Contrasting with the grand gestures that threaten to derail “The Night Mail”, “Lumber Camp Railway” is characterized by visual acuity, concreteness of image, and willingness to begin with the specific and make it resonate. These are typical Turnbull moves. In the following poem, quoted in entirety, the foregrounded subject is again a North American location with associations of work:
At the Mineshaft of a Ghost Town in Southern California
They came with great labour
across a great distance.
They dug with great labour
a great distance down.
They took away all they could
and went away
leaving as their monument
a great hole.
The distillation of a day trip? The collection in which this first appeared (“A Very Particular Hill”) is datelined 1963, two years after the building of the Berlin Wall and a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the period in which the power of the atomic bomb to wipe out not just individual cities but life on earth became clear. The poem can be understood as a take on human history and its possible self-destruction. Gathering material from a specific time and place to construct a nest of meaning, it also speaks in another period and altered circumstances, to current threats to human existence. The mode of articulation is Pound’s Vortex, “a radiant node or cluster… from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing" (4).
This poem goes further than “Lumber Camp Railway” in its “exact combination of words and no more”, employing a minimalism of image and form. “Great” is repeated, dropped and recapitulated. The “they” pronoun uncovers at least two strata of meaning: the miners and the human inhabitants of the earth. The poem’s spatial dimensions also play their part: the first and third couplets form a horizontal axis (“they came… across a great distance, …and went away”), the second and fourth make up the vertical (“they dug… down, leaving… a great hole”). A kind of cube is formed: what’s inside that cube is both everything (the whole of human history) and nothing (potential annihilation). The energy of couplet 3 moves into couplet 4’s residue (a repeated trope in Turnbull). Human activity dissipates across the poem.
“At the Mineshaft…” demonstrates Turnbull’s ability to take a simple scene and unobtrusively make a metaphysical lyric from it. The resulting poetry is neither transparent nor opaque, but has instead a delayed transparency. Resonant clarity might be another way of putting it. “A poem, once made, must speak for itself” writes Turnbull in the afterword, and often these poems seem like words spoken in a conversation whose importance is felt not immediately but in recollection. This is a high-risk strategy and such a poem may be read as slight (“minor writing”, as another reviewer has put it (5)). In his very best poems, Turnbull keeps the audience in the room with a clarity not just of meaning but of sound. Often, this auditory element helps capture an intense sense of living. “Not Sand” begins:
Not dribble of sand through neck of a glass
but the rattle of scree beneath the tread of a man
The syntactic and phonic parallelism is reminiscent of techniques in Classical Chinese poetry that provide density, structure and memorability. The same poem ends:
and the shedding away of stones at every step.
Sound and rhythm here fit and intensify the sense. How many poems really do this these days? Fusing technique and experience, the most successful of Turnbull’s poems deserve to prove Pound’s hypothesis that “only emotion endures”. Feelings are put into high resolution – in this case the sense of time passing, with its double facets: delight in life and fear of death.
A career retrospective shows up of course the things that have been bugging a poet, the forms that they’ve been trying to get right over decades. What words are there? A Turnbull taxonomy could include the notes-on-an-execution poem, the people-in-their-environment poem, or the “What’s left?” poem (poems such as “Residues” and “Sheddings”). The day job provided material not just for “Lumber Camp Railway” (see above) but also for poems based on medical reports and patient-doctor interactions. Social and industrial comment recurs at intervals.
The “performance” poem is also a frequent sighting. “A Racing Walker”, “A Clown”, “A Voltige Act”, “A Trapeze Artist”, “A Tight Rope Act” and “For Whose Delight” all reflect on the position of the poet and artist. And nearby at this particular migratory site are several meta-poems. In an age aware of the bias of the observer, it’s odd that the term “self-conscious” (5) is normally used in a pejorative sense in relation to poetry that engages with the act of writing: anthropologists and cultural studies scholars, for example, value a critique of their own position vis-à-vis materials and methods. Poets, though, it seems to be implied, should keep their reflections on the process of writing poetry to themselves. Denise Levertov once mounted an eloquent defence of the meta-poem: if we expect our poets to write at least partly out of deeply felt experience, and writing poetry is for most poets a deeply felt experience, then ergo poets will, from time to time, write about writing (6). One example of this is Turnbull’s “A Cairn”, detailing the laying of a stone on said cairn. Without so much as mentioning the word “poem”, the piece is easy to read as a take on the composition and dissemination of poetry. As with the Mineshaft poem though, and this is what gives the poem its power, a Vortex is at work: the image can apply to all kinds of creativity.
