Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Inside Outside, by Brian Turner (Victoria University Press, 2011) 134 pp., $30.00; Chords, by Sam Hunt (Craig Potton Publishing, 2011), 84 pp., $29.99.
On the face of it, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal in common with the two poetry brands this pair of solitary men have come to represent: Hunt the rock-n-roll bard from the 1970s, who survived to open for Leonard Cohen forty years on, living in bays by the sea; Turner, he of a famous Otago sporting nobility, the tussock-and-matagouri-entangled rear-guard sniper, holed up deep in the Maniatoto. Yet considered backed into their respective and preferred hideaways, they share some obvious similarities: Turner will clock seventy in 2014, health permitting and Hunt should be on the pension very soon, if not already.
More than this, they share a generation’s worth of poetic output, a history of punctuated single status, the loner’s persona, a tendency to retreat to and dwell on the margins; and both in their very different ways, are readers worth travelling a country mile to hear. Yet the differences are marked: Hunt is always, somewhere, somehow, chasing the music:
when she turns, she turns
ugly, leaves my ears ringing
when she burns she burns
bright as any star rising,
when she goes silent
I still hear her singing.
Those who write off such naked simplicity and apparent artlessness as poetry for the stage, and not the page, miss several points, not least that Hunt’s minimalism comes from years of honing the voice for both mediums, as well as reading and ‘telling’ the poems of others (Baxter is a favourite, but he will ‘tell’ any poem he loves). He uses ‘tell’ for recite — which is revealing in itself: the poem is part of a tale, a story, a conversation the poet is having with the world and the material. In a somewhat ironic state of affairs, through a love of the written word, Sam Hunt keeps burning the flame of a pre-literate orality.
Turner, on the other hand, while very aware of the sonics of language, of what we hear in the ear, always seems to me to be ruminating silently on inward experiences, on the ups and downs of life. Over and over, he works with the majesty and the misery of what happens outside on the road, and beyond in the valleys and ranges; in the urban jungle of postmodernity too, where lurk great dragons of cant. He enjoys the interplay of words and ideas as he slays a few imposters along the way, as in, ‘Advice’:
a man who knows how hard such is
to follow, how easy to dispense.
Make sure you make sense, he said.
Sense makes us, I said.
Reach for the stars, he said.
The stars reach us, I said.
Waste not want not, he said.
We’re all wasting away, I said.
Coming on the back of his recent brush with a potentially fatal illness, there is a little more there of the personal than might appear in the word games and bromide inversions that lead to the poem’s conclusion, that we’re all just “guestimates”. The final section of the book, Post-Operatives, explores at some length Thomas Browne’s pithy assertion: “for the World I count it not an Inn, but an Hospital; and a place not to live but to dye in”.[i] Turner is eyeing an end we mostly prefer to ignore.
Where the spare lineation in this man’s work often sets forth an existential dilemma, an anthropological observation on homo ridiculous, or the stark outlines of rural life à la Ted Hughes, Sam Hunt more often than not circles back to the personal and the private place — that dangerous minefield where the self is mythologised. Surviving youth’s self-indulgence and keeping at his trade, he knows what he is doing. When he digs around inside himself to have — for instance — a dreamtime conversation with his dead mother about the birth of her first great-grandchild, there’s nothing maudlin here.
let’s get this sorted:
I’m currently alive, and you,
if I’m right, currently dead –
said gently, not as if to
put you back in your box –
and I know it cannot be
but, mother, how is it
it was your voice that woke me?
(‘45: The Loki Chords’)
Hunt can skate thin ice like this because, more often than not, he’s enough of a pro to know where the cracks are and when to stop. At times, these spare, cryptic runes seem to come too easily, as if the Sam Hunt Sat-Nav System is easing our passage down unfamiliar roads, but with the comfort of a voice we can recognise and know only too well. Then suddenly, seemingly on cruise control, he can demonstrate once more that he’s a master painter of the margins he inhabits — and very funny, too.
The highway under a fat moon
could be a river
with boats floating on it;
and us, in our own boat,
travelling down river to the
It’s not a river. Of course.
But it is Dargaville.
It hardly matters that it seems he could do it in his sleep, when his sleep can prove so refreshingly deep — and deadpan. There’s a real bite in some of the love poetry, too — the teeth of loss and anger — and here, the short lines and sparseness of the coupled stanzas cut the focus to the bone:
easy to confuse
distraction for destruction,
and love for what a
fuck up it is,
and, now and then, isn’t.
