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: Luxembourg, by Stephen Oliver

Available in selected bookshops. 

cv_luxembourgLuxembourg – Google it to find a tiny European state with spires that point to infinity, cobbled streets, canels through the city. But the blurb on this collection of poems draws us away from Luxembourg, telling us that these are the poems of a New Zealand poet returning home after twenty years in Australia. It’s hard to ignore the word hiding in plain sight in the title – lux – meaning light. Indeed, there are stars and sunsets, twilights – in many poems the light carries with it a ‘darkening into dawn’ of old world versus new. Perhaps the light is the light of understanding.

I might start by saying that my mum picked up the book from my shelf and was unimpressed with the first page’s description of ‘Desiccated, middle-aged matriarchs’, in the poem Dreams of Flying. Further in, in a poem called Undercover I found:

…This is rural New
Zealand, where every woman over forty
looks like Janet Frame in a parallel universe
of the under privileged… 

These gripes aside, Oliver has a well-respected place in Australasian poetry. It seems a ripe time to admit that these are the first poems of Oliver’s which I have read (though this is his nineteenth collecton). It is on the basis of this collection that I call him a landscape poet. He writes about people, but it is in his consideration and depiction of the hills and valleys, skies and trees, that the poems carry the most beauty, weight, and originality of phrase. The poet’s language and eye is that of the painter as sights are drawn, spilt like paint on canvas rather than described, as in the poem Undercover:

The moon was half. As though the act
of clearing a space in the partially clouded
sky had worn itself away…

…The glass bowl tilts overhead

In the poem Road Notes, there is ‘fog / broiling off rounded hills’, the poplars rising ‘wind washed’. The ordinary sometimes appears; in the poem Dilapidated Dream – the poplars are ‘sentinels’, but also the stunning, as in the poem In the Blink: ‘Drought is the story of absences, equidistant / and everywhere.’ In the poem Apocrypha, Oliver describes houses like ‘a handful of croutons thrown over lumped up hills’. Descriptions of ideas are also catching, as in the poem Road Notes: ‘Memory has pulled tent pegs and moved on. / A sadness of light is all that remains, the mould broken’.

With the exception of a few poems close to the end of the book which caught me with their real feeling and humanness (the poem The Lost German Girl, and the closing lament for the friend who has died), the people in this book seem to be mostly vessels for the poems’ ideas. Not that the human is absent – fossils are ‘substances by which we sense / ourselves’. But the poems are highly intellectual, philosophical, scientific even, asking how and why we exist – Oliver is a name-dropper, a myth-dropper, a place-dropper. I needed a dictionary. The translation of the title poem, ‘Luxembourg’, into German is a nice touch, and the occasional Spanish or Latin phrase contributes to a feeling of intense working. The book is interposed with prose poems, a form growing in popularity. These tell stories and develop character, following a similar rhythm to the free verse which is more numerous.

Places in New Zealand appear – Te Kuiti, Piopio – I am happy to find the poet on the West Coast. But they submerge beneath the ripples of global citizenship that dominates Luxembourg. I keep coming back to the question, what lies at the heart of this collection? Why is it by the lamplights of Luxembourg or Europe or even Alaska that the poems choose to find a place in the world? It will take more than my two readings to interpret the heart of Luxembourg.

I do love the cover, and I’ll admit that as an old-fashioned romantic who loves landscape descriptions I chose the book because of its cover – the opera singer rendered in black and white, her heavy made-up, haunting eyes, staring into the unknown. She seems set in time – quite unlike these poems.

Reviewed by Susannah Whaley

Luxembourg
by Stephen Oliver
Published by Greywacke Press
ISBN 9780646986968

Book Review: Sam Hunt – Off the Road, by Colin Hogg

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sam_hunt_off_the_road.jpg‘Tell the story. Tell it true. Charm it crazy’. So says Sam Hunt as his maxim for writing. In Off the Road we have an extended conversation between the author, Colin Hogg and the subject, Sam Hunt. But this book is not just ‘this is your life’, oh, but you’re not dead yet.

Colin Hogg has been a long-time friend and has already written about Sam Hunt in Angel Gear: On the Road with Sam Hunt. This was 30 years ago and the book cleverly includes some chapters from Angel Gear telling background stories and on the road tales. The friendship between Hogg and Hunt is the basis of the book and their interviews range from deep thinking introspection to alcohol-induced babble. It is all here.

