SOMETHING SURE


THERE ARE WORDS: COLLECTED POEMS
by Gael Turnbull
[496pp, 18.95, Shearsman Books, 58 Velwell Road, Exeter EX4 4LD]


In recent months there have been two outstanding Collected Poems - Anne Stevenson's from Bloodaxe and now Gael Turnbull's from Shearsman, each showcasing the work of an undoubtedly major writer. This statement made of Gael Turnbull may seem strange to some readers. The fact is Turnbull tended to hide his light under a bushel or crop up in unusual places. The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry (1994) is ambivalent, considering some of his writing 'inconsequential' but praising him for being 'low-key' and 'suspicious of rhetoric'.

He would almost certainly have been sympathetic to Cocteau's 'If a poet has a dream it's not of being famous but of being believed.' He even went as far as thinking poems ought to be published anonymously. In an
Afterwords printed at the rear of this book he says 'A poem, once made, must speak for itself. The hopes, ideas, difficulties or circumstances of its maker may be of curiosity but are, in the end, irrelevant.' Add to this the fact that Turnbull, as a doctor, worked for several years in Canada and America and was more interested in American (in particular William Carlos Williams) than he was in British poetry. He also maintained an interest in the work of contemporary French poets, several of whom he knew personally.

In literary-history terms he will be remembered for his
Migrant Press which fostered the what has been called the post-Poundian avant-garde, introducing important American poets, principally the Black Mountain Poets, to the British reading public. Now There are Words establishes him, in my judgement, as one of the most original and significant poets of the last fifty years (as original and significant as his fellow Scot, W.S. Graham, whom in one or two poems he can resemble). The book represents a substantial and masterly body of work. The pity is Gael isn't here to witness its publication (he had been working towards a Selected Poems)... though knowing him and the modesty with which he handled his poems he would almost certainly have played down what this review and, I hope, others will help readers recognise as the quality of his achievement. Jill, Gael's wife, and Tony Frazer of Shearsman deserve much gratitude for the painstaking work that went into the publication of There Are Words.

I first encountered Gael turnbull's work forty odd years ago in what may be called 'alternative' anthologies - like Horovitz's
The Children of Albion - anthologies flying anti-mainstream flags in the 50s and 60s. All this now says of him, however, is that he was, and was to remain until his death two years ago at the age of 76, not so much a maverick as someone determinedly independent. There are Words makes this abundantly clear.

Turnbull - again like Graham - is a poet hard to place. You would be hard put to play the game of characterising him in terms of influences. Though I've mentioned William Carlos Williams and W. S. Graham, it is more a matter of resemblance than influence. Here and there one captures other flavours - for example Wallace Stevens - but my feeling that is these are fortuitous and say more about the reader than the writer. Turnbull is from start to finish his own man, constantly exploring, questioning and extending the ways of saying things. The voice is authoritative and
there from the very beginning; the mind at work is unusually taut and deeply serious, with a tendency towards the aphoristic. Imagine this book as a garden - like Ian Hamilton Finlay's - where you come across poems cut into stones or carved on trees or benches that invite you to sit on them. They offer surprises and delight.

Restlessly experimental - but never for its own sake - Turnbull was constantly doing what Ezra Pound asked of poets at the beginning of the twentieth century, namely to make it new. His range is very wide. He employed the long line before C.K. Williams or Ciaran Carson; he experimented with prose-poems, found-poems; he wrote ballads, poems meant to be read out loud,  poems that deftly rhyme and ones that deftly don't; he shaped poems on the page with varying line-lengths and indentings; he used the spaces between lines and verses functionally; the touch is sometimes light, sometimes profoundly earnest... what often starts with a light touch can suddenly surprise you with a switch to something heart-stoppingly serious, often taking you back to realise the full significance of the poem's title. As say, in

     "Nothing was spared"
     said the guide
     "and no one needed
     the full cost
     of this monument."
          ['On the Somme']

Such simplicity and directness are normally difficult to attain but Turnbull does it again and again...almost haiku-like as in 'A Blindfold':
                                               
     A blindfold
     on a condemned man:
     the mercy
     not to see
     his eyes.
          ['A Blindfold']

These are poems are there to make you realise meaning instantaneously or at least recognise what the poet has realised.

The two poems so far quoted merely hint at the mind at work in this book and do not of course give more than a flavour of the poet in a particular thinking/writing mode at a particular moment. He is capable of much more ambitious writing than they suggest, as in the splendid sequences 'Residues' and 'Transmutations' or the rivettingly poignant explorations of love relationships in the 1963 collection of poems called
To You I Write. Here is just a flavour from 'Perhaps if I begin':

     I believe in a very ordinary sense that you life has been a failure, and
       and in a very extraordinary sense that you have succeeded.

     I believe in a very happy sense that you knew what you were doing,
        and in a very sorry sense that you didn't know where it would lead
        you.
     I believe in a very subtle sense that I will never come to an end with
        you, and in a very coarse sense that I finished with you long ago.

     I believe in a very devout sense all that I believe, and in a very practical
        sense that I will never be sure.

Again, seeming simplicity and directness conveying something utterly complex: caring, inquisitive, with a metaphysical cast of mind, one that is able to contemplate the darker side of things and yet retain a kind of stoicism in facing them, as in this poem 'The Mistake':

     I have lived with my overcoat on
     and my bags packed, ready
     for any catastrophe -

     But the secret police haven't arrived
     and the house hasn't burned.
     Worse, nothing happens...

     And the stars dazzle the sky
     above me and smile
     in secret.

On a personal note, I got to know Gael twenty years ago when he lived in Malvern, then met up with him again some years later when he'd moved to Ulverston, then after that to Edinburgh. We met several times and corresponded regularly, offering each other poems for criticism. We are very different poets but his criticism was always constructive, always helpful, (as I hope was mine); as a man and friend, he was always gentle and modest. It was a privilege to know him and he is much missed.

All in all, Gael is a maker (the old Scots word for poet), a constructor: he constructed and exhibited what for the sake of simplicity I'll call poem-machines; he invented poetry games, constantly exploring and experimenting...or should I say fashioning, shaping, arranging words in necessary order. This is not to suggest he is a mere fabricator of poems. In the almost 500pp of this superb
Collected Poems there isn't one dud piece, one poem that doesn't have genuine poetic power and resonance. An independent, an original and, to my mind, a major poet.
           

          Matt Simpson 2006