Fitter Turner

It was a year when our bodies
surrendered—knees, backs, lungs—listen

to your shoulder, instructed my physiotherapist,
who was also studying English Literature

at university. Wild nights/ Wild nights she’d quote
from Emily Dickinson as she massaged my neck

which is still sometimes sore after one parachute jump
too many, twenty years ago. Risk was what I thought

was needed, and yes, risk was good, but I had
a tendency to overdo it. What wrecked

my neck this time was the garden. It also
took a toll on his lungs, which do not suffer pollen

gladly. The family cold, which hung around
for five weeks, showed no sign of departing,

on top of which I lost my voice, which caused
confusion at the doctors when I went after being

bitten by something in the garden. My arm
started to swell and the inflammation crept down

towards my elbow as I struggled to explain that it
wasn’t my lack of voice I had come about.

Pulling my sleeve up seemed to work and the doctor
was very impressed, as was the medical student

who accompanied him. The doctor drew around the swelling—
a shape that by this time resembled a very large and interesting

potato—and said that if it got much bigger, or if I began to feel
unwell, I should come back up smartly. That night

the temperature plummeted. There was thunder
and lightning and hailstones the size of marbles.

We stayed inside for the next two days, with everybody
coughing and me unable to speak, resting my sore, red arm

while the new ceiling insulation watched over us.
At this point I remember someone commenting on

an earlier poem of mine, which resembles this one,
saying some people might think it’s not poetry. Well . . .

There were the colds and the neck and the lungs and
the bite and then there was the hip, which is

connected to the knee, though not literally.
In between is the femur which my friend Marion

has broken. I have a Dutch hache in the oven (for the purposes
of this poem—if in fact it is a poem—I will call it

casserole), which involves lemons and cloves and which
I have made twice successfully, once unsuccessfully,

before. (Currently I am going through a phase where nothing
I make tastes of anything. Or, everything I make

tastes of nothing. I hope the casserole doesn’t fall into
this culinary hole.) Shortly after the neck came the knee,

which is where this poem really began. To explain . . .
something happened which made me want to add

to a poem I had thought was finished. I tried,
but I had been right in the first place—that poem had

somehow closed its doors, in the way poems do,
so I had to begin something new.


My knee I injured running up stairs at the National Library.
I knew this was not a good idea, but I was at work

on a poetry exhibition, excited, and full of a great sense
of urgency (poetry can do this to you). All day I ran

up and down the stairs in search of books and manuscripts.
When I woke the next morning my knee was sore

and I couldn’t bend it very easily. I felt
an impending sense of doom. Since I was quite young

I have had bad knees—the right always worse
than the left. At 14, I had six weeks of plaster, then

an operation, then another six weeks of plaster, after which
my leg emerged, wasted and looking and feeling as if

it belonged to someone else. Around my knee
was an impressive scar shaped like a question

mark. After a lot of physio and lifting weights
made from my father’s socks filled with sand

and draped over my ankle, my knee improved. It’s years ago
now, and although it still troubles me sometimes, mostly

it’s all right. I’m not meant to run or play sports—like tennis
or squash—which involve sudden changes of direction.

Poetry, being low impact, is fine. After the stairs,
I went to see the orthopaedic specialist who carved

the question mark on my knee. For the purposes of this poem
we’ll call him Chris. (We might as well, because that’s his name.)

We talked about joints and their weaknesses and that led us
to my father’s rare, wonky ankle, which Chris told me

had been written about in a British Medical Journal. He promised
to find the article in the medical library and send it to me.


After my knee recovered and the poetry exhibition
opened, I began writing in my shed, which is up on the lawn

at the back of our house. Am I working hard? Yes, I am.
I’ve been writing and thinking and clearing a space

near the vegetable garden for another shed. This time
for the children. It’s been good working to make room

for this shed, even though it’s meant some mornings spent
with the shovel, instead of working on this poem. I’ve developed

a sore back, but nothing serious, just an ache. Like my sister
who wrote from London to say, among other things,

that she’d hurt hers again getting off her bike.
We’re all getting older and sadder.


Clearing a space for the shed has meant packing
the vegetable garden into cardboard boxes and

moving it down the steps to outside the kitchen
door. Once the shed is built it can go back again

but I’m fearful of plants being trampled.
Shaun—our builder—is careful, but he thinks a lot

about surfing and sometimes doesn’t watch
where he’s putting his feet. Occasionally

he doesn’t turn up, because the southerly has dropped
and the surf is good. I don’t mind this. I like the fact

that he also has his mind on other things.
I knew he was all right when he walked past

the kitchen door one day and said I smell soup—
have you got a bacon hock in that?


