Somebody asked how to read Gael Turnbull and I guess one of the points
behind such a question might be how to get a start on someone who,
after a long career, still seems unpredictable, as likely to produce
an apparent lightweight as one which might stretch us in any way. Who
never seems to "innovate" in any theoretical sense, and yet at regular
intervals comes up with slantwise approaches to forms and processes,
making you look at them again and still not quite get it right.
I'd start by saying that the key element in Turnbull is community: his
poems throng with other people, listened to, noticed, shared with: in
early poems such as _Seven Snapshots, Northern Ontario_ this risks
becoming "mere" reportage (just as Reznikoff risks): open, responsive
to mood and pace, attentive as a good storyteller:
Dabbing his handkerchief,
"You know it's got to come -
but when it does, it's sudden.
Forty-seven years together, and
we got along. Couldn't have asked for more.
I've expected it. But you can't, you can't."
His bobbing throat:
an overturned canoe in rapids.
By middle-period poems (the two long _Residues_ sequences for
instance) this "factive" writing is starting on occasions to be
chopped finer in the mix:
thronging the heart
with utter astonishment
and on the face of a motorcyclist
brought into Casualty, who'd missed a
turn, hit a lamp-post, his forehead
split down the centre, the eyes
indeed, a sight
a form of utterance, an expression
an abrupt clarity
coming home from work, the hills
against the sun: a blot of indelible
ink, indigo on carmine
down the centre, headlong
(Point for archive-scanners: he first line and every alternate stanza
thereafter, are indented) These pieces - (like the earlier _Twenty
Words, Twenty Days_ built around words chosen "at random" in a
dictionary) are ones you can come back to and find new balances, new
relationship each time. Deceptively simple: they work in the air as
well as on the page.
The latest part of this thread, I'd say, is _Impellings_ - a set of
2x9-line poems divided by lines of italic which serve more as mottoes
than titles or quotes:
and by the shore of an open bay
watching the crests of the long rollers