But it is wonderful. The gems start on the title page with a 1987 photo of author and subject. The black and white photos support the rambling text. There are images of Sam, the sea, the shelf, his toes, the trees and his poems. The poems are right through the text, old and new. The references to other poets, to writers, to academics to drinkers and to inspiring women. This book is a celebration of the collection of things which give us meaning and beauty.

While there is biographical information included, it is part of a story and not just a listing in the dictionary. Hogg allows Hunt to recall his Father, and his Grandfather, but keeps him on track with questions to shape the responses. I learnt a lot about Sam Hunt but also began to see that the poems were part of who he is, not apart from him. As Hogg commented ‘poems fall from him like leaves from a tree’.

There is a darker side to the book. The process of aging is a constant companion and Hunt seems to see death stalking him. Sam Hunt’s decision to stop touring was a huge one. Over half his life has been lived on the road. His gigs cover every possible dot on the New Zealand map. Solitude is also mentioned as he lives almost as a recluse. As Hogg says, ‘mortality bounces through his conversation like a big black beach ball’.

And this leads to the parting comment at the end of the book. After reading the first drafts, Hogg received a phone call with a clear instruction from Hunt.

‘Sam is happier than earlier reported. Put that at the end.’ So he did.

I enjoyed catching up with a poet who has greatly influenced my life. As a young writer, I sent him my offerings, along with every young aspiring schoolkid. He replied a number of times, and some poems were published. Those letters are my treasure, much to my adult children’s amusement. Is Sam Hunt a National Treasure? You just need to listen to the lilt and lift of that voice to know the answer.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Sam Hunt – Off the Road
by Colin Hogg
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9781775541226

Book Review: A Passage of Yellow Red Birds, by Robin Peace

Available in bookshops.

cv_a_passage_of_yellow_red_birdsRobin Peace’s A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful collection immersed within nature. Peace also explores how human life is intertwined with the landscape.

Traveller’s tales is a stand out poem that pulls at the heart with talks of departure. It starts with a description of how it feels like to leave:

the pull away south, the tug of earth,
the lift into night sky somewhere
far from stars, metal wings tilting
flash the city braceleted below.

Here, Peace presents such a brilliant image of a city seen from the air, lit up by the hum of civilisation. After leaving, Peace moves to explaining the feeling of arrival. But, as it is with travelling, it is soon time to leave again. In this way, Peace explores that bittersweet loop of having to leave just as you’ve started to become familiar with a new place. And then Peace presents a string of further images from the plane that are just as wonderful:

Mongolian deserts: hectares of sand,
brown arms flung out with salt-encrusted sores.
Small waters fingered by trickling, dry stories,
ephemerally bright.

Peace is so very in touch with her landscapes, as she also shows in her poem Oslo autumn. She describes falling autumn leaves as:

emissaries, summoned
down to litter boats,
slide boots on pavements

And Peace delicately references her own home as she stares at the autumn around her. To her, Oslo is

A hemisphere excess
of naked trees that
draws up all I know
of southern green.

Since Peace is so in tune with the nature around her, she also builds up the idea that nature is symbolic of a world that is flourishing and at peace. As long as nature thrives, then us humans live happily amongst it, too. In The dove wait, Peace waits for these birds and what they represent. Without them,

Your fingers blue. Your breath
comes in gasps and stalls and
starts again.

And the tenderness of Peace’s love of nature truly shows in her poem All of it. The setting is a funeral and nature makes a wonderful appearance throughout different parts of the scene. There is an Indian cloth, earth in colour and embroided with flowers. Then Peace describes a multitude of flowers, all in layers. These seem to be the flowers of the “your” that was evoked in The dove wait:

magnolia, rangiora; purple-blue
lavender, bluebell, iris, ranunculi;
pink-red rose, poppy, primula

The list of flowers goes on and on. And since they come from someone’s garden, I can imagine that there are a whole host of memories that can be evoked from each flower. Memories of planting the flowers intially, to caring for them and watching them bloom. Nature lives alongside human life and accompanies it. And Peace wonderfully ends the poem with this connection again. She explains how there, they stood

and looked to release your view across the plain
toward that forest of your embattled love.

