‘In Brian Turner’s case it’s a dependency; it almost as if the hills were made of bread and he’s getting his daily sustenance from them’, says Elizabeth Smither.
Few regions could claim to be more quintessential image banks of the New Zealand soul than the comparatively empty Central part of the South Island. It has an impressive knuckle-down reality and a mind-expanding quietness. It’s a geographical idea that during the journey was most often referred to by artists as poetic heartland, either as an acquired or reproduced impression or because they’d at some stage of their creative lives been a temporary part of the rich tradition of Otago artists.
Turner’s overarching discontent with the marketing aspects of New Zealand’s development are related to hedonic consumption, the ‘Me, Me, Me’ of personal greed, the brutal crassness of imposing personal priorities over collective ones. He’s spent most of his adult life trying to influence and effectuate changes to the things he doesn’t like: ‘A lot of poets to me don’t seem to be genuinely taking part in our society – they shut themselves off from it. I’ve never done that.’ In the spirit of disobedience and indignation with regards to the prevailing hedonistic aspects of marketable meaning, the artistic challenge is to harness the aesthetics of saying ‘no’ in poetry.
In the case of Central, the images, words and stories of artists define the place brand. ‘Timeless Land’, a painting by local friend Grahame Sydney, is the essence of the represented Central Otago tourist hyper-reality of ‘A World of Difference’. The more exultant the artists are about the attractions of the region, the more they’ll attract ‘the crasser element’ to take possession and change it for the worse. Turner confirms fears that through his writing, apart from poetry also in newspapers, he is promoting Central and redefining ‘The Timeless Land’ as the location of the ultimate New Zealand lifestyle:
‘Absolutely – I see it as undermining in many ways, what one likes about a place. It also creates a myth. And I can see that the attention that I have, that we have drawn to the place over time, will result in it becoming less appealing for the likes of me. We’ve actually been labelled and we’ve labelled the place for people. We branded it – we’ve have given tongues to it for other people who can’t. Oh shit: what have we done! I mean there is a rather sour irony in the fact that I’ve been helping to attract those on the right and the free-marketers and so on can make money from it in large amounts. But I just hope that in my case that it’s been educative as well in that some of what I talk about – the way I talk about it acts as a warning or a reminder to people that if this and this and this happens it will gravely detract from what it is that is most appealing and different.’
The moment of loss of aura doesn’t happen at conception or in a work of art, it happens when a work is both reproduced and repackaged with the market in mind. An art that is produced at a disinterested distance from the market may be offered as part of a simpler cohesive proposition in a variety of versions, such as ‘Timeless Land’. Ironically the art of the landscape is effortlessly essentialised and gratefully decoded for local business strategy applications. The paradoxical compliance with consumer expectations entails that the constituent authenticity of the more conceptual shorthand proposition is easily reproduced for other purposes. The unintentional expansion of hedonic consumption to include the mythical landscape itself combines two enemies of the poet into one greater and more malicious construct: hedonic place branding.
The ambiguous bond and inescapable compliance that implicates regional poets, painters, novelists and sports people in place branding is perceived as a horrific and tragic consequence of their deep commitment to the land. Although fully aware of all post-modern implications, artists continuously have to invent combative post-ironic formats as an integral part of their craft. Artists, and especially regional mythmakers, will have to find new ways to disassociate themselves and their work from the unintended conscription to economic and commodity purposes.
It is significant that it is precisely the ‘Timeless Land’ painting has been intentionally desecrated by the artists themselves and used in an activist campaign that tries to save the subject of its art against the intervention of a major energy company and brand, Meridian Energy in the process of building a 90 km² windfarm in Central Otago. The offering of art itself as a last stance to save the inspirational poetic spaces, seems the ultimate post-ironic act in the meaning making contest against brandscapes. In the end the poet protects the Thoreauvian recourse as presented in one of his earliest poems; it forecasts a continuous artistic awareness of the polarity in the uneven battle between temporal culture and eternal nature:
When the trout rise like compassion
It is worth watching
when the hinds come down
from the hills
with a new message
it will be as well to listen.
Brian Turner (1944 – ) received the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his first collection, Ladders of Rain in 1978. He held the Burns Fellowship in 1984 and the University of Canterbury writing fellowship in 1997. He lives in Oturehua, in the Ida Valley, Central Otago. Brian Turner was appointed as the fourth New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2003.
A Temple Fork
It’s hardly helpless thrall
but nevertheless true
that a man like me
enjoys his fly-fishing rods
for their names
as well as their actions,
for their smooth finish,
the shape of the eyes,
the neat whipping, the lacquer,
the compact butts
into which reels fit snugly.
They confirm that split cane
and fibre glass weren’t
the last word,
weren’t all that they were
cracked up to be.
So let us praise
carbon fibre and graphite
as marking an advance:
the Winston strong as a
renowned wartime leader,
the Old Smuggler hinting
at clandestine approaches,
the Temple Fork redolent
of homage to rivers roamed
by anglers wizard-like
with rods in hand, rods
that enhance rhythms
that speak of grace.
When there’s sunshine aplenty
and an upstream breeze,
and I’ve a rod that works
just fine, beneficence arrives
like a promise of The Good Life.
At long last I can say,
of Temple Fork especially,
Well Made in the USA.
There are a few things you could do
to protect what’s left of your sanity.
For instance, put honour and integrity
on a pedestal and chuck doubt,
equivocation, vanity, filth and degradation
into the offal pit. Go back and watch
the last episode of The Singing Detective
first, and whenever you meet Janus
tell him you haven’t time to audition for
reality TV shows, or call Adam Parore Mortgages,
say you’re off to meet St Francis because
you’ve heard he has better, unfashionable
things to offer. Like the possibility of tranquility,
confidence stripped of conceit, a calming air
when your heart’s sounding like a timpani.
Roots, South Dunedin
Locally just about everyone agrees
the place is down-at-heel. So
pharmacy staff ask if you’ve
a Community Services card, or
something like that, meaning
they think you’re on welfare,
In the streets
no one looks self-satisfied, complacent
and most shops look like
second-hand dealers. Many are
exactly that, places where
nothing’s obsolete and a little bit
of pride’s priceless if you’re
not to fall.
These are the sorts of people
I lived among as a child,
then youth, before I became
well-known, sort of. Before
the banks were overseas-owned,
before there were social workers galore,
before fruit-flavoured condoms,
child obesity, Aids, Play Stations,
The Warehouse and Pak’n Save.