There is plenty of dark here amongst the light, as Hunt gets down and dirty with mortality. I have to confess I was swept along by this vigorous, sometimes marvellous collection — especially the Chord poems — spitting out the inevitable piece of flotsam as the book’s high tide peters out. Some of the new poetry I read these days, though deservedly praised for its intellect and cleverness, leaves my heart cold, but I thoroughly enjoyed the warmth in Hunt’s lines. Next stop perhaps, a live gig in Raglan, or Haast?
Then you’re out of there, amigo,
you’re gone! your car awaits —
angle-parked, full of life’s fumes
Where Hunt goes, Turner is well able to follow — the pair make a rich contrast — but you would never confuse the two voices. Southern-Man-as-misanthrope is a well-affected persona in his previous works, and appears here too — moderated often with a mortal man’s admission of vulnerability and need: ‘And I miss him./Just that, just that’, ends ‘Conversation with my Son’ — and this, after deciding during the phone call he won’t darken the young man’s London day by observing
succeeds as planned,
that the handcarts
to hell are rattling
just around the corner.
The reader can take it, if not the boy; Turner is determinedly wary of the world. A speaker in another poem — after good sex, it seems — admires his insouciant lover as the kettle blows its top in the kitchen and the toast catches fire, while she robes up post-coitum. Faced with choosing contentment — over omni animal tristis est — the man goes for the anxiety of uncoupling: beware complacency, beware indifference,
like the sun on the fence
or the rowan next door whose leaves
are tremulous in the wind.
Somehow, the voice in this poem just cannot bask in sexual contentment even for a moment, without co-opting the domestic sphere as a site of angst and the world outside the window as metaphoric of our ephemeral state: no relief in sight here, then. If I was her I’d be a little too frightened to ask, ‘so, how was it for you?’ Yet cussedly, this same male lover can elsewhere mourn a departed flame as a world-changing force who left him a nicer giant:
He thinks of down
and sheen and kindness and care.
He thinks of what he would be now
if she hadn’t been there.
(‘If She Hadn’t Been There’)
Turner is too savvy and too large a heart to trap himself for long in the role of mere ingrate, wondering as he journeys on ‘which parts/of the past make up the you of today’ (‘Misunderstandings’). This poem — where the book derives its title from a remark of Goethe’s — namechecks his readings of dead poets and anthropologists, ending with a typically quizzical Turner koan:
Every time you think
you’ve found an answer
you wonder whether you’ve
misunderstood the question.
He’s at his best though when he eschews the philosophical, and goes straight for the graphic: anyone who gets halfway through ‘Rabbits’, a voyeuristic poem where the poet stumbles upon — and minutely depicts — a pair of bonking lovers swapping positions in the great outdoors, will be very glad it wasn’t them Turner spied going at it. It’s a nature poem with a difference: the force of a John Clare, directing a gaze even he could not have maintained.
When he meditates as only he can — as his namesake Turner the painter did with a passionate intensity on canvas — he can be sublime one minute: ‘we are all children/of the swirling cosmos/and the blazing stars’ – and curmudgeonly the next: ‘No one dares insist I “have a good day”.’ Harrumph! The gloom of a wounded stoic at bay overshadows much of Brian Turner’s late style, ‘like Berryman, confessing/his malady, foreseeing his exit, // that life was “mainly wasted time”’ (‘Gravity’). Somehow, I can’t imagine a Sam Hunt poem berating half the country to the tune of pronouncements like this:
Every second New Zealander
has a horse called ‘Indignation’
and they ride it into the ground.
(‘Horses for Courses’)
Well, what if he’s right? Even in his bleakest post-operative moods, having stared down death up close, still wanting to believe ‘There must be/an accounting that makes sense’, his yearning for the solace of human love can resolve itself into the spare monometrics of a poem like ‘Too Slow (for Tulip)’. Tulip – also the subject of ‘If She Hadn’t Been There’, cited earlier – must have been quite a woman.
[i] Browne, Thomas, Religio Medici, Section II, 168. (1643)
JEFFREY PAPAROA HOLMAN has worked as a sheep-shearer, postman, and social worker. He has written several collections of poetry, the latest of which is Fly Boy (2010). He is this year’s Writer in Residence at the University of Waikato. As big as a father (2002), was long-listed for the Poetry Category of the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2003 and the title poem also won the 1997 Whitirea Prize.