Peace’s love of nature fills her life and others with such colour. A Passage of Yellow Red Birds is a wonderful read for anyone who loves the delicate way the earth creates such beautiful backdrops to human life.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

A Passage of Yellow Red Birds
by Robin Peace
Published by Submarine
ISBN 9780995109261

Book Review: poeta, by Cilla McQueen

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_poetaThere are two things which I think make a great selected works collection and they are nothing to do with the metric foot or rhyme; they are much more prosaic. When I open a selected works of poetry I want to see initial publication information and notes. The poems don’t have to be in chronological order, thematic organisation is often more interesting, but I like to know where they fit. And I want the gossip behind the poems.  Cilla McQueen’s selected and new poems collection, poeta, wonderfully provides both.

Selected poetry books which collect and gather a poet’s work are important. They give new life to work which might be out of print and are great for those studying the poet.  They are however often lengthy, the poetry doesn’t necessarily propel you through the pages and I approach the reading of them more to discover the poet than the poetry. poeta is very much like this – what stood out to me most while reading it is the quality and length of McQueen’s career and her continuous experimentation with form.

From her first collection, Homing In in 1982, McQueen has constantly produced work.  The first decade of her career in particular seemed to be jam-packed, with work appearing in poeta from five collections printed during that time. This opportunity, fueled no doubt by McQueen’s own hard work but also by an ongoing commitment from her publisher at the time, allowed her to build a body of work and an identity as a poet. Reading poeta I found myself wondering whether a poet writing in New Zealand today could develop the same career and sheer body of work over their 30 years of writing.  New Zealand will be the poorer if the answer to that question is ‘no’.

McQueen’s experimentation and her desire for her poetry to embody all possibilities is clear in this collection. Older poems experiment with aspects like punctuation (or the lack of it) and building narrative, while the new poems clearly play with internal white space and the page. Though most poems are free verse and many are lyrics, you also occasionally see her mastering traditional forms.

McQueen’s poetry is rich in metaphor and image and ranges across many concerns and themes. Often strongly grounded in place, from Bluff to Berlin, poems such as ‘Living Here’ capture a New Zealand condition, an isolation and complacency which remains even if we are no longer ‘just one big city with 3 million people with / a little flock of sheep each so we’re all sort of / shepherds.’ ‘Crikey’ is an example of a fun love poem while ‘Fuse’ is a powerful political poem without being overtly angry. McQueen has the skill of taking poems in unexpected directions.

poeta is a book for those who enjoy deep dives into New Zealand poetry. But more than that it is a book whose very ability to exist creates reflection. How can we ensure that poets today can continue to flourish, to WORK, in New Zealand across a lifetime career?

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

poeta
by Cilla McQueen
Published by Otago University Press
ISBN 9781988531281

 

Book Review: Coming to it, by Sam Hunt

Available from bookshops nationwide.

cv_coming_to_it.jpgComing To It is a collection of selected poems from throughout Sam Hunt’s career (though it also includes many new poems). To review a poet who’s been working for over 50 years, who’s so well known, who’s been recognised by the Prime Minister and the Queen is a funny thing. So much is already established. Most reviews of it so far have been as much reviews of the man − his touring, his drinking, his remote eccentric lifestyle. They become reviews of Hunt’s contribution to New Zealand literature and identity.

But I’m not able to write a review like that. So let’s put it all − the man, the history, the career − to one side and look only at the poems which are in turns clever, lovely, funny, questioning and, the smallest of handfuls, out of step with the times.

Hunt is thought of as a poet whose lines aim to reflect natural speech yet they are full of rhyme and craft; it is not everyone who can overhear a conversation in a pub and turn it into a poem.

Most of the poems in the collection are grounded in Aotearoa − in the natural and manmade paths in Rangitikei; in the choppy waters of Cook Strait; in the salt of tidal rivers in Oterei and Kaipara. They are proudly focused on our communities, our place and the travels of the poet throughout it. The poem Notes from a journey is an example where the towns, the waters and the people all embody Hunt’s pride in this country.

He returns throughout the poems to those he loves − his mother, father and brothers; his sons. These are in turn touching and enchanting. In ‘No bells’ for example, the loss of his mother on the same night as the bamboo windbells on his verandah break are tied together to portray an irreparable sudden silencing. In the last poem, Brothers (which is perfectly placed) we find Hunt in the gaps, the white space around his brothers.

