Night Fishing by Brian Turner.
Wellington: VUP (2016).
Reviewed by Patricia Prime.
Brian Turner’s first book of poems, Ladders of Rain (1978), won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and was followed by a number of poetry collections and award-winning writing in a wide range of genres.
In his latest collection, Night Fishing, the contents are divided into three sections. The book sets itself up as spokenness, immediacy, physical enactment through language, as against the cerebral sterility of academic poets. For Turner is one of a species, the unabashed rhapsodist in the face of nature, but with a delightful touch of humility, as we see in “Between San Francisco and Auckland”:
Stars with insubstantial clouds
drifting by, like a life
hinting at more than
you’re ever going to see.
In “After Surgery”, the frightening event of being dangerously ill is delicately interwoven with Turner’s humour as visitors arrive “bringing fruit and barley sugars”, while the patient has tubes in his “neck, arms and stomach”. Reflecting upon the patient’s near-demise, he muses:
Of course everyone’s hoping you’ll pull through,
live to fight another day, though no one quite know
what to say. Some confess
they’ve been wondering if this time
you’re really fucked, and so do you.
The lengthy poem, “So There”, focuses on famous poets and the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead ‘who tried monogamy / and decided it wasn’t / to her liking …’, while in “Dog”, a dog’s life of loneliness is remembered and equated with other ‘lonelies’ –
Every valley, every tow, every city
has their lonelies, individuals
aplenty, wondering where plenty
comes from, doing their best to cope.
The poem “Mountains We Climb” tells the story of a friend:
I knew him as well as I’ve known anyone.
We were friends for so long
we couldn’t recall the first time we met,
and nor had we any idea where
we were hoping to end up.
and how one has to find one’s own way of hanging on while trying to reach the top, ‘being relieved and grateful, almost / overwhelmed by the view.’
The long sequence, “Inside Outside”, contains six pages of verses of varying lengths. It begins: ‘The sky’s a blue guitar / with mare’s tail strings’ and focuses on the intermingling of friendships and eloquently gives recognition to youth, middle age and old age, and their impact on life. Poignantly it reflects on experience, history and identity and wonders whether anyone notices.
“Poets and Poetry” combines the recollection of what it means to write poetry and highlights the gift of finding a poem when you least expect it:
You don’t find poetry
it finds you, and
at opportune times.
Let that understanding
“Bees” is a celebration of nature, infused with a wonderful sense of Heaneyesque seeing things, as in this description of the bees:
Multitudes of dithery bumbles,
black with flecks and stripes of yellow
and orange and red and white
industriously buzz and nuzzle
In “Beyond Dead Horse Pinch and Red Cutting”, Turner explores themes of location, taking the reader on a breath-taking journey through the landscape of the Kakanuis, while pondering on the ‘Overseas Investment / Commissioner’s treasonable / omissions.’ This is not only a geographical journey but a spiritual one, as the poet concludes: ‘and was hoping to keep in touch, / and be touched.’
“In Flight to San Francisco” is a lengthy poem in 12 rhyming sections. It begins:
A man’s ambition, if he’s a fool
is to live by the golden rule:
tell the truth and he will find
the truthful untruths buried in the mind.
The final poem “Just Possibly” sums up the delights of just being at home:
If home is where and with whom you long to be
you’re still looking for it. In the meantime
you’re in a room where the fire’s crackling
and you’re listening to a CD of a cellist, pianist
and violinist whose urgency’s insistent, persistent
Night Fishing is entirely remarkable for its dignity, its beauty, its many strengths of word and witness. Turner’s lines and images are polished until they gleam. Here is poetry’s task and gift to us – a beautiful balance between mystery and disclosure, bravery and tact, the kind of tact which nonetheless keeps his zeal in place. What underpins the whole collection is Turner’s dignified restraint; the lines are balanced and controlled, the vision never in question.
Patricia Prime, besides being a regular contributor to takahē, is co-editor of Kokako and assistant editor of Haibun Today. Patricia’s primary interest is Japanese short form poetry: haiku, tanka, haibun and tanka prose and she has published a book of collaborative tanka sequences called Shizuka (2015).
First published takahe 89