Fitter Turner is an occupation I’ve been thinking about
lately. The words doing  just that in my head. It’s because of

my father’s ankle. I think he could’ve done with someone
in that trade. Every day these words come to me, and then,

in the mail, comes the copy of the article about my father’s
ankle, written when I was two. It’s entitled

Congenital ball and socket ankle joint and talks of
a boy, aged five—my father—being admitted to hospital

with a disease of the cervical spine. This article recounts
how, later, my father, aged 21, presented with:

a fracture of the tip 
of the lateral malleolus 
of the right ankle. 
A small effusion was present 
in the joint. A ball-and-socke t 
ankle joint was present,     
and both tibia and fibula helped    
to form the proximal articular 
surface. The scaphoid was fused 
to the talus and the cuboid 
articulated with the 4th 
metatarsal. The 5th metatarsal 
was absent. Only two cuneiforms 
were present. The second toe 
had only two phalanges. 
The right limb was almost 
1 inch shorter than the left . . .
No abnormality was noted 
in the skull, chest, abdomen, 
pelvis, hands, knees 
and renal tract.

That came later.

The X-rays of my father′s spine, ankle and foot
were the saddest things imaginable. I went outside

and moved some earth. For two days I did this,
until my back ached and my knees hurt so much

I couldn’t do it any longer. I went back
to my shed and looked at the pictures again.

For an odd moment I imagined those bones of my father’s
in the ground. But we didn’t bury him. He burned

and became ash. When the red curtains in the crematorium
shushed closed to conceal his coffin, our son called out

hey!—startled by the trick of it all.      Hey!      it was what
we all wanted to say. The ash my father became

was shocking in its greyness and grittiness.
We scooped handfuls and scattered what he now was

on the ground. What more can you say about this?

That it is not the worst thing that can happen?


In the middle of writing this poem I had a dream
I was wrestling with the ghost of Katherine

Mansfield. A friend suggested it was a poem
I was struggling with. Yes. This one. Which I know

seems very plain and straightforward and
conversational, but it’s taken a lot to get it

this way. Today I will take the casserole to Marion
who can now manage on one crutch, which is good,

because her husband (who coached the rowing crew
I was coxswain for, after being told I shouldn’t row

on account of my knees) is about to have a knee
replacement and she needs to be able to get around.

Tomorrow I fly to Nelson. I don’t like flying,
but I will grit my teeth and get on the plane.

Last time I flew on a small plane,
the pilot said before take-off Lifejackets

are under your seats. If anything happens, put them 
on. Don’t wait for me to tell you what to do

because I’ll be out of here. In Nelson I will be met
by a woman who describes herself as having

‘the ponytail of indifference’. I look forward
to this. She will drive me to the Rosy Glow

Chocolate Shop, above which I will stay. I will
lie down on the comfortable bed, then I will

get up and go and read some poems. Later
I will go to a Haydn Mass with the woman

with the ponytail, who will sleep a beautiful,
attentive sleep through the third and fourth movements.

Next morning I will buy some chocolates from
Rosy Glow and go to the airport in a taxi driven by

‘Dickie’ who has woken up deaf in one ear.
Maybe the doctor? I will yell. Twelve thirty

he’ll reply, then pass me a mint. I’ll head home
on a plane flown by a pilot who doesn’t know

his left from his right, and from the air I’ll see
our house and my shed and the frame

of the new shed taking shape by the vegetable garden.
The weather will be beautiful and I’ll remember

that today is the day a friend may learn that his life
will be shorter than he would ever wish. Two friends

will tell me their mothers are dying. My son
will collect a cricket bat in the face and his eye

will turn the colours of evening. To pass the time
at the hospital he will ask me to list the things

that never end: space, time, the universe,
dogs barking at the mailman, numbers, weather,

fear, love, kindness, television, Haydn’s mass . . .
Then a doctor will come, and because we live

in a very small pocket in the great big frock
of the world, he will be the chairman of my son’s

school board of trustees. He is a kind man and a good
doctor, and he will patch up my son’s cheek and we’ll

head home. On the way I will think about the poetry
reading and how, beforehand, I met a man who makes

furniture, but originally trained as a fitter and
turner. Do I know what that is? And how,

in the middle of the reading, I glanced down at my book
and a tiny green preying mantis

scrambled bright and awkward over the page.
I will tell my son about this. He will suggest

I might have carried the insect in my bag, all the way
from Wellington, all the way from the vegetable garden

in boxes, and I’ll say yes, I might have. And we’ll agree
that wherever it came from, it seems like a good sign.

And we’ll drive home—his eye matching sky—which is
an easy rhyme, but pleasing, to me, nevertheless.

Jenny Bornholdt’s most recent collection is The Rocky Shore. She has written eight other books of poems, including a selected poems: Miss New Zealand (Victoria University Press1997). Jenny was the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2005/2006.

Bornholdt comments: ‘ “Fitter Turner” is one of six long poems in The Rocky Shore. The poems all deal with similar themes—death, loss, the garden, poetry—and there’s a kind of conversation going on between them. When I wrote this one I’d been thinking about the words “fitter turner” for a long time. They seemed good words with which to describe a poet.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Victoria University Press author page
nzepc—New Zealand Electronic Poetry Centre: online work
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre: online work
Random House New Zealand: Search for Mrs Winter’s Jump by Jenny Bornholdt