Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Heeling to the Wind - the poetry of Brian Turner

I've been doing a spot of reflection and some writing on Brian Turner's poetry and I'm posting it here in case anyone shares my enthusiasm for the way a poet's struggle with words and experience is also a work of the Spirit - while stepping beyond creed and doctrine.

Born here, buggered it up.

(‘New Zealanders, a definition’)

A one line poem delivered in the dry tone of an ordinary Kiwi bloke – just one of Brian Turner’s ‘voices’: you might ask, is this poetry? Well, hardly - not if that was all he wrote! However that one-liner has a huge metaphysical embrace! It holds much more than we, at first glance, appreciate. It is a summary - a tragic vision – reminiscent of theology’s image of ‘The Fall’. Here Turner’s laconic indictment covers both a sense of wonder at what has been given and an anguished sense of loss, whether at the destruction of the environment, the shock of mortality, or the individual messes of poor choices and botched relationships.

A sense of wonder streams through Turner’s landscape poetry – he is after all a well established poet of the Central Otago landscape. Fortunately he resists the platitudes and sentiment that choke much landscape poetry and instead has a sense for the familiar details that can speak and hint at something more. That ‘something more’ can be found in ‘Autumn Song’ where the poet begins:

'On the road again to somewhere west,

the morning’s sun badgering the fog

cloaking the Poolburn, and over the hill

in Ophir where evening primrose

and tall hollyhocks sway by the roadside.'


These sharply realized details establish the poet’s sense of place and his intimate bond with it. Memory and experience have so embedded the place in him that it remains with him as a real presence through the journey.

'It’s as if one’s rooted to the spot as well

as moving through the countryside...'

This powerful spiritual location becomes more clearly pronounced on the afternoon’s return journey back up the Ida Valley to Oturehua as the visual images cluster thickly and become almost overwhelming, almost luminous with presence.

'...while mobs of ewes lie like maggots

beside glassy ponds, sedated by the sun.

To the northwest the long line of the Dunstans

are a buff brown, Mt St Bathans blue-tinted,

and the crinkled Hawkduns bar

the way at the head of the valley. White

butterflies dither in off-white yarrow

and alight amongst the last of the mauve clover.

There’s a softening of the light as the sun slides

further and further west and I drive

slowly up the valley towards Oturehua

dreaming of love and peace, listening

to Domingo singing Bach’s Ave Maria

and Franck’s Panis angelicus, and I think

at last I know what is true, what wonder is.'

Turner’s loving, careful marking of detail in the softening light is a spiritual communion, almost casually registered in the allusions to Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus. The delighted hopefulness of the last line is however tempered by his pointed balancing of the ‘I know’ against the ‘I think’ of the line above. While Turner has used the device of the journey through the familiar landscape to become a journey into the holy, he keeps space for ambiguity and space for things to stand as they are in themselves.

This, Inside Outside (2011), is Turner’s latest collection and it is divided into five parts. In the last sequence, labelled ‘Post-Operatives’, Turner becomes particularly personal as he reflects on major surgery that he had to undergo. This is difficult and high risk material to manage. Here the poems assume a starker tone, as in ‘Face to Face’ where the recollection of fear and helplessness is barely contained by his word-play. The human condition, the poet’s condition, is without ‘a fix-it pill’.

'You’re given the facts.

You hope it’s not a sentence.

It seems too early somehow

and somehow means

more than somesuch.

Right now the past

won’t sing to the present

and croon that there is

a fix-it pill for every condition

available online,

and every dinner

friends put on

seems like

the last supper.'

This foreboding work is balanced by the insights that follow in the poems that emerge after the operation. In these poems an overt metaphysical interest is clear. For instance, in ‘Making Up Your Mind’, Turner reflects on the shock of his mortality and complains of the uncertainty he now experiences, and of ‘feeling you’re someone else’s experiment’. For him the possibilities of what to believe or hope in seem neither obvious nor satisfactory.

' ... Then,

disgruntled, you start picking away

at your life as if it’s muesli

and you’re sorting out the particulars,

the bits worth eating from the rest

that seems sourced in a desert of dross.

No wonder you’re looking for somewhere

that feels more stable, that might serve as a

pleasing aura before you vanish into the ether.'

That spiritual search for ‘what feels more stable’ is not simply answered but ‘Lakeside’ shows the post-op Turner anchoring himself in the natural world once more and with renewed appreciation for his hold on life.

'A sharp, puffy southerly

blows up the lake

so I sit in the sunny

front seat of my car

and watch a small yacht

heel, periodically

wave surrender.

At the roadside edge

of the gravel beach

birds chitter and sing

in a scraggy tree, peck

the last, reddest wild apples

of the season.

It may be autumn

but today it feels

like spring to me.'

A keen yachtsman, Turner finds hope in the yacht heeling before the wind. He expands the image in ‘Secular Yet Sacred’where his freshly honed awareness of mortality and his longing for the transcendent now fuse in what may be a renewed sense of the poet’s calling. The raw unchurched life of the spirit - ‘the wind in your sails’ - commands the poet to speak, to ‘bear witness’. Here there is a hint of grace and faith, though not comfortably packaged in the words of religion but instead enacted in surrender to ‘the wind in your sails’.

'There’s this clear insistent voice

commanding we bear witness

to how fleeting such is, ...

... But don’t

despair, don’t. Be what you are,

heel to the wind in your sails.'

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