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

Selected Poems
by Brian Turner
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776562183

Book Review: People from the Pit Stand Up, by Sam Duckor-Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_people_from_the_pit_stand_upPeople From The Pit Stand Up is Sam Duckor-Jones’ first published poetry collection, but he is no stranger to the act of creating art. Duckor-Jones is an established New Zealand sculptor whose work ‘Strong men point their toes‘ was exhibited at the Auckland Botanical Garden and whose other work is available through Bowen Gallery. This is important because many poems in People From The Pit Stand Up examine the lives of artists and the creating, viewing and coveting of art and creativity (and maybe even the coveting of life lived in joyful community. But let’s get back to the art).

There are many sections to the collection (which at 109 pages is generous). One of these sections is ‘Blood Work,’ a 20 poem sequence about the process of creating and experiencing a sculptural collection similar to ‘Strong men point their toes’. It examines the physical process of creation – “To make a man / consider your kit Large batt scraped clean not warped..” (‘…instructions‘) – but goes beyond that to the spiritual and emotional connections encountered when taking on the role of God, creating man from clay. Ducker-Jones’ poems in this sequence recreate the strange experience of living in a house where clay men are encountered around corners, asking something from you, perhaps for you to deliver a ‘quick death’ or to be ‘held by the shoulders & kissed’ (‘…some considerations’).

In People From The Pit Stand Up Duckor-Jones is drawn back again and again to what he knows so well – art and artists, creating and destroying. But that is not the only theme; throughout we get a feeling of loneliness, though he is too clever a poet to name it (for example in ‘On Isolation’ or ‘Speaking Diary’).

There is much to admire in this collection. Most poems interact with the page in detailed ways; blocks of white space and gappy lines, left and right alignments and lines falling across the page. Those who follow Duckor-Jones’ art will also covet the collection for his illustrations which divide the sections of poetry. But while I admired the craftsmanship on display in the collection, I didn’t feel much engagement or pleasure while reading People From The Pit Stand Up – I didn’t enjoy it thematically, but I certainly admire Duckor-Jones’ talent. One for the artist in all of us.

Reviewed by Libby Kirkby-McLeod

People from the Pit Stand Up
by Sam Duckor-Jones
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561933

Book Review: Baby, by Annaleese Jochems

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hires_babyWow, what an amazing talent this young woman is. At all of 23 years of age, there is an urgency and energy to Annaleese Jochems’ writing. Her insight into how social media, celebrity culture, the culture of ‘me’, and how the resultant obsession with self has manipulated her generation of young people is spectacular. The result is a monster of a young woman, the 21-year-old Cynthia, whose life and existence is completely dominated by her dangerously self absorbed, meaningless and boring existence.

This novel is well and truly a modern urban cautionary fable, about that privileged and over indulged generation us oldies like to call entitled, how their perception of self is so out of whack, and the consequences when it all goes wrong. A total nut job. I have already admitted I am the wrong demographic for this novel, even though I get what is going on (I think), but my 20 year old daughter, clearly of the same demographic as Cynthia and the author thought the book way too weird to continue reading. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is weird, but it is certainly disturbing.

Cynthia has a life of nothing. She has been to university, although it is not clear if she completed her degree or dropped out. She has no job, lives at her father’s home, a man who appears to be both physically and emotionally absent, but he does have a great bank balance, spends all her time on her phone, watching movies, playing with her dog Snot-head (who calls their dog such a name?) and doing yoga. Anahera is the yoga instructor, a slightly older woman, with whom Cynthia becomes obsessed. When Anahera turns up on her doorstep claiming she has left her husband, the madness begins. After raiding her father’s bank account, they drive off to Paihia, where absurdly, they purchase a boat called Baby, living on it just off the shore of Paihia beach.

Talk about cabin fever. As the days pass, and with no fixed plan of action, they begin to run out of money, Snot-head does not take well to marine life, Anahera remains disturbingly elusive, wanting to spend all her time swimming from the boat to an off shore island. Their random existence leads them to random encounters with others, none of which end well, Cynthia increasingly out of touch with reality, out of control with her emotions and actions.

So a bizarre plot with not a single likeable or even relatable character. All using each other for their own ends, the lines of communication and connection are constantly twisted and warped. The novel is narrated entirely from Cynthia’s self-absorbed perspective, so cleverly we get to find out very little about the other characters and what is going on in their minds with the strange set up they find themselves in.

I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this book, some very strange and disturbing stuff goes on. But as an insight into the over stimulated mind of a young person it is extraordinary. As is the quality of the writing, the low level tension held through out, beginning with the first line  “Cynthia can understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body.”, to the last paragraph  “For now, she shifts her head from one side to the other, resting it. Time passes and the trees are silent. A small winged bug lands on her wrist then flies away. She doesn’t notice.” This is an amazing new voice in NZ writing, we should treasure and nurture her, she will go onto great things.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

by Annaleese Jochems
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561667

Book Review: Tess, by Kirsten McDougall

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_tessThis novel, the first by McDougall, who has previously published a collection of short stories, is a gripping read from the first words: ‘at first she was a blur of light and movement on the steaming road’.

The subject is Tess, a young woman on the run from a fairly disastrous relationship. She’s the product of similarly disastrous parenting, saved only by her grandmother. She has the gift of sight – not in the usual sense, but an ability to see what’s going on in the heads of others – which is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your perspective.

It sounds a bit Gothic, and indeed it is, but so cleverly written and with such empathy for the characters that even if gothic literature is not your first choice, I think you’ll still be engaged by this novel.

Tess is rescued by a middle-aged father who has his own raft of issues, none of which Tess wants to hear about: she has enough problems of her own to deal with – a broken relationship with a violent partner just for starters. She is trying to find a way to heal herself, and how this comes about is sensitively done. Family and relationship tensions and difficulties not only in Tess’ life but in the lives of most of the characters ring true.

