Inside Outside by Brian Turner

INSIDE OUTSIDE, by Brian Turner (VUP, $30)

“Goethe reckoned everything inside/is also outside.” This theme, already announced in the book’s title, appears early in Brian Turner’s generous new collection, in a poem called Misunderstandings. The highbrow Goethe is juxtaposed with the matey “reckoned”, and this is a kind of Turner signature – bookish but also a little bit Crumpy.

Other poets – Wallace Stevens, Marina Tsvetaeva – are summoned in the same poem with aphoristic compression: “‘I am an inexhaustible source of heresy,’/said Marina Tsvetaeva.//I hope that tragic woman/didn’t believe she was unique.”
Turner’s take on other writers is always interesting, and the reflexive poems in this book – those that illuminate the writer’s craft – are among the most ­captivating.

Less successful are some of the anecdotal poems, where arbitrary line-breaks and line indents fail to conceal the prosaic staleness of expression: in Easter Monday, Hampstead Heath, for example, where the speaker has “once more made the long journey/to see my expat son in the country/from which my antecedents fled/in the hope of a better, more exciting,/more rewarding life.” If the book’s title refers, in part, to the process whereby the poet represents the private, inner world through precisely rendered external details, that process isn’t evident here.

Yet the poems recalling childhood are among the strongest in the book: in the literarily freighted No Course for Ithaca, the speaker’s depiction of his relationship with his father, “his hands/like flaming torches/waiting to sear me”, comes to a perfectly judged ending that is both nostalgic and a refusal of the comfort of nostalgia: “I would not/wish to be a/mud-spattered boy/struggling uphill/after school/in the rain.” Here the line-breaks are anything but arbitrary, as the image itself struggles over four lines, preserving in art what the adult speaker rejects: a picture as vivid and unforgettable as William Carlos ­Williams’s red ­wheelbarrow.

For a laconic bloke, Turner does go on a bit. The outdoorsy poems, the nature poems, the environmental spokesperson poems are the kind of thing we think of when we consider his past work, and there are some superb examples of these here. More engaging, though, are the poems of the pleasures and limits of art, and the intimate poems of love, regret, the frailty of human flesh.

New Zealand Listener, 22 September 2011

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Tim Tweets