Collected Poems by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University Press, 2019), 558pp., $50; Selected Poems by Brian Turner (Victoria University Press, 2019), 237pp., $40
A number of recent releases gather the extensive output of New Zealand’s most recognised poets. Cilla McQueen’s Poeta (Otago University Press); Night Burns with a White Fire: The essential Lauris Edmond (Steele Roberts): in these and elsewhere, substantial bodies of poetic work are brought together in easily accessible anthology form. Two new handsome volumes from Victoria University Press, Fleur Adcock’s Collected Poems and Brian Turner’s Selected Poems, continue the work of collecting the disparate oeuvre of our established poets into individual weighty tomes, thereby isolating and underscoring the importance of the authors concerned.
These are works of archiving. Adcock’s Collected Poems files its poems in 15 primary sections, each correlated to one or more of the author’s poetry books. So, for instance, a section entitled ‘The Eye of the Hurricane (1964) and Tigers (1967)’ starts this literary storage. This is followed by ‘High Tide in the Garden (1971)’, ‘The Scenic Route (1974)’, ‘The Inner Harbour (1979)’, ‘Below Loughrigg (1979)’ and onwards through more recent books by Adcock to conclude with ‘The Land Ballot (2014)’ and ‘Hoard (2017)’. Often these sections exist as acts of further partition. For example, the section ‘Glass Wings (2013)’ is subdivided into four parts, including ‘Testators’, ‘Campbells’ and ‘My Life With Arthropods’.
Selected Poems by Brian Turner is no less meaty and extensive in its cataloguing. It is segregated into 16 primary sections, often short, sometimes only three poems long. Like Adcock’s Collected Poems, the sections here are titled according to the author’s individual books. So Turner’s Selected Poems begins with ‘from Ladders of Rain (1978)’, then progresses through ‘from Ancestors (1981)’, ‘from Listening to the River (1983)’, ‘from Bones (1985)’, ‘from All That Blue Can Be (1989)’ and onwards to close with ‘from Night Fishing (2016) and the very welcome ‘Previously Uncollected’. Aside from the latter section, the other segment of this book that can’t be easily curated under author book titles is ‘from The Six Pack (2006)’: the five poems here formed part of the first The Six Pack anthology.
In both cases, it is evident that the books result from deep and far-reaching compilation. Turner’s Selected Poems showcases over 150 poems, Adcock’s Collected Poems well over 250 poems. These facts alone speak to the broader commitment to writing and craft that both authors have long undertaken. The publisher has reinforced this not just in the magnitude of the work represented but also in the representation itself: both volumes are hardbound and indexed.
All acts of archiving are also those of restoration. Thus to read Adcock’s Collected Poems and Turner’s Selected Poems is to be returned to poems placed in their original order. From this, the reader often witnesses the writer’s emergent or ongoing philosophies, thematic interests and metaphysical or actual journeying. In Adcock’s book, this multiplicity of engagements emerges early on with the appearance in the first section of that widely anthologised, well known poem, ‘For a Five-Year-Old’:
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see, and I explain
that it would be unkind to leave it there … (p31)
Of course, it is an immediately familiar work. But it is also a rare kind of poem: one which has come symbolise not just the author’s oeuvre but also a New Zealand sense of poetic and cultural identity. In essence, since first published, the poem has grown to become significant and influential beyond its initial placement and engagement. An allegory, ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ embodies the best possible kind of humanity, particularly the humanity required to parent a child. When I was tasked with composing my first anthology, Our Own Kind: 100 New Zealand poems about animals (Godwit, 2009), I included this poem in the book, placing it as the first the reader would encounter before immersion into the various sections the book contained. It struck me then, as it continues to strike me reading it in Collected Poems, that the poem speaks to distinct and universal experiences simultaneously:
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
your gentleness is moulded still by words
from me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
from me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed
your closest relatives, and who purveyed
the harshest kind of truth to many another.
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
and we are kind to snails. (p312)
Returned to its place among earlier poems by Adcock, ‘For a Five-Year-Old’ becomes immersed once more in poems that chart similar domestic and maternal experience and proffer similar messages, such as ‘Unexpected Visit’ and ‘For Andrew’. In this, as elsewhere, there is a sense in which the poem is read anew, or rather with refreshed understanding of how the poet intended it to be read as part of the original shape and finish of the collection it first belonged to, one that held a particular set of contexts, values and techniques.
Undoubtedly the same is true of Turner’s Selected Poems. Here, for instance, we find the poem, ‘Like Lamplight’:
One day when you are beside me
invite me to speak
of the secrets I never knew
I wanted to tell you, of the warmth
I never knew I owned
until you released it
by moving close as lamplight seems
to glass … (p35)
Like ‘For a Five-Year-Old’, this is a well-anthologised poem. For instance, it represents the author in the original Essential New Zealand Poems, edited by Lauris Edmond and Bill Sewell (Godwit, 2001). With its distinct, intimate tones, it is a poem that has also appeared in anthologies devoted to amour, such as Jenny Bornholdt and Greg O’Brien’s My Heart Goes Swimming (Godwit, 1996). This is a poem that has had ‘other’ lives. In Selected Poems, it is placed early in the book, reconnected to the poems that composed Turner’s second collection, Ancestors (John McIndoe, 1981). Here, it sits aside poems like ‘Furrows of the Sea’ and ‘Pheasants’, which accentuate and deepen ‘Like Lamplight’s message of enduring love. This act of restoration, something the reader engages with more widely with each work in Selected Poems, feels as if it parallels the act of genealogy, the poem returned to its immediate ‘family’ roots.
The concept of family is one that more broadly defines both books: their differences and similarities. For although they are acts of archiving and restoration, Adcock’s Collected Poems and Turner’s Selected Poems are also acts of charting authorial, storytelling and thematic journeys – familial, geographic, social and political. Whānau is very much present through Adcock’s book, of course, as evidenced by those poems mentioned earlier, as well as by others like those which are included in the ‘Testators’ and ‘Campbells’ subsections of Glass Wings (2013). But the subject and theme are present in Selected Poems too, most obviously through verses like ‘Firstborn’ and ‘Fish’. If this topic is unsurprising in its inclusion, one matter which is surprisingly realised – in a positive way – through reading these books, is politics. For instance, Adcock’s ‘Thatcherland’ now feels striking and strident at a time when its confrontation of a repressive political system and mindset seems all too contemporary and necessary. Meanwhile, journeying through Turner’s Selected Poems reminds us how staunchly environmental the author has always been. Whether it’s early poems such as ‘The Stopover’ (from Ladders of Rain, 1978), mid-career verse like ‘The River in You (from Taking Off, 2001) or the more recent offering, ‘Dry River’ (from Night Fishing, 2016), his poetry is a political rallying-cry that calls on readers to recognise their life-sustaining connection to Nature and, thereby, the need to conserve our ecosystem the better to preserve ourselves.
In their gathering of poetic history, Adcock’s Collected Poems and Turner’s Selected Poems might seem as if they are books that belong in the past. However, with their beautiful production values, richly woven sequencing of poems and writing craft, readers are reminded that here are authors and books that we need to continue to pay heed to.
SIOBHAN HARVEY is the author of five books, including the 2013 Kathleen Grattan Poetry Award-winning collection Cloudboy (Otago University Press, 2014) and, as editor, Essential New Zealand Poems (Godwit, 2014). She’s a lecturer at the Centre for Creative Writing, AUT. She was recently longlisted for the 2019 Australian Book Review Peter Porter Poetry Prize.