Starting in Northland and venturing into the expansive unknown, Always Song in the Water captures a series of encounters and moments of insight, navigating Aotearoa’s oceanic imagination.

Throughout the book, Gregory O’Brien employs a metaphorical dinghy to explore the outskirts of New Zealand, embarking on a journey from a road trip through Northland to an exploration of the Pacific. The book draws inspiration from creative figures like Janet Frame, Ralph Hotere, Robin White, John Pule, and Epeli Hau‘ofa.

Like the exhibition, the book is as personal and heart-felt as it is broad and far-reaching. Traversing a range of subjects, readers are invited to contemplate and explore their own connections to Aotearoa and Moana Oceania.

This new, expanded edition of Gregory O'Brien's book is published by the New Zealand Maritime Museum and can be purchased from the gift shop for just $30. 


Aberhart, Laurence, Gregory O’Brien and Justin Paton. Aberhart. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2007.

Adonis. An Introduction to Arab Poetics. Saqi Books, London, 2003.

Baxter, James K. Collected Poems, ed. John Weir. Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1980. ——. The Complete Prose of James K. Baxter, ed. John Weir. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2015.

Brown, Gordon H. Colin McCahon: Artist (new edition). Reed, Auckland, 1993.

Cavanagh, Clare. Osip Mandelstam and the Modernist Creation of Tradition. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1994.

Colin McCahon: A Survey Exhibition. Auckland City Art Gallery, Auckland, 1972.

Frame, Janet. The Carpathians. Century Hutchinson, Auckland, 1988. ——. Living in the Maniototo. George Braziller, Boston, 1979.

Harris, Wilson. The Palace of the Peacock. Faber & Faber, London, 1960. ——. Explorations: A Selection of Talks and Articles, 1966–1981, ed. Alan Riach and Mark Williams. Dangaroo Press, Texas, 1981. ——. The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks, ed. Alan Riach and Mark Williams. University of Liege Press, Liege, 1992.

Hotere, Ralph, and Bill Manhire (with printer Brendan O’Brien). Pine. Otakou Press, Dunedin, 2005.

Mander, Jane. The Story of a New Zealand River (1920). Random House, Auckland, 2015.

Manhire, Bill. Some things to place in a coffin. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2017.

McCahon, Colin. 15 Drawings for Charles Brasch (facsimile). Hocken Library, Dunedin, 1976.

McKenna, Noel. Southland. Darren Knight Gallery, Sydney, 2000. ——. Northland. Mother’s Tankstation, Dublin, 2009. ——. The Wolf of Horeke, with Gregory O’Brien. Fernbank Studio, Wellington, 2008. ——. homes 4 sale nz, with Gregory O’Brien. Niagara Galleries, Melbourne, 2011. ——. William Eggleston and Laurence Aberhart, South of No North. Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2013.

Monteith, Alex. Accelerated Geographies. Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, 2012.

Murnane, Gerald. The Plains. Norstrilia Press, Melbourne, 1982. ——. Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. Giramondo Publishing Co., Sydney, 2005. ——. Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf. Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2015.

O’Brien, Gregory. Diesel Mystic. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989. ——. Great Lake. LCP, Sydney, 1991. ——. Lands and Deeds: Profiles of Contemporary New Zealand Painters. Godwit, Auckland, 1996. ——. Hotere: Out the Black Window. Godwit, Auckland, 1997.

Panoho, Rangihiroa. Maori Art: History, Architecture, Landscape and Theory. David Bateman, Auckland, 2015.

Restany, Pierre. Hundertwasser: The Painter-King with the 5 Skins. Taschen, Cologne, 2003. ——. Schmied, Wieland, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, 1928–2000. Taschen, Cologne, 2014.

Smither, Elizabeth. The Tudor Style: Poems New and Selected. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1993.

Smither, Michael, et al. Michael Smither. Ron Sang Publications, Auckland, 2004.

Smithyman, Kendrick. Selected Poems, ed. Peter Simpson. Auckland University Press, Auckland, 1989.

Tuwhare, Hone. Small Holes in the Silence: Collected Works. Vintage, Auckland, 2016.

Wedde, Ian, et al. (eds). Hotere – Black Light. Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, 2000.


Anonymous. From the Black Rocks, on Friday: A Northland Story. A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1950.

Farquharson, Alex, and Martin Clark (eds). Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep. Nottingham Tate Gallery Publishing & Nottingham Contemporary, Nottingham and St Ives, 2013.

Gentry, Steve. Raoul and the Kermadecs. Steele Roberts, Wellington, 2014.

Golder, Bronwen, and Gregory O’Brien (eds). Kermadec – Nine Artists Explore the South Pacific. Pew Environment Group, Wellington, 2011.

Gould, Glenn. A Glenn Gould Reader, ed. Tim Page. Faber & Faber, London, 1984.

Hall, Fiona. Big Game Hunting. Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013. ——. Subject to Change. Piper Press, Sydney, 1995.

Hau‘ofa, Epeli. Tales of the Tikongs. Penguin, Auckland, 1983. ——. Kisses in the Nederends. Penguin, Auckland, 1987. ——. We Are the Ocean: Selected Works. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu, 2008.

Hawken, Dinah. Oh There You Are, Tui!: New and Selected Poems. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2001. ——. Ocean and Stone. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2015.

Hulme, Keri. Te Kaihau, The Windeater. George Braziller, New York, 1986.

Manhire, Bill. The New Land: A Picture Book. Heinemann Reed, Auckland, 1990. ——. Selected Poems. Victoria University Press, Wellington, 2012.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. Penguin Classics, London, 2002.

