Book Review: Selected Poems, by Brian Turner

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selected_poems_turnerIn a single poetry collection you’re able to tell what is currently occupying a poet (it might be personal, like their family breakdown, or esoteric, like the role of science in art) and their next work usually comes with its own obsession. But over the life of a writer there’s often one or two ongoing concerns – ideas or questions or worries – they simply can’t put down. These lifelong concerns (which have been hiding in the folds of all their work) suddenly become clear in collected works. That’s true of Selected Poems by Brian Turner.

In this book, Victoria University Press has collected a selection of poems from Brian Turner’s forty plus years of writing poetry. These poems are presented chronologically, starting with some from the Commonwealth Poetry Prize winning collection Ladders of Rain (published in 1978), and followed by a small selection from each of his previously published collections up until Night Fishing (published in 2016). It finishes with a sizable collection of Turner’s previously uncollected work.

Often thought of as a ‘nature’ or ‘environmental’ poet, Brian Turner told Tim Watkins in 2005 that ‘half of my poems are actually about the politics of relationships or relationships themselves.’ And he is of course right. Over and over in this collection he returns to a concern about the interior of interpersonal relationships. There in his poems are failing relationships, observations about the parent and child relationship, and questions about how best to love and to remember that you have loved. In Furrows of the Sea, from his 1981 collection, he writes of a child in tears at his own failures and a father trying to respond – ‘He is hopeless / at keeping anything / to himself, and I / am even worse / at hiding anything / of value from him.’ Years later in Twilight Days (published in 2005) we see this parent and child dynamic again bewildering the poet, but this time he is a grown child and his mother is in tears – ‘She wouldn’t say / what had made her cry, / mainly because she preferred / not to lie…’

Despite this, reviewers do often classify Turner as a landscape poet and for good reason. There is no getting away from nature in his work. The seasons roll in and out of the collection as he captures their literal manifestations and their figurative effects on people who seem to change with them.

Along with seeing what concerns have stayed the same for the poet, we also see in collected works the way that their perspectives have shifted. As the years progress Turner becomes more obvious in his growing environmental concerns, sometimes becoming so blunt as to lose the poetry in preference for the message. His early works on New Zealand and New Zealanders are witty, he looks at us with amusement such as in the 2001 poem Semi-Kiwi. In the poem the speaker is no good at the ‘great Kiwi DIY tradition’ but he can back a trailer expertly, ‘so all is not lost.’ Only ten years later however his len has turned sardonic. In the poem titled New Zealanders, a Definition there is only the sole line ‘Born here, buggered it up.’

Brian Turner’s poems for the most part of not formally inventive – he sticks mainly to the left of the page with three of four word lines in fairly even stanzas. It doesn’t hurt his work however, for even as poetry movements and trends have come and gone he has continued to write moving, memorable poems. The previously uncollected work shows this, some are among the best in the collection, including Athens and Andros where ‘mythology / reminds us we’ve long been both / creative and destructive everywhere.’

Poetry is a funny thing – ‘difficult’ is a compliment, ‘easy to read’ is a sneer. But this collection is easy and enjoyable to read because Brian Turner has opened himself up to us as New Zealanders for over forty years. And he continues to invite us into his questioning – even while being grumpy at our destructiveness.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Kirkby-McLeod 
ekirkbymcleodauthor.com

Selected Poems
by Brian Turner
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562183

Book Review: Summer Days – Stories and Poems celebrating the Kiwi Summer

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv-summer_daysSometimes a very special book comes in to my possession. Summer Days is one of these. I love the feel of it, the weight of it, the colour, the size, the blue ribbon bookmark and especially the sun-golden page edges. The inside is just as wonderful. Here is summer packaged for Kiwi kids. There are Pohutukawa trees and buzzing bees, jandals and sandy seashore, Jesus in the cowshed and Grandpa on the beach.

Puffin have published this collection for young Kiwi kids just in time for a family Christmas present. Every poem, story and illustration reminded me of the special nature of summer in New Zealand. This is the very best of the very best. Joy Cowley gives us the Nativity in a cowshed with a collection of animals beloved by New Zealanders. Gwenda Turner was a wonderful artist who captured the reality of beach time. She even included the named creatures found on the rocky shore. Margaret Mahy makes a special Christmas Cake, while Brian Turner watches the bees.

It is not easy to select a collection such as this. Keep it simple, keep it local, keep it varied and keep it manageable. Every page was a delight as I found there was enough variety to enjoy the short poems between the longer picture stories. This is a sturdy publication with an embossed hard cover and just the right size to pack for the holiday. It is the details which so delighted me. There are ice-cream cones on the end papers, a bookmark attached, a stitched spine and the final touch is the sunshine yellow edges to every page. Truly, it is summer in a book.

I see this being the perfect family present. It will become a classic treasure on the bookshelf creating heated debate when it has to be passed on to the next generation. My copy is already wrapped and under the tree for my granddaughter. Maybe I need a copy to keep for myself?

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Summer Days: Stories and Poems celebrating the Kiwi Summer
Puffin
ISBN 9780143771593

Line Up, poetry at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

The poet Emma Neale (right) could make a emma_nealecareer out of emceeing poetry events.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, to a room full of attentive listeners in the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Neale introduced five poets with a series of eloquent encomiums that might have had the line up blushing were it not composed of old pros. It was lovely to listen to.

Bernadette Hall, Owen Marshall, former poet laureate Cilla McQueen, current poet laureate Vincent O’Sullivan, and Brian Turner had a tough act to follow but were up to it as one-by-one they stepped up to the microphone, most in quite sensible shoes, to deliver a cupful of their ‘crisp’ or ‘pellucid,’ ‘pared back’ or ‘erudite’ poetry.

The oeuvres and achievements of these writers – writers who are arguably among this country’s finest and most prolific – are well known to a reading public. So rather than describe the content of their selections, it might be more illuminating if I focus on the cumulative effect.

For an hour or so, the most valued currency in Dunedin and thus the world was language: carefully chosen words detonating sensual shock and visual charge, delivered in the various tones of the sufferers of that condition called being a poet.

And after the poetry, the questions from the audience, provoking the small revelations of self which readers love to hear. We left with humming ears.

Event reviewed by Aaron Blaker, on behalf of Booksellers NZ