Brian Turner

‘The Vernacularies’, by Brian Turner

Beware of strangers, the children are told.
In other words, just about everyone,
the message being it’s not worth
trying to find a saint
among the legions of sinners,
time’s too precious.

…………………………..Or so the old joker
who lives in the shack up the road reckons,
says he’s in the dark most of the time
though he’s working on it. ‘I’m
up with the vernacularies,’ he says
with a grin like a crack in schist.
‘I’m trying to shed some light
on the meaning of life.’

…………………………..My mother
would have approved of his manners,
said there’s a lesson for you
and reminded me of the need to
take people as you find them
and don’t go looking for the dark side
for that’s where the spiders are.

She could have said light and dark
go together like sweet and sour,
but she didn’t. You can put her
tact down to her age
and a certain intrinsic female poise
that goes with being a good woman
all her life, someone
unspectacularly spectacular.

You can make a pact
with someone like that
though there’s no guarantee
it will get you to heaven.

‘Otago Peninsula’, by Brian Turner

There, beneath a portcullis of rain
lie the bones of time-rent men and women.

They lie awash in the slush
that saddened and sometimes defeated them.

Scabby hedges cling to the slopes
of hills yoked by sky.

Here the whole range of earth’s colours
sprawl on paddock, stone wall and crumpled sea.

Nothing is left untouched by sparse sunlight,
slanting rain, fists of wind punching

the ribs of the land. Here, under tough grasses
and the crust of sheep and cattle tracks

crumble the fondest dreams and prophecies.
No one came who stayed to conquer, no one came

who was not beaten down
or turned away for another time.

– Brian Turner, ‘Otago Peninsula’ in Ancestors (Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1981).

‘Dictionaries of National Biography’, by Brian Turner

My father’s father, quirky
and inquisitive till the end,
was the first to tell me

you never stop learning.
Well, I don’t know about you
but this fine December morrning

I learnt that Krishna Menon
was deemed devastatingly’
attractive to women, Jane Austen

showed few signs of having
much of a sense of humour,
Florence Nightingale, the Lady

with the Lamp, was ‘a good mimic’
and Thomas Batty, the first man
to train an elephant to stand

on its head, died in a lunatic
asylum. Also, the not always grand
Duke of York succumbed

to dropsy. So what about me,
then, as 62 approaches?
As my father caustically said

each time he saw me
for months before he died,
I need a haircut.

‘Presbyterian Support Services’, by Brian Turner

It seems a wan place to be
perhaps because you’re surrounded by discards
and you’re aware that some would say
you could do with sprucing up yourself …
which, by certain standards of the day –
what others are there? – is true.

The down-at-heel often seem
stripped of pride in their appearance
was what your spic father intoned,
asserting they lacked that cluck of self-esteem,
and though money’s sure as hell
not everything, what do you do
when you haven’t got much of it
except rummage about in an op shop
where there’s more hush than hurrah?

You guess there’s no pat answer
and while most of the clothes
have a lot of life left in them
they are dulled by their failure
to disclose the dramas
they were party to. Not only that,
you’re nagged by the thought
that the last time
you bought a pair of jeans here
a female friend wondered if you knew
they were really a woman’s
and you ought to have known that
by the waist measurement
and the size of the arse.

‘July, Carey’s Bay’, by Brian Turner

(visiting Cilla)

A storm was forecast but had not arrived
by the time I had to leave. You said, surprised,
What a beautiful night. You said it twice
as we stood on your verandah and listened

to the sou’wester gusting in the trees,
watched it burring the silver waters
of the harbour all the way from Carey’s Bay
to Taiaroa and reaches beyond my comprehension;

the light on the sea sounding (if one can
light) like cow bells tinkling
across a white field. In the oil-stained bay
yachts swung on their moorings, straining,

and I hoping to be home
before the first wild shower of rain.

– from Listening to the River (Dunedin: McIndoe, 1983).

‘From Bracken’s Lookout, Dunedin’, by Brian Turner

…Who ever saw
The limit in the given anyhow?
 – Seamus Heaney

Just what you’d expect of a lookout
named after a poet
whose best-known phrase is ‘Not understood’,

the carpark on the first step of the hill
to Opoho is sited so we sit
with backs to the cemetery,

where Bracken’s remains are buried,
facing the city that’s encircled
by sea and high hills.