Mishra, Sudesh. Tandava. Meanjin Press, Melbourne, 1992. ——. Diaspora and the Difficult Art of Dying. Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2002. ——. The Lives of Coat-hangers. Otago University Press, Dunedin, 2015.

Morton, Elsie K. Crusoes of Sunday Island. A. H. & A. W. Reed, Wellington, 1964

Some episodes of ‘Coasting’ were published in Artist Profile (Sydney), 2014. Other material was incorporated into the notes accompanying ‘The Northerner’ exhibition at The Vivian, Matakana.

An earlier version of ‘The arrival of the pianos’ appeared as ‘Les pianos dans la brousse’ in Europe, 2008, translated into French by Pierre Furlan. The musings on Florian Habicht began as a piece for Art New Zealand in 2008 – warm acknowledgements to William Dart.

‘Summer of celibacy ’84!’ appeared in an earlier form in the Sunday Star Times; acknowledgements to Stuff and to Adam Dudding, who commissioned the original piece. Versions of ‘The Smither’ and ‘That which is washed ashore – South Coast, Wellington I’ were published in Landfall, edited by Justin Paton.

‘We went ashore’ appeared in PN Review 204, UK, March–April 2012, and further details of the voyage appeared in the exhibition catalogue, Fiona Hall: Big Game Hunting (Heide Museum of Modern Art, Melbourne, 2013). ‘All black as far as the eye can see’ appeared on The Carcanet Blog, UK. ‘The frozen pages’ was written at the behest of Rebecca Priestley for Dispatches from Continent Seven (Wellington: Awa Press, 2016); grateful acknowledgement to Mary Varnham and Awa Press. An extended version of ‘Lessons of Sunday Island’ appeared in New Zealand Geographer (Volume 72, Issue 3), and ‘Ode to the Kermadec Trench’ was published in Cyphers (Ireland, 2015).

As well as resurfacing, in a different form, in the New Zealand Listener (‘The pod squad – exploring the meaning of whales in the Pacific’, 17 July 2017), the chapters pertaining to whales were the basis for a talk, ‘Whale Years’, presented at the 2015 Auckland Writers Festival and subsequently at the National Whale Centre in Picton, the Waiheke Literary Festival, and the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival.

‘Sunset System’ appeared in Sport 46 (Victoria University Press).

Many thanks to everyone who was involved in the day trips and major outings which propelled this book into being: firstly, Noel McKenna who, although a non-driver, was something of a driving force behind much of this – and we’re both grateful to Laurence Aberhart and Greta North, who looked after us in Russell. My geographer friend Robin Kearns accompanied me on numerous island excursions (ongoing), as did my Kermadec comrades.

Thanks to all involved in the Kermadec art project: Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elizabeth Thomson, Robin White and Ruha Fifita; to Bronwen Golder, who directed proceedings on behalf of Pew Charitable Trusts/Global Ocean Legacy; and to Amelia Connell, who ran a tidy ship.

Many thanks also to Reuben Friend, Chris Cane, Amber Baldock, Leilani Tamu, Rochelle Constantine, Rebecca Priestley, Mark Roach, Abby Cunnane, Paula Savage, Ernesto Escobar, Macarena Deij, Aline Schaffar, Christophe Chevillon, Michael Kempson, Kate De Goldi, Claire McLintock, and Jenny Todd (who loaned Noel and me the car in ‘Coasting’). Among others who helped with the evolution of this book: Michael Schmidt, Robyn Marsack, Anna Hodge, Jim and Marcella Geddes, Emma Bugden, Penny Jackson, Jane Sanders, Shirin Khosraviani, Bill Manhire, Deborah Smith, and Nicholas Stevens, Mary-Louise Browne, Jenny Neligan, and Penney Moir, John Gow, Marian Maguire, Olivia McLeavey, Barbara Speedy, and Captain Simon Rooke.

I’m grateful, as ever, to all the artists and writers who generously granted permission for their works and/or words to be used herein. And I remember, with respect and gratitude, the late Epeli Hau‘ofa and Teresia Teaiwa.

Thanks to everyone at the Stout Research Centre, Victoria University of Wellington, especially director Lydia Wevers, Richard Hill, Anna Green, Debbie Levy, and my fellow resident in 2015, Kim Workman – and to the Stout Memorial Trust for supporting the writing of this book. Work was completed in Alexandra, courtesy of the Henderson Arts Trust; I’m particularly grateful to Grahame and Fiona Sydney and Judith Campbell.

Thanks to the crew at Auckland University Press – especially Sam Elworthy, Katrina Duncan, Katharina Bauer, and Sophia Broom – and to editor Louise Russell, proofreader Matt Turner, and project manager Sarah Ell, and designer Keely O’Shannessy. Much aroha, as ever, to Jen, Jack-Marcel, Felix, and Carlo.

Sample pages from the 2023 edition of Always Song in the Water12MB PDF

 Gregory O'Brien

Born in Matamata in 1961, Gregory O'Brien is a prolific poet, artist, and non-fiction writer. He curated City Gallery Wellington exhibitions (1997-2009) and engaged with the 'Kermadec' art initiative after a 2011 Raoul Island voyage, with exhibitions worldwide. An Arts Foundation laureate, O'Brien got the 2013 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement and an honorary doctorate from Victoria University in 2017. Recent works include "House and Contents" (2022) and "Don Binney: Flight Path" (upcoming, Oct 2023).

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