Reviewed for Booksellers NZ, first published on 2 April 2019
In 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.