Truth eating, Harry Ricketts

Inside Outside
Brian Turner
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780864736536

 

Coming Ashore
Peter Bland
Steele Roberts, $19.99,
ISBN 9781877577499

 

Fly Boy
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Steele Roberts, $19.99,
ISBN 97818544125

 

“I seek to honour/the truculent/genesis of living,” states Brian Turner in “No Course to Ithaca”, a poem about origins, particularly his own. The lines strike a characteristic note. Turner is rightly prized – in what might generally be called dishonouring times – for his ability to honour certain human qualities (including truculence) and to celebrate the beauty of the natural world, especially that of his Central Otago heartland. This honouring flashes out, sometimes freckled with alliteration and rhyme, in several poems in this chunky new collection, Inside Outside: “The nor’wester/whoos in the pines”; “To divine what’s secular and sacred”; “the sky soaked in stars”; “pukekos and their pervy-princeliness”; “bulls farting/like tubas in the paddock”; “you need to pick your way/up and over rough terrain day by day”.

Turner is prized too for his jabs at political and PC pieties. “Election Time” and “Coin” show him in this vein, as does “Honestly” where “you” (both poet and reader presumably) are exhorted to tell a platitudinising New Agey con-man “in a funny hat” that

               our duty is to eat truth,
excrete it, and eat it over and
over again until the day we die.

The concern with “eating” and “excreting” the truth, especially if it’s an awkward truth, has always been central to Turner’s poetry. Sometimes this makes him “seem to be after the irrefutable prose statement” (as C H Sisson complained of Kipling), knocking out less than profound aphorisms like “We can be sure that/the man who says/‘This must never happen again’/won’t be the last to say it” (“Misunderstandings”) or  “In examining others/you examine yourself” (“What Matters”). But the search for truth also powers the grief-freighted, past-pecking poems in the fifth “Post-Operatives” section, poems like “Natural Drive”, “Making Up Your Mind”, “Giving Ground”, “I See You”, and the juddering, concluding poem “Blue, Beware”.  Inside Outside is a more uneven collection than the terrific Just This but then Turner has always been an uneven poet, the slighter poems part of the necessary mulch which produces the humdingers.

Peter Bland, like Turner, is a plain speaker, a raker-up and scrutineer of life’s leaves and leavings. His latest collection, Coming Ashore, like its predecessor, Loss, is haunted by the death of his wife Beryl, achingly so in “The Dead”, “Over Here” (“you’re walking towards me/down the long arcade of your life”) and “Absence” (“No ghostly shade, your memory is rock-solid”). There are also reminiscences of Bland’s Wellington literary friends of the 1950s and 60s. “Where Were You in ’62?” recalls life at School Publications

with Jim in the clouds
and Lou Johnson in the basement
and Alistair Campbell
being followed around
by Te Rauparaha’s ghost
like a terrible shadow.

“The Visit” pays tribute to Johnson’s “moral stance/and blatant gift/of the gab”, “Leaving the Bay” to Campbell’s “shamanlike” qualities. Where Turner’s humour is strictly dead-pan, Bland’s is sometimes more penny arcade as when he remembers how he and Campbell “joked/about the best view of Kapiti/being from your loo” or forgives his own past “bad jokes/and blunt body-talk”.

Much of the tough-minded authenticity of Turner’s work comes from the reader accepting that the ‘I’ in his poems is intended as a close approximation to Turner himself, not some (perhaps ironic) character/persona invented for the purposes of a particular poem. The same goes for Bland. He means it when he opens “Fronting up to the muse” with

This is personal. I mean
really personal. It’s about
the ‘I’ that creates a poem.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, too, is not afraid of the authorial ‘I’. As its title suggests, his new collection, Fly Boy, is all about aviation, both literally and perhaps as an implied metaphor for writing. The first section, a series of prose poems and near-prose poems called “The Dumpy Book of Aircraft & the Air” after a book I dimly remember from the 1950s, infectiously recreates Holman’s own childhood thrill at “flying solo/through all those worlds of sheer excitement”, the air “swarming with codes and secrets”. This compelling swoop and soar is maintained through the second section, “Fly Past”, which carries on the story to the glueing together of Airfix kits, joining the ATC, winning a flight in an Auster “for a shining hour”, collecting Air Ace comics.

Sections three and four, “Bird Man” and “Flight Path”, work less well. This is partly because in their different ways both more obviously and self-consciously strain to be poetry:  “My spirit flew to me saying: ‘Sing!’ ”; “Squid-fat chicks in the baleful wind hunker/and wait”; “the dead who will/rise like works of art” (all from “Bird Man”). “Flight Path” aims for a gappier, image- and idea-jumping mode, of which the opening of “Light from Saturn” is not untypical:

baby sounds   clicks   whorfs   chuckles   yells   all
of our language begins with a cry   last night
from deep space in telescopes at Mount Chabon Observatory Oakland   light   thirty-seven light
years in the making finally made it my eyes
and yes my sweet papoose … .

Some readers will no doubt prefer these more ambitious aeronautical manoeuvres. Personally, what I find so engaging about the first two sections is the way, as much as anything, the poetry is allowed to derive from the simple, truth-eating act of naming: Folland Gnat, Hawker Fury, North American P-51 D Mustang.

 

Harry Ricketts’s latest collection of poems, Just Then, came out this year from Victoria University Press.

 

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