I can tell you what fear is
and when it started.
     It's a policeman's little black book
and what goes down in it.

     Your father told you about it
and the consequences
      of misdemeanour, that crimp,
which became the book

     that grows under your skin,
watermarks of conscience throughout,
     contrition sharp as barley grass
in your socks, and like confessions

     hard to extract. 'Experience
is the best teacher,' Dad said,
      'and we're part of yours,'
Mum added, her eyes the colour of peat,

     except when joy dismissed
anguish whereupon they turned
      biscuit-brown, then lightened,
shone like acorns. You don't find

     peace there – at least I didn't,
and haven't – when you're downcast
      like a colt without shoes
standing in the fitful shade.

Brian Turner is one of New Zealand's more versatile writers whose work includes best-selling biographies of sporting 'greats' and numerous collections of poetry.

Turner won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for his first volume Ladders of Rain and the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry for his collection Beyond. In 1994-5 he held the Arts Council Scholarship in Letters. He was Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago in 1984, Writer in Residence at the University of Canterbury in 1997, and from 2003-5 he was the Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate.

His most recent books are the best-selling Into the Wider World (shortlisted for the 2009 Montana Book Awards), essays and poems which focus on his love of and concerns for the future of this country's natural environment, and Just This, which contains a substantial number of new poems set in Central Otago.

In 2009 he received 'The Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry' which recognises his 'outstanding contribution to New Zealand literature'. Also in 2009, he was awarded 'The Lauris Edmond Memorial Award' for his 'distinguished contribution to New Zealand Poetry'.

Turner comments: When I think of my more dominant personal characteristics, the one that springs immediately to mind is fearfulness. I was, my parents often said, a 'nervy kid'. I still am nervy, lack confidence, don't have enough faith in my own abilities, and tend to fret about and dwell on my mistakes. I'm poor at what is frequently termed – and how I dislike the phrase – 'moving on'.

I've never forgotten the first time I felt extremely fearful. As I say in the poem, it was when my father, jocularly, as I came to see later, threatened to report me to the local cop. At the time, I wouldn't have been more than four years of age. And for decades after I was inclined to be fearful of anyone in authority. I hated that because such fear drives deference, and don't the worst sods take advantage of that.

The poem also alludes to another trait of mine that I dislike, self–flagellation, or an inclination to blame myself when things go awry. I've often been told I've been 'too hard' on myself, and some have said that I'm a masochist. I disagree, nonetheless it's irksome to hear it.

But there's more to the poem than that. In the end it works up to referring to something that was common to both my parents, and to me, and that is the extent to which our experiences swung back and forth from anguish to joy, and how difficult it is to banish the former and stay on a fairly even keel. As for the reference to 'peace', I have this nagging feeling that it's something many people, and most poets, long for but seldom, if ever, find. Or if so, not for long.

Poem source details >



Victoria University Press: Just This