Night Fishing by Brian Turner (Victoria University Press, 2016), 96 pp., $25; Visions of Valhalla: A poetic tribute to Richard Wagner by John Davidson (Steele Roberts, 2016), 86 pp., $25; Koel by Jen Crawford (Cordite Books, 2016), 81 pp., $25
These are three highly regarded poets with very contrasting styles.
Brian Turner was the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate 2003–05, and recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Poetry in 2009. He begins Night Fishing with a dedication to invaluable friends and environmental groups everywhere, hinting at what is to come. Not having read much of Turner before, I became more familiar with his homeland territory of Central Otago during a recent short holiday circuit. The first poems in this volume are about the transitory nature of life. ‘January snow’ in particular I immediately related to. Snow in Central Otago in mid-summer! Unusual, unheard of perhaps but that’s what it was like, our car covered in ice in early February. The poem concludes neatly with ‘listening to Dvorak, for one, and / soon Sibelius, and the unpredictable / sounds of melting snow’. Images of icebergs screened against the walls of the Auckland Museum this summer, and the broadcast sound recordings of their slow demise, immediately and vividly spring to mind.
Part One is very much uncluttered observations, aphorisms, twists of sayings, wisdoms turned or stretched, as in ‘Doing unto others’: ‘The trouble / is the trouble one has / doing unto others / what you’d prefer / they didn’t do to you.’ Or as in ‘So there’: ‘Every time you think / you’ve found an answer / you’re told you / misunderstand the question.’
Turner is confronting his mortality, wanting to put some things straight, as is evident throughout this collection but poignantly expressed in ‘Inside outside’: ‘Eliot who said in a letter / that he felt “within measureable / distance of the end of his tether”. / If Eliot were still around / I’d like to ask him / what measure one uses / to gauge that.’ Later in the same poem he provides his definitions of youth, middle age and old age. He is seeking to pass on some wisdom, some hard-won fruits of experience, and a significant regret that he could have talked more to his father in ‘Too late’: ‘Now, two words nag, and nag: too late’.
But if it might seem that Turner is preoccupied exclusively with such things, he is clearly not. There is still life and fun to be had with him, and a certain sense that more is yet to come, with poems like ‘Unfinished’ listing works in progress. In what I feel is the best section of the book, Part Three, he is happy to express his views on contemporary shifting certainties and new uncertainties, as in ‘In flight to San Francisco’: ‘If you can say / This is where I want to be / you will have found / where you want to be, / for the time being.’
In ‘Getting by’, he is ‘finding the bounce to start again’, but the most interesting poems are those like ‘Snow in September’, where there are no judgements or assertions of perceived truths, just a sense of anticipation, music, mystery and the transience of things.
John Davidson retired as Professor of Classics from Victoria University in 2010. His book is for lovers of Richard Wagner. It begins with a five-page introduction explaining the author’s growing enthusiasm for the composer of many fine and influential operas. The establishment of a Wagner Society in New Zealand in 1994 led to a flowering of interest and support here. This is a book for fans who want to know more if they already know something. It is also a book for those who know little or nothing and are perhaps wondering why some of their friends are so keen. It may also be for those, like me, who have never found opera to be very interesting or entertaining, and whose curiosity has finally been piqued, if only just a fraction. I did relent, explored further, and noted Wagner’s influence on literature, visual art, philosophy, cinema, conducting and, most significantly, on modern classical music – especially the notion of ‘lietmotif’. He not only wrote the operas but also composed all the accompanying music.
Davidson can barely contain his enthusiasm, indeed he admits to an obsession with the subject. This homage is reinforced by the inclusion of images of stamps (philately is another of Davidson’s interests), issued in celebration of Wagner’s life and the bi-centenary of his birth. Other images include paintings, photographs of sculptures, lines of music and etchings of opera characters taken from gramophone covers. These act as effective counterpoints to the poetry.
The first six poems begin with a reverent flourish, like in ‘The year 1813’. After identifying significant events of that year involving Napoleon, Bolivar, Kierkegaard, Verdi and Beethoven, the conclusion is: ‘But nothing could compare with the 22nd of May’. In ‘The awakening’, Davidson’s first encounter with the Wagnerian opera, he finishes with ‘I savoured / the screaming in my skull.’ I did appreciate ‘Refugees in 2015’, and the renaming of Richard-Wagner-Platz as Refugees-Welcome-Platz followed by references to Wagner’s experience as a refugee. Tributes are also paid to Wagner’s several wives and lovers, Minna, Cosima, Mathilde and Jessie.
