Scalding stories are a dime a dozen in Sulfur City,
some friend of a friend, the averted
gaze in the public baths – something you fell in
while you were drunk. Not that you always
appreciate it, to have grown up
surrounded by bullshit artists, the niggle, the bloodsugar
debt in the cocktail hour. On Millionaire’s Row
the plastic surgeons are tackling up
for an early start, a nightcap to damp down the light pollution,
white-bread sleaze on the cable channel,
and if you’re still fidgety
roll out the mat and that slackening core body will
thank you for it. What did we do before Japanese food?
Down in the concourse they tear it off
in strips, while the clown with the chainsaw warms up the punters
for the gamey stuff, the Midnight Rambler, the lesbonauts
on the high trapeze bobbing for persimmons.
That’s how it goes in the new trash economy,
that’s how we keep the old stuff on the boil:
into the turnaround and then hammer that G-run like your
fingers invented it, searing flat-picks lickety-
splitting the difference, the long haul from Vegas to Gore.
The question is, will you know which way to look
when you luck on the thing you’ve been holding out for?
We sat together (her breasts were so small
she looked like a boy) on the crumbling stone wall
of the garden and shared a cigarette in the bare winter sunlight.
You come to, someone says hey you
that was the turnoff. You play the bones, lover, I’ll play
the banjo, and after the loopies have gone home to bed
I’ll sing you a song in a strange foreign
language I learned in the lost years of muck
sweat and manly toil. How do you translate
the old family story into something that anyone else
wants to hear? And what would Aunty Gladwrap say,
tasked with your upbringing, mistress of her own
mottled hide? Like an eggshell
bouncing on the floor of a saucepan, each of us
lives these significant lives: things you’ve been guilty of,
things you’ve grown out of, the damage
you make sense of with the eyes in the back of your head.
John Newton’s recent books are The Double Rainbow: James K. Baxter, Ngati Hau and the Jerusalem Commune (Victoria University Press, 2009), and Lives of the Poets (VUP, 2010) in which ‘Turnaround’ appears. Early this year he released Love Me Tender, an alt-country album, with his band The Tenderizers. He lives in Wellington.
Newton comments: ‘In the back of my mind when I wrote this poem was a friend who was having trouble with a piece of fiction she was writing. The “Sulfur City” of the poem is her home town of Rotorua, also known as “Roto Vegas”. Gore is of course the home of the New Zealand Gold Guitar Awards. To musicians a “turnaround” is an instrumental passage leading into a new verse, and the “G-run” is the most famous lick in bluegrass.’