Victoria University Press, $24.95,
A poet in his prime falls almost silent for ten years. When his new collection at last appears, it opens with a sad song of music overheard, that also asks,
What music is there flowing unheard,
what songs unsung because we have no heart
to sing …?
It’s a disquieting way to begin a long-awaited book, with an elegy for the poems not written, the songs unsung. It’s also a quiet announcement, for those who may have been wondering, not to look here for juicy confessions or recriminations. Those are among the songs unsung, “because we have no heart”, and because “Her right to privacy’s // a wall between us where the music’s not.”
Haunting, sorrowful and elusive, this opening poem, “Song (after Pessoa)”, begins with “a strange unfamiliar song / that’s tenuous, yet full of feeling” and closes
(or refrains from closure) with the unexpected acknowledgement that
Only she can say if what I hear
embodies peace, if song alone
can make us feel less tenuous, complete.
Poets are customarily more assertive about the power of poetry, especially their own (“So long lives this, and this gives life to thee” etc). Not many show concern for the “right to privacy” of others, especially ex-lovers, implicated in the personal narratives they construct. I prefer Turner’s reticence. The egotistical is not always sublime.
So this book begins unusually by hinting at the kind of book it isn’t, and thwarting curiosity. The connection between experience and the poems remains “tenuous, yet full of feeling”, despite the back cover’s teaser promising “poems about separation”. The poet’s dedication, “To steadfast friends”, also seems to imply tough times. But that is immediately followed by a statement in the Acknowledgements that subverts any narrative reading: “Most of the poems here have been written since the publication in 1992 of my previous collection Beyond. A few predate that book but I’m not certain which. I don’t keep such records.” Back off the schmaltzy biography, in other words: no dark lady here.
So what is here, and why is it unexpected? Turner’s rigorous craft has always striven to apprehend and respect (a word I will return to) the real identity of things that other poets prefer as fuzzy gestures of conventional idiom – what he has called “piffle”. Words in poems for Turner are structure, not décor. The things and scenes he lives among have their own integrity, and the task of the poetic intelligence, as he sees it, is to recognise that integrity. “Inscape”, another poet called it. That’s why his nature poems, including several here, are the best we currently have. Try “Pure White”, “The River in You”, “Panoply”, “Wind” or “Eating One’s Own”. (Call it writing the landscape or eco-lit if you prefer, but nature poetry is what it is.)
Poetic conventions and fancy similes have always been like the England bowling to Turner, and here again he hits them out of the ground:
You shy away from pure white,
the highest clouds combed
and dried in sunlight and shining
like … like white clouds
unburdened after rain …
So the familiar Brian Turner is still here, though older and sadder. There’s the straight-talker, looking at things with clarity and respect and scrupulous language. There’s the poet of the land, affirming the integrity of hawks and hills and wind. There’s the cogitative craftsman, steering mind-testing metaphysical progresses through poems that are, to put it mildly, intellectually dynamic. There’s the wordsmith of energetic originality, forging new phrases and images like “where the nor’wester / flips off the ridges” or “the tipsy lilt of a harp” or “the scarves of mist in the valley” or “a puffy southerly / builds skittery riffles / on the water swerving downstream.”
The difference in Taking Off is that the integrity he strives to respect and make real is most often the integrity of doubt, perplexity, loss, absence, ambiguity, indeterminacy or disquiet. These are poems not about the one but the none, or the maybe none. They end like this:
will say of us,
Every day ends in abandonment
when the onset of night
seems less like beauty
and more an antidote to life.
Where is the key?
is the question for all seasons.
and say I came back
none the wiser.
It’s not just that they have a dying fall, though many of them do. Rather it’s that they never quite fall all the way, ending more often in suspension, enquiry, tenuousness and disquiet than anything as simple as sadness (though that is often here, too). The last word of one poem is “incomplete”.
Some examples. I have several times used the word “disquiet”, taking it from the second poem in the book, “March feather”. See what I mean? Here it’s not a pig or a pebble or a scabby potato that Turner scrutinises so intently, but a feather, trying to grasp and define the indefinite and indefinable “on the concrete / by the back door”. Visualising ‘the bird’s shape // in the swish green / of the trees going gold” moves him on to images of autumn decay, senescence, “late flowers”, “the memory / of a friend’s / greying old lab”, and so to
the sleep of the earth,
and disquiet’s the theme
of the music playing
in the heart of what remains.
The thought is as dynamic as Turner’s always is, but the ending is like “Song (after Pessoa)” – a sad, tentative music of loss and diminishment; and disquiet’s the theme.
Each of the book’s three sections includes a longer elegiac poem of memory and loss, “Ulysses Returning”, “Elegy for Peter Hooper” and “Southerners” (in memory of Michael Henderson). I’ll take the second, since it may have some familiarity from having been read and encored on John Campbell’s Saturday morning radio programme.