Davidson is heavy on historical detail, relishing his deep knowledge of the subject, and that is to be expected in a book of this type. Personally however, and accepting his contribution to the influence of classics on New Zealand poetry, the poetry just doesn’t grab my attention. It remains somehow bedded in a classical and traditional use of language that is perhaps an echo of Wagner himself. As a serious attempt to promote and raise awareness of Wagner, I do applaud Davidson in his project, and the enthusiasm and dedication that he displays – the imagery, pictures and fragments of music, stamps and phrases all contribute to something worthy of consideration. For those fans and potential fans of Wagner, go for it, I’m sure you will enjoy this unusual and stimulating book, there is lots to discuss and learn here.
Jen Crawford, from Patea in Taranaki, spent some of her early life in the Philippines, and since completing a PhD in creative arts has held various academic positions in Australia and Singapore. From the first moment this book stands out as an exciting prospect. With a preface by the author and introduction by Divya Victor, we are left in no doubt as to the humid weight of the poems: where they arise, what is intended and where they stand on an Asian/Pacific frontier. I can do no better than to quote Divya, ‘ … a phenomenological terrarium, a lush microcosm of urban and natural life that photosynthesises in the new, synthetic glass globe of late capitalism … the hybridities of migrant identity and transnational belonging are drawn together by the gravity of gravidity.’ Opening with the sequence ‘Abandoned house music’, a sparse sunlit introduction to open space and the call of the koel, we move into ‘planet of weeds’. Here the forest seems to begin, the fungal hyphae extend, with questions posed in the Notes about the ways in which invading plants facilitate further invasions; perhaps too, migrant people open ways for subsequent immigrations. Yet we are confronted with ‘child lawns’ / curled shoulders, speeding / the forgetting of a forest. / air looks to being now and then’, and later, ‘now to the mesopause, new world holding / dream dots out in pressureless trade / dots out’ as her love goes out to check the garden, returning as ants, a supercolony, continuums of a swelling belly. We are thick in the interwoven meshes between species and their interdependencies.
‘Moon drill’ takes me to Ezra Pound’s ‘Rock drill’, the world of nature, a source of economic wealth and spiritual nourishment, and even to the sacred tree Yggdrasil. Here, on the back of an elephant, shielded by its wings/ears, Crawford plunges through the jungle that is falling to the sound of chainsaws, ‘lightning tipping over its extremest branches quickly / stone banks tucking into the far white crease (not / the little curlew / that stays out & drinks in’. Then on to ‘Citronella’, with mosquitoes dilly-dallying around the snapping light, a rhythm is set up and again there is forest burning.
‘A tempo’ creates a scene of frayed birds diving into water, ‘into the memory of water, / into the likely inclination of future water’. Have you seen it, in those quiet pools, the sense of simultaneous silky soft and sharp clarity, the pressure on particles?
‘I can see through my eyeballs’ is a tribute to German choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch, whose debut work was once described by dance critic Arlene Croce in the New Yorker as referring us to the act of brutalisation and humiliation – to the pornograhy of pain. That is here in this poem: ‘stacked cakes ooze, now who now who’. Also in the poem that follows, ‘The black valley’, with its images: ‘footage of / some severed limbs, a closeup of the caries / who is that man? / with the heavy bag. / what is inside the bag. Why does he walk away?’ that infiltrate us, subvert our sensibilities, and antagonise us in their perplexity, our collective voyeurism, from behind screen glass.
In ‘Soft shroud’ we are provided with clues, starting with ‘a debtor undoes a suicide, travelling / from graveyard excavation / to floating ova’, followed by a contents list in which the thirteen poems of the sequence are linked to ‘earth / vacuum / & / air / water / fire’, and some helpful notes and references. The soft shroud begins and echoes the whole collection with a sense of dense fog, breaking mist and downpours of rain that arrive with a tropical air mass on an excavation below Grafton Bridge in central Auckland or flooding in Bangkok. It is shaded, requiring the details to navigate but filled with unforgettable pieces like ‘if I carry you here / you’ll germinate in green stars / through shroud unwound / wound unwinding as pelagic sky / a skeleton arm / hangs from a star’.
Towards the end of this sequence, in ‘Growing cloud’, the detail of the physics intrigues me: ‘your second time here point inside / this taxonomic feeling / the fingers press down into the membrane of the / floor’. Later it is ‘in the disappearance of / friction between your particles your large / particles floating / in suspension in the solid-gas matrix of the / glowing cloud’s / (not at the same time / extra- / ordinary velocity’. This leaves me feeling light and alight, in suspension – a sensation not unlike being carried downhill in an avalanche – but also elated, and curious for more.
PIET NIEUWLAND is the editor of Fast Fibres Poetry, a visual artist, writes book reviews and previously worked for Te Papa Atawhai. He lives near Whangarei.