We’re in between here, and so much
that’s past and present is taut
with a longing for permanence,

immortality seeming out of the question,
though I’m old enough to know
there are ghosts yet to be laid to rest

in the shadowed streets below.
What we have here’s random selection,
the language of hereafter and begetting,

and what’s given is what we sense
and nothing else. Extravagance
is not part of a southern legacy

and all know what ‘for better or worse’
means, and the phrase
‘what goes up must come down’

always raises a smile, is oddly regenerative.
I loiter, lost and found,
and watch the birds – for whom

everything depends on the given –
swing back and forth in the late sun
scribing arcs of a pendulum.

– Brian Turner, ‘From Bracken’s Lookout, Dunedin’, in Taking Off (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001), 84–5.

‘Semi-Kiwi’, by Brian Turner

The barn roof needs painting
and the spouting is ruined.
Likewise the roof of this house
in which we live, borer here,
rot there. I’m neither handy
in the great Kiwi DIY tradition,
nor monied, which rather leaves
us up shit creek without a shovel.
I grub to find what Stevens called
the ‘plain sense of things’
and come up empty-handed
more often than not, but
I’m a dab-hand at recognising,
if not suppressing, self-pity,
and I can back a trailer
expertly, so all is not lost.

– Brian Turner, ‘Semi-Kiwi’, in Taking Off (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2001), 17.

‘On Top of the World’, by Brian Turner

‘On Top of the World’
(for Kila Hepi)

The days seem longer all of a sudden
now that August’s here
and inventions become realities

Riding between Wedderburn
and Hills Creek we’re on top
of the world, my young friend Kila
and I, the clouds like white drapery
spilling down the mountains,
and the sun’s like acclamation
strobing the downs. And the angels
in their white dresses
kick their bangled heels
and dabble their feet
in the ever blue blue.

It seems that the purer
the air the greater one’s ardour.
We stop and listen for the songs
of air and water and I swear
I heard the rapt sounds
of angels singing, not of Paradise lost
but Paradise now.

[Image: Tony Bridge]

‘Place’, by Brian Turner

Once in a while
you may come across a place
where everything
seems as close to perfection
as you will ever need.
And striving to be faultless
the air on its knees
holds the trees apart,
yet nothing is categorically
thus, or that, and before the dusk
mellows and fails
the light is like honey
on the stems of tussock grass,
and the shadows are mauve birthmarks
on the hills.

– Brian Turner, All That Blue Can Be (Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1989).

‘Sadness and Shadow’, by Brian Turner

Few would doubt that New Zealand punches well above its weight in a number of areas, not least of which is poetry. Since arriving in this land, I have made a concerted effort to better understand its story. And while reading some the significant and lesser-known histories has been indispensable to that end, no less so has been familiarising myself with this land’s painters, sculptors, musicians, novelists and poets. Of the latter, I have particularly enjoyed work by Ursula Bethell, Glenn Colquhoun, C.K. Stead, Cilla McQueen and, of course, James K. Baxter. Recently, I also discovered the work of Dunedin-born poet Brian Turner, who was just conferred with an honorary doctorate by the University of Otago. Anyway, I’ve decided that this week here at Per Crucem ad Lucem I’ll be posting poems by Turner. Enjoy. Here’s the first:

Sadness and Shadow

The one known as The Leader said
If we can discern the difference
Between sadness and shadow
we’ll have unlocked the doors to peace.

So they trooped off into the hills
to a hut at the head of a tussocky valley
with snarls of matagouri in the gulleys
and vast shields of scree like grey-blue tunics
on the mountains all round.

And there they stayed. The sun shone
without libation, the wind blew whoo
under the edges of the roofing iron.
On nights when the moon was bright
mica sparkled in schist by the river.

In winter they went to be early
leaving the fire to burn sIowly
through the night, a dervish,
and the river muttered and shrank.
Mice scurried along rafters and squeaked.

Weeks went by. No one wanted to be first
to say it was time to go home. One
by one they died forlorn, unenlightened,
wondering where, exactly, they’d
come from, and if anyone was still there
wittering on about free trade
and indigenous rights, prostitution,
rugby and the demise of Friday Flash.

Bewildereds couldn’t understand why
technological advances hadn’t solved
age-old questions, removed dilenmma,
or why even the brightest people stumbled
when faced with the conflict between
personal expression and social obligation.

Eventually the sole survivor
walked out of the hills
but couldn’t find one familiar face,
so she returned to the hut
in the mountains and buried
the remains of her friends,
and she lay down beside sadness
and shadow and waited to hear
the lilting sounds of peace on the wind.