZ distributor is: David & Wendy Ault, Madras Café Books, 165 Madras Street, Otautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand 8011; Phone 03 365 8585, Fax 03 365 8584, Mobile 021 284 8585, email info (at)

Tuesday Poem: A Left Hook, by John O’Connor

A Left Hook

an early experience
of the left hook (admirably

tight if open-handed) came
at the beatific hand of

Monseigneur O’Dea – too
old to be a parish priest – who

about to impart the very
body & blood of Christ found I

was not holding the paten
correctly. a few years later

an equally irascible boxing
coach imparted impeccable

advice on how to throw it,
though he didn’t know the bit

about feinting with Jesus.
when the good monseigneur

had his final photo taken
he bestowed a copy on our family

– old friends should be so blessed –
for a decade it sat on the mantelpiece

between a bunch of plastic grapes
& a glass bowl that snowed if shaken.

This poem is from John O’Connor’s recently published Cornelius & Co: Collected Working-Class Verse 1996-2009 (Post Pressed, Queensland, 2010). I will review this collection in my next blog post.

The NZ distributor is: David & Wendy Ault, Madras Café Books, 165 Madras Street, Otautahi/Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand 8011; Phone 03 365 8585, Fax 03 365 8584, Mobile 021 284 8585, email info (at)

Mary McCallum’s Tuesday Poem initiative now has its own Tuesday Poem blog. Check out the poem posted there, and other Tuesday Poems via the links on the left of this page.

Poetry Reading Series – Christchurch and Dunedin

The autumn poetry reading series in Christchurch is well underway, and fortnightly reading sessions in Dunedin are about to start. Check out this post for the remainder of the Christchurch series, and Kay McKenzie Cooke’s blog for details of the Dunedin series (and a really good SF poem!).

Autumn Poetry Readings in Christchurch: Another Great Lineup

Even a streaming cold could not stop me having a great time reading in the 2009 Canterbury Poets Collective Autumn Reading Series. The 2010 lineup has now been announced, and it includes some of my favourite poets. If you live in or near Christchurch, I urge you to get along to one or more of these sessions.

Canterbury Poets present – Poetry in Performance
20th Anniversary Autumn Readings 2010

Open microphone and guest readers

Win a $20 MCB voucher – audience vote for the Best Open Mike Poet each night

Where: Madras Café Bookshop, 165 Madras St – licensed and BYO.

When: Wednesdays, 6.30 pm

How much: $5 entry

The lineup

17 March
Kay McKenzie Cooke, Mary-Jane Grandinetti, David Gregory

24 March Jessica Le Bas, Robert Lumsden, Tom Weston

31 March Chris Price, Marisa Cappetta, Lorraine Ritchie

7 April Michele Leggott, Nick Williamson, Helen Lowe

14 April Rachel Bush, Justine de Spa, Rangi Faith

21 April The Hagley Group with Jeffrey Paparoa Holman and Frankie McMillan. The compère will be Morrin Rout.

28 April Cliff Fell, Alison Denham, Stephanie Grieve

5 May Featuring the Winning Open Mike Poets from the season

Reading Poetry at Madras Cafe Books in Christchurch (feat. North)

Last night, I was a guest reader, together with Fiona Farrell and Victoria Broome, at the first weekly session of the Canterbury Poets’ Collective Autumn Readings Series at Madras Cafe Books in Christchurch.

I had a terrible cold, but a good time. I was going to post a full and judicious report, but I discovered tonight that Catherine of Still Standing on her Head had got there before me, so I am going to recommend that you read her excellent report. I’ll just throw in a few additional comments:

  • I liked the venue. Madras Cafe Books does what it says on the label: There’s a cafe, with seating inside and out, and behind the cafe, a bookstore. The food at the cafe was delicious (I was very bad and had a mocha slice), and although the bookshop isn’t large, it has a good selection of interesting books from both New Zealand and overseas. Definitely recommended.
  • I was impressed by what I saw of the Canterbury poetry community (I’m not sure how many people came from out of town). There was a very good turnout, people were certainly friendly to me and seemed friendly to each other, and the standard of the poems read at the open mike part of the evening was high; there were many contenders for the prize for best poem from this section, won by Joanna Preston. It was great to meet poets I only knew by name or reputation, such as John O’Connor and James Norcliffe, as well as those I had met before – and I was especially pleased to be able to thank Fiona Farrell for including my story “Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev” in Best New Zealand Fiction 4.
  • It isn’t easy to read poetry to an audience when you have a sore throat. I was surprised my voice held out; I guess adrenalin got me through. Hardest of all the poems to read was “North”, from my first collection, Boat People. I do the Yorkshire-y bits in a variety of Yorkshire accents, and it isn’t easy trying to sound like the Clitheroe Kid when your voice is threatening to give way. Maybe I’ll put up an audio file one day, but in the meantime, here is North, inspired by my visit back to the land and accents of my birth in 1989 – with apologies to Harvey Molloy, who has had to put up with my lame renditions of accents not entirely dissimilar to his when he’s heard me read this poem.


On Ilkley Moor
I parked me red
Ford Laser hatchback
and gazed to the north.
Rain and smoke stood over Wharfedale.

It was all in its appointed place:
stone houses and stone smiles in Ilkley
the wind on the bleak
insalubrious bracken.

I was waiting for memory
to make the scene complete:
some flat-vowelled voice out of childhood
snatches of Northern song.

For memory read TV:
Tha’ve broken tha poor Mother’s heart
It were only a bit of fun.
Bowl slower and hit bloody stumps.

Tha’ll never amount to much, lad. In cloth cap and gaiters,
car forgotten, I pedal down the hill. Hurry oop
or tha’ll be late for mill. Folk say
I’ve been seeing the young widow Cleghorn.
Well, now, fancy that.

In my invented character
I trail my falsified heritage
down the long, consoling streets.