In “A Cairn”, the whole poem is a simile, and the extended or multiple simile is a favourite form of Turnbull’s:
As a landscape can be ravaged,
even the balance of the sky
shifted on the horizon’s brim
at the falling of one tree,
so a city quavers, is depopulated
by a familiar face, now gone.
The effect of the similes is frequently maieutic: “of or having to do with a method of helping to bring out ideas latent in the mind”, as Turnbull glosses in “Twenty Words, Twenty Days”. Given that not much thought seems possible without language, Turnbull’s formulation runs parallel to Pope’s “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” in articulating a possible aim for poetry. The linguistic, sociocultural and neurological causes and parameters of latency in human thought are still being worked out, and it’s good to keep in mind the hegemonic uses to which universalist ideas have been and still are put. Nevertheless, part of the impact of a poem like “Gone” is its successful transcendence – through technique – of the individual or small group, to imply a larger-scale core of shared feeling.
Part of Turnbull’s technique consists in devising new forms on the basis of the old. “Might a shape of words…” begins one late poem, and “a shape of words” is as good as many a working definition of poetry, in the way that it combines openness and stringency. It recalls, deliberately or otherwise, the presumed etymology of the Anglo-Saxon word for poet, scop, derived from scapen, to shape (7). The semi-permutational method of the Mineshaft poem above is one particular shaping, transferred from concrete poetry à la Edwin Morgan or Eugen Gomringer into a context of conventional syntax. This and other Turnbull poems represent genuine innovations in form, ones that can be felt and heard. The innovation can be in the individual poem, where the form is fitted to the single occasion:
fastidious at each step
is nimble in mischance
then fearful of descent
- a peacock in its grooming
obsessed by novelty is
unwearied in waiting
then restless at a whim
- a serpent in its gait
feigning indifference is
desolate when thwarted
then dawdles with its prey
- an introvert in pleasure
scorning to be commanded is
servile in its begging
then gives of love unasked
- an extrovert in hate.
The obvious point of comparison might be William Carlos Williams’ “Poem”, beginning “As the cat / climbed over / the top of // the jamcloset…” No Ideas But In Things? In fact, Turnbull’s feline homage is more No Things But In Ideas. The cat is presented almost entirely in precisely chosen abstractions, organized in a form tighter than many a free-verse quatrain: the permutational, this time syntactic, is once more in evidence. The sum effect is that a deal more Ideas put their paws into the empty flowerpot than in Williams’ poem.
Sequences, too, play out nonce forms. Chief among such sequences are “Transmutations” and “Impellings”, in both of which the ghost of the sonnet can be glimpsed. In “Transmutations” the sonnet meets prose poetry: typically, a turn takes place in the space between the two prose paragraphs that make up this particular shape of words. Some of the pieces are short on a realizational component, but in the best ones, emotion and situation are unusual enough to provide surprise: in this respect, they are also almost extended haiku. “Impellings” also works with a two-stanza structure with a kind of turn, the contemplativeness of the sonnet, and a similar quantity of lexical material. These are not free forms but new forms, and the reverse of the kind of misshapen poem with the word “sonnet” stuck on the top. The sonnetness of the poem is performed rather than announced.
Besides the invention of new shapes, a prominent formal feature of Turnbull’s work is the explicit encounter with other texts. This begins with reworkings from Norse in “Bjarni, Spike-Helgi’s Son & other poems” (1956, pre-dating by a decade the publication of Auden’s translations from Old Icelandic). Turnbull then extends his reshapings to writing that, in genre terms, is non-poetic in origin. These “texturalist” poems, too, sometimes function via a delayed transparency, such as in the closing lines of “From the Equator to the Pole: A Figure for the Earth”, a poem drawn from a 1920s geographical article:
Thus, before we can state what, if any,
is most fit to be adopted as a figure for the earth,
these preliminary results show
that the existing estimates
have been computed to a degree of accuracy
beyond what can ever be justified
and we may never know to a millimetre
the distance from the equator to the pole.