As Turner’s reading there showed well, it is a compassionate meditation that treads surefootedly the glowing edge between the colloquial and the lyrical:
At your service
I was awash with memories and regrets
while up and down the Coast and over the mountains
a raw wind blew, and bells tolled wherever I turned.
Shingle ground on the shore like pebbles in a crop
and the wind off the Tasman badgered the flax
at the top of the beach where you gathered wood often.
It moves like a skilled tramper over rough ground, traversing grief and the sharply evoked terrain with a limber spareness of effort. It’s a poem about friendship, and a man’s place in the South Island terrain, as well as a radical revaluation of literary achievement here, paying tribute to Hooper’s work as “writing that conveyed / a love of place, respect for people and other creatures, / and an unwavering faith in the force of patient instruction”. This is where I earlier took the word “respect” for Turner’s own dealings with “people and other creatures”.
Hooper’s personal worth and literary significance are forcefully affirmed, yet this poem, too, ends not with resolution or consolation but with the songs unsung and where the music’s not. Hooper’s manner of death “seemed tragic and unfair”, with a “stingy absence of dignity or justice” (another absence), and the poem ends:
Now, asking Where to go from here?
and What more could I have done? – the one a puzzle,
the other futile – I think of the people who admired
even loved you, too, and never told you so because
we seldom do.
Loss of direction, puzzlement, futility, love unexpressed, words unspoken – such absences and disquietudes are the slow sad music of this collection.
A witty four-liner about cricket looked like the exception:
A game about which
you can know very little
and say anything
and be right sooner or later.
A satiric little sporty epigram, I thought, that will go down well at after-match dinners. I seemed to see Turner’s poetic bowling clear again. But there’s a cunning late swing on it, when you come to think, and to the rattle of the intellectual bails I wondered whether it’s about cricket at all, or life, especially the kind of struggle with truth that many of these poems try to cope with. Turner’s returning Ulysses says: “I thought / we would be happy / if we were emptied of guilt, / if either falsehood or truth / prevailed”; and a poem called “Quite” includes lines like “not quite able to corral truth” and “not quite as it seems quite so”. There are many such complex ambiguities and uncertainties. So also “Cricket”. I felt like appealing against the light.
If you can say anything and be right sooner or later, how do you set about it? This perplexed and disquieted older Turner goes in a direction largely new for him, that for convenience I’ll call wordplay. Really it is the exploration of experience or truth or reality through the unpredictable vagaries and inadequacies of language, especially colloquial idiom. The book’s ambiguous title is one of several variants on usages of “take”. There are poems on “Quite” (or rather “not quite”), and “Through”. “Wind” is a wondrous evocative incantation: “wind in the tussock grass that remains / wind in the rushes by the stream”.
Poem after poem scrutinises and tests the implications of clichés:
Where would the road not taken
have gone to? How many garden
paths have you been led down …
Can you say now you ever had your day,
that there was a day when you made hay?
These linguistic explorations and incantations may show some influence from Czeslaw Milosz, who is named twice, and whose New and Collected Poems was published in translation in 2001. Nobel winner in 1980, Milosz has spent his poetic life in tension between pure poetics and (as he wrote in “The Witness of Poetry”) “language that must name reality”. Turner is only rarely political, and the drive to reality in his case comes through scrupulous metaphysical curiosity. The intense enquiring gaze that has searched out the essence of hills or clouds is here often focused on language, meaning, catchphrase, proverb, cliché, and their relation – tenuous, yet full of feeling – to the reality that Milosz calls “terrifying in its concreteness”.
With Turner, such games and chants and linguistic investigations are never mere trendy ludic pirouetting. He is too busy with the tangle and trouble of the world and its words to be self-referential. With their vigour and sorrow, their clarity and uncertainty, these poems are fine and fresh and moving. They are evidently the work of a writer no longer young, since time, decline and death recur. One is a dialogue spoken within the tomb; another is about crematorium smoke; and there are two (at least) elegies. There are also three new meditations about the poet’s ageing, ailing father. These continue an important sequence from Beyond. I will end with them, partly for personal reasons.
I have read and re-read this book by the hospital bedside, in England, of my own aged and declining father. This review is written in scraps between visits. Turner’s poems daily seem pertinent, true and moving. Those are good things for poems to be. If poetry is not only to be for the elect, one of its best functions is to give people phrases and thoughts and images that help them to understand and articulate life’s most stressful passages. If that is vulgarly populist for a professor of literature, well, fire me. But, note, first I said “understand and articulate”, not “simplify and sentimentalise”.
So I sit by the bed and read:
He’s drowsy now and sleep’s not far away.
Dignity and belief, not solemnity
are what keep him alive where medicine
fails to reach. He thinks that will always be so.
Twice a day I cross the hospital carpark in the wan, reluctant English spring, walking to Brian Turner’s dying (but not quite completed) fall:
Colours of the heart of his days.
Colours of the length of his hours.
Colours of the ailing of the light.
Roger Robinson is Professor in the School of English, Film and Theatre at Victoria University of Wellington.
Taking Off has been shortlisted in the poetry section of The 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.