Boundaries: People and Places of Central Otago
Brian Turner (Steve Calveley photographer)
Early in this composite prose-poetry miscellany about Central Otago, Brian Turner quotes with approval from the English poet Edward Thomas’s “The Mountain Chapel”: “When gods were young / This wind was old.” Which is apt, as Turner could be seen as a kind of local literary descendant of Thomas. (Thomas died from a bomb-blast at Arras on Easter Monday exactly a hundred years ago.) Both are born-again countrymen, chroniclers and champions of vanishing rural worlds. Both have a powerful “retrospectroscope”, as Turner calls it, through which to stare at past and present. Their poems offer a tough celebration of the natural world and its processes, also a downbeat, dented lyricism. Both are blessed, or plagued, by an honesty others sometimes find awkward. Such analogies can be pushed too far, but this one helps to pinpoint something of what makes Turner so distinctive a voice and presence among contemporary New Zealand writers.
In the 20 chapters of Boundaries, Turner records and mulls over conversations with friends and neighbours in the Maniototo district or, in a few instances, invites them to contribute a short piece. (The poet Michael Harlow and writer Jillian Sullivan offer especially engaging reflections on how they came to settle there and what they’ve found.) The chapters are loosely framed by poems of Turner’s and regularly intercut with marvellously evocative photographs by Steve Calveley. Some of the interlocuters come from farming families with long connections to the area; others, like Turner himself, moved there more recently. (He shifted to Oturehua in late 1999 and must now be only a few decades off being accepted as a local.) Varied as their back-stories are, all clearly feel an enviable oneness with that dramatic landscape and a special sense of being at home in it, though, for some, their livelihoods are increasingly under pressure from forces beyond their control: the consequences of escalating dairy- over the traditional sheep-farming; “land intensification”; wilding pines, encroaching gorse and broom; the erosion of snow tussock; government- and DOC-administered measures, and the more perennial question of water. As Turner notes, “Wherever one goes in Central Otago and talk turns to farming it’s … ‘all about water’. Who’s got the rights to it, how much is available, and from what sources.”
If the environment and its mounting threats from corporate and human greed are the major preoccupation, as any reader of Turner would expect, he likes to show as well as preach. The prose is full of abrupt lyrical bursts, such as the sun being described as “a great spraggy asterisk above the Dunstan Mountains”. Similarly, the poems are deeply interfused with daily miracle, as in “Evening Walk, Oturehua”, where we are suddenly shown “a stony-coloured moon / and a pink flush on the Hawkduns / and clouds layered like schist”. Who wouldn’t want to be there and experience that? In fact, it is obvious a rising number of visiting trippers, trailers and trampers, hoons and hullabaloos would, which is good for the local economy in one way, but, as Turner on his endless bike-rides stops to fill another sack with roadside rubbish, also has its drawbacks. Turner is one of our very best sportswriters, and there are welcome instalments of reminiscence about matches and other events. For the fan who can see beyond Sky Sports and high-profile games, chapter six, “The Battle for the Wooden Cup”, is full of nuggets.
At one point, Turner ticks off Kipling for his once-famous line about Auckland being “last, loneliest, loveliest, exquisite, apart”, rightly pointing out that it is not places that feel lonely, though “some people feel lonely in certain places, including cities”. Elsewhere, he quotes from a neat adaptation of “If‒” by the mother of a farming friend: “If you can meet your banker without whining / Whenever a note comes due you cannot pay”. (Just so.) And one of the regular pleasures of the miscellany are the reading tips Turner passes on, from the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam to American environmentalist writers like Wendell Berry and consumerist nay-sayers like George Monbiot. Turner never shows off about his reading; he just wants to share what’s held his attention (and what supports the kind of back-to-basics life he tries to lead).
This life hasn’t been and isn’t an easy one. Which makes the shards of hard-won self-knowledge and wisdom all the more worth having and listening to. “I’ve been obstinate and obdurate,” Turner observes in a fascinating chapter which also features the journalist Mike Crean and poets Vincent O’Sullivan and Michael Jackson, “and self-recrimination’s followed me around like a cyclist glued to another’s back wheel. Is there anything harder than finding a way to forgive and forget?” At the end of the chapter about his farming friend Barry Becker, he reflects: “What one loves wrenches. I know no truth that’s stronger, more enduring than that.” Edward Thomas, also a relentless self-scrutineer, would have known at once what Turner was talking about.
Harry Ricketts’s most recent book of poems was Half Dark (2015). He is co-editor of New Zealand Books Pukapuka Aotearoa.