Poem Friday: Brian Turner’s ‘At What Stage’ — There’s an underlying notion that some things matter very much indeed.



At What Stage

Here’s a big question: at what stage
do we ask, not how to live, but for what?
It wasn’t something that troubled you
when you lived in an old wooden house
in North Dunedin in the 1950s, before
puberty thrummed and most of your ilk
walked or rode bikes to school or down
to the river mouth and the wharves to fish
for trevalli and mullet in their thousands.

To many Christ was still our Redeemer
and All Blacks the epitome of manhood
without appearing naked and tanned,
except for tight-fitting jocks, in days
when only academics went on sabbaticals.

Days before you witnessed both men
and women weep, and you’d yet discover
what greed undoes and acquisitions bury,
and you’d still to learn just how destructive
being so-called constructive can be. And
that innocence precedes despair
and what follows comes at you bitter as sleet:
full-frontal foreboding, then fear.


Author’s Bio: BRIAN TURNER is a well-known New Zealand writer and a member of one of his country’s most famous sporting families – his brothers, Glenn (cricket) and Greg (golf), were distinguished sports internationals. I mention this because I think it has given me closer contact with a wider range of New Zealanders and others elsewhere than I would have experienced otherwise. It has allowed me access to a wider world than many writers I know have enjoyed. As a result it has broadened my understanding of my country, my homeplace.

Turner is a former New Zealand hockey player (also captain of Otago and Wellington) and has published best-selling sports biographies (with Colin Meads, Josh Kronfeld, Anton Oliver and Glenn Turner). His many other books include the autobiographical Somebodies and Nobodies: Growing up in an extraordinary sporting Family; Timeless Land (with Grahame Sydney and Owen Marshall); and numerous collections of poetry, including Ladders of Rain (joint winner Commonwealth Poetry prize 1978), Beyond (winner NZ Book Awards for Poetry 1993), and Just This (winner NZ Post Book Award for Poetry 2010). He was the Te Mata Estate NZ Poet Laureate 2003-05.

In 1994-5 he held an Arts Council Scholarship in Letters. He was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1984 and Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in 1997. He was awarded the Lauris Edmond Memorial Award for Poetry in 2009 and ‘The New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry 2009’. He received an Hon D Litt from the University of Otago in 2011. His most recent books are the best-selling Into the Wider World (shortlisted for the 2009 Montana Book Awards) which focuses on his love of and concerns for the future of this country’s natural environment, Just This, winner of the NZ Post Book Award for Poetry in 2010, and a further collection of poems, Inside Outside (2011). A major collection of new and previously published work, Elemental – Central Otago Poems (with photographs by Gilbert van Reenen) was published in August 2012.

Author’s note: Re ‘At What Stage’, hard to answer where poems come from. I’m a product of my roots and my reading. It’s in part ‘about’ where I come from, what life was like back then for me (1940s and 50s) and how much has changed and what I’ve made of it. It’s about our passage from who knows where to whatever follows. I have concluded that humankind has lost the plot, that we’re resolutely ‘shafting the future to serve the present’ (as George Monbiot put it), and that wilful blindness and delusion dominates our thinking everywhere. As Margaret Atwood pointed out we’re using up nature’s capital too fast and nature’s calling in her debt. A considerable proportion of the people who run NZ aren’t leaders, they are followers of that which is failing us and destroying much upon which all things depend. And so on and on…

Paula’s note: Brian has the ability, more than any poet I know, to catch the New Zealand landscape within the economy of a poem. As you read these offerings,  a richness of place unfolds; through light and dark, through the changing seasons. The poem becomes a transcendental point of contemplation. Beauty draws closes. Yet there is so much more to Brian’s poetry than the spectacular lift of Southern landscapes. Place might be fodder for the eye, but there is also that ongoing concern with how we occupy place. How we protect it and how we damage it. Thus amidst the homages you find the political edge across the spectrum of his work that highlights all shades of greed, apathy and ignorance. I love the way this poem reflects the way our relations and engagement with the world makes subtle shifts in our passage from youth to adulthood. The humour. The bite. The underlying notion that some things matter very much indeed.

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