Turnbull has found an Image in the form of a ready-made text. Though there’s proof in poems such as “Not Sand” (see above) that he could produce great sound patterns if that was to his purpose, the sound structure here is not strong and recalls the kind of poetry translation that reviewers call “competent”. But it’s perhaps the deprioritzing of sound in the poem in the first place that enables the aestheticizing, or aesthetic zing (8), of the found material. Expressing a moment of doubt about the nature of knowledge (interestingly, from a scientist, and not necessarily at odds with the nascent universalizing of poems like “Not Sand”), the poem is – like the meta-poems – self-conscious in a positive sense. The texturalist poems are also a retrieval system for words that might otherwise be regarded as ephemera, and dissolve the oppressive egotism of authorship.
Authorial modesty is evident, too, in the second way that Turnbull’s poetry engages with other texts. His work interacts with other poets, above all contemporaries, to a more than average degree. The engagement is sometimes explicit, such as in the “Walls” sequence, which includes poems dedicated to Charles Tomlinson, Robert Creeley and others. More typically, when reading Turnbull’s poems it’s often possible to feel them working in similar ways to great poetry, some of it modern, some of it older. Besides the comparisons made thus far, individual poems work in ways reminiscent of (in no particular order) Ungaretti, Li Bai, WS Graham, Cid Corman, Jacques Prévert, Pushkin and no doubt further poets that other readers will pick up on. Bunting’s influence is particularly evident in the 1974 collection “Finger Cymbals”, in which individual poems have very strong echoes of individual Bunting poems.
Are the influences too obvious? “Transits: A Triptych”, Turnbull’s Unfinished Symphony from 2004, quotes Jean Tinguely: “make design / open to what’s possible”. At the Albuquerque reading Turnbull makes the following comparison: “… A good writer is entitled to be a cattle thief of sorts. If he sees some good ideas over the border that will improve the breed of his own stock, I think a good writer should help himself, use what he can, learn what he can.” Few might quibble with this, but Turnbull emphasizes this idea more strongly and makes it more explicit than many poets do. This poetic, I think, explains why the influences on individual Turnbull poems sometimes loom large: the poems reveal their influences precisely because of the poet’s willingness to move between sites. The migratory bird is the marked form, not the bird whose habitat remains constant.
The cattle thieving is, in any case, directed towards improving the individual animal, rather than EU-norming the herd: Turnbull’s concern is – by any means necessary – to perfect the poem rather than a distinctive oeuvre. His work is situated in the mid- to late twentieth century, a century in which as a result of technological advances, an increased number of people writing and publishing, and greater awareness through translation of other poetries, there are simply more resources for a poet to draw on than previously. Under such circumstances, synthesis of influence is likely to be ongoing, and perhaps piecemeal, rather than reaching some notional endpoint at which the poet “finds a voice”.
The size of the Collected throws up genuine weaknesses, too. The first is something of a mid-career dip. From about “With Hey, Ho…” (1961) onwards, poems begin to appear with increasing frequency that for one reason or another fail to make the impact of either the early or the late work. Perhaps a dissatisfaction sets in here, or boredom with the bright-lit modernist lyric. Riskier and more recurrent is the Language of the Heart. In Turnbull’s poetry the heart is a frequent image, and too often it disappears into the Mirkwood of sentimentality. Sometimes the context is sharp enough for this “metaphor we live by” (9) to pump blood into the poem: it becomes again an organ with a specific physical response to emotional situations. Sometimes the context brings in too many associations of Hollywood slush, and the trope becomes a weak counterpoint to Turnbull’s investment of observed detail with meaning (the loggers’ tracks, the miners’ excavations). And a few poems flag with sleepy phrasing and comatose rhymes. The final stanza of “Where the Wind Blows” reads:
But where she comes from