She is drawn, despite herself, to stay on in the Masterton home where she puts her gardening skills to effective use and where the relationship with the father – which in the beginning feels as if it’s going to be really dodgy – turns out to be something far deeper. The complicated relationships between the characters are well-drawn and credible, and the tensions are effectively maintained. The twist at the end is good, not totally predictable, and there’s a satisfying conclusion to the whole story.

I think it’s a good read and recommend it.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

by Kirsten McDougall
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776561001

Editor’s Note: I bought and read this too, and I agree: It’s brilliant, well worth a read! – Sarah Forster

Book Review: Futuna – Life of a building, edited by Nick Bevin & Gregory O’Brien

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_futuna_life_of_a_buildingFutuna Chapel sits amongst modern housing developments in Karori in Wellington, its roof towering above the houses, its future preserved thanks to protection under the Wellington District Plan as well as a Category 1 registration with the Historic Places Trust.

Throughout the pages of Futuna – Life of a building, the reader is taken on a journey from the inception and building of the chapel, its dereliction and finally its rescue and refurbishment as a non-denominational centre for spiritual, cultural and artistic expression. The stunning photographs bring the chapel to life and compliment the series of essays which tell the story of this unique building devised by architect John Scott and artist Jim Allen.

Built by brothers of the Society of Mary as part of their men’s retreat centre, the chapel is named after the Pacific Island of Futuna where a missionary Peter Chanel was killed in 1841, and opened in 1961. When the Society of Mary decided they had no further use for the building it was sold to a Wellington builder, who used it as a storage place while he developed housing on the surrounding land. Then, in 2007, the chapel was bought by the Futuna Trust, and refurbishment commenced, culminating in Futuna hosting a Medieval Music group at the inaugural open day March 2008.

Gregory O’Brien’s poem Ode to Futuna Chapel adds a lightness to the story with his beautiful description of the chapel:

Equal parts concrete ,wood ,
and light –that was the equation
the Chapel of Futuna offered, where
the two rows of pews formed
the shape of a capital L…

And I particularly enjoyed his poem The return of Christ to Futuna Chapel, which celebrated the return of Jim Allen’s carving to the chapel.

This book is a real treasure, it is a factual historical recording of an iconic building in New Zealand, which as with many church buildings throughout the country, faced an uncertain future until passionate people rallied together to save it. From the eye-catching front cover to the Poem for John Scott at the end I have loved unraveling the story of the Futuna Chapel, finding new details each time I have picked up the book.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Futuna- Life of a building
Edited by Nick Bevin and Gregory O’Brien
Photography by Paul McCredie and Gavin Woodward
Published by VUP
ISBN 9781776560523

Book Review: A Blighted Fame George S Evans 1802-1868: A life, by Helen Riddiford

cv_a_blighted_fameAvailable now in bookstores nationwide. 

George Evans was one of those men instrumental in the establishment of Wellington about whom little has been heard. While the Wakefields and their roles in the NZ Company have been well-documented, Evans (for whom Evans Bay is named) seems to have flown under the radar until Helen Riddiford decided to change that.

Her book is comprehensive, complex and full of detail. Exhaustive references show clearly just how thorough her research has been.

Her family connection (by marriage) to George Evans was doubtless a catalyst for undertaking an enormous task. The result is a detailed, interesting and often enlightening work about a man who cared deeply for the new colony, and worked hard to help bring about its success.

He was clearly a complex man, and it’s an interesting book, but particularly recommended to those with a deep interest in early NZ history.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

A Blighted Fame: George S Evans 1802-1868: A life
by Helen Riddiford
Published by VUP Books
ISBN 9780864738967

Book Review: News Pigs, by Tim Wilson

Available in bookstores this April 2014.

With its unconventional style and a helter-cv_news_pigsskelter, relentless plot, it took me a while to find myself immersed in this semi-satirical, darkly humongous tale. News Pigs is written almost like a stream of consciousness, and shamelessly thumbs its nose at the basic “rules” (aka guidelines) associated with writing: there are exclamation marks a-plenty, footnotes scattered about but once one gets used to the technique (about one-two chapters in) it really makes for a compelling read. So compelling, in fact, that one is tempted to begin again once they are finished, so that they can re-experience the first-chapter events within the greater context.

It is highly amusing − although some of the jokes went over my head − and filled with over-the-top instances and madcap pacing. Tom Milde is a poet and, to put it frankly, a bit of a no-hoper, when entirely by chance he receives his big break: the chance to travel across to report-from-the-scene of the greatest gun massacre America has ever known − named the Santa Shooter. What follows is an insane comedy of errors involving rival journalists, posh-boy rednecks, a rare manuscript, an orphaned red shoe, a foul-mouthed editor (all the swear words being transformed into strings of symbols, ie: “$#*!”) and a distinct lack of sleep and food on the part of poor Tom. The narrative is relentless, pebbled with social satire, littered with subtle digs at New Zealanders, Aussies and people from the PLC (a fictional country situated somewhere near New Zealand from which Milde originates), Americans, news reporters (from which profession the author hails), and NRA lobbyists. Pretty much everyone Milde encounters along the way is taking the mickey of someone or something.

Despite the almost-haphazard structure, it is actually very precise, very deliberate and extremely clever. The sort of story that digs its claws in, dragging you with it (not *quite* kicking and screaming) and forces you to stay up well after midnight so that you can finish it.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

News Pigs
by Tim Wilson
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739179

News Pigs gets it first outing in Auckland on Tuesday next week. If you’re around, please drop into Corner Bar, Hotel de Brett on Tues 8 April, 6pm-7.30pm.