His poems about his lovers, and his descriptions of women generally, generate less delight for me. Women who love him in the poems are expected to accept that he will never be completely available to them; to be with him is to accept a level of loneliness. I find this especially difficult, this ‘arm’s reach’ attitude, from a poet and performer who treasures a deep connection with his audiences. While he is charming spectators, those who most deserve his attention are, like the partner in the poem My white ship, expected to accept:

The ethic of my love
For you remains that I
Am a lone sailor of
The night; captain of my
White ship: and though you be
A good day’s mate, your fight’s
Too weak to rise with me…

In another poem a desirable woman is compared to an unbroken horse; in another a woman’s domestic violence scars are mused over but hey, despite that black eye she is still a ‘sort of mystic hooker’. I wish these poem, and the rest of the poems in the collection, were labelled with a first publication date. Rightly or wrongly, it matters to me whether this was a view from decades ago or from today.

Oh dear, I haven’t managed to review just the poetry have I? I have, like most other reviewers of Coming To It, come back to Hunt himself. And perhaps that was inevitable, because Hunt has always said his subject is his experience and this opening up of a New Zealand life for decade after decade is the ultimate gift his poetry has given us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirby-McLeod

Coming to it
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503802

WORD Christchurch: Fast Burning Women – Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Fast Burning Women
featuring Selina Tusitala Marsh and Tusiata Avia

Selina Tusitala Marsh’s list of accomplishments needs a fair amount of time allocated to it’s recitation. Marsh is no layabout, and as her friend Tusiata Avia says after introducing her, ‘That CV is from earlier this year so you probably have to add about ten more things to it.’ tusiata selina.JPG

The focus of this session was on the juggling required of a woman in Selina’s position: Poet Laureate, lecturer and researcher, mother, runner, Writers in Schools ambassador, traveller, friend, wife, aunty….the list goes on. How does one keep so many plates spinning? How to stay a multi-tasking fast-burning woman without becoming a burnt out woman?

The pairing of Avia and Marsh meant we got a personal insight into just how Marsh is able to keep going. The two are friends, very similar in lifestyles and values, perfectionists who push themselves hard. Their closeness was evident in the easy manner in which they joked with each other, while championing and advocating for each other at the same time.

Avia opened up about her own story of burn out that saw her bedridden for 18 months. Incredibly, on the days she was able to get out of bed, she would still force herself to work. It wasn’t until the exhaustion started affecting her mentally and emotionally that she started turning down work. But how does someone get to this stage? A statement by Jesse Jackson that resonated with Marsh goes some way to explaining: ‘If you want to succeed as a person of colour you have to be excellent all the time.’ Avia points out that women of colour need to be doubly excellent.

And so how does Marsh not burn out? What tools and tips does she have for those of us who feel the mother guilt, who battle perfectionism, who are working under the weight of the communities we represent? Who does she look to for inspiration? Her answer came in the form of Oprah Winfrey’s book What I Know For Sure. As Marsh read it she realised what was missing from her own life, in comparison to Oprah, was a trusted friend, a sister to call on, and most importantly, a soundboard. Someone who got it. ‘I was Oprah without a Gayle.’ So Marsh and Avia embarked on what they call their earbud relationship. One where they call each other almost every day, sometimes multiple times a day, and check in, providing advice and counsel.

With Avia at the end of the telephone, Marsh is able to carry the tokotoko of the Poet Laureate wherever it takes her. She is able to ask for what she needs. She is able to share her load. Marsh noted: ‘When I was able to redefine what support means to me and my life, that’s when I found support.’

Both Marsh and Avia continue to write and create through the many challenges they face. An audience member asked Avia how her illness had affected her writing and she begins with coyness, saying she hasn’t written much. ‘That’s not true,’ Marsh corrects her. She knows Avia is working on a new book, and you can see the pride she has in her friend, Shine Theory in action. Marsh is working on a graphic novel (‘I’ve always doodled; Spike Milligan is my idol.’). She wants to make poetry accessible to all communities.

Leaving the session my friend remarked that most New Zealanders don’t know how lucky we are to have Selina Tusitala Marsh as our Poet Laureate. Everyone who attended Fast Burning Women knows, and we also know how lucky Marsh is to have Tusiata Avia at the end of the phone line, spurring her on.

Reviewed by Gem Wilder

Tusiata Avia will appear in two more events during WORD Christchurch 2018: 

Black Marks on the White Page: A Roundtable
Sonya Renee Taylor: The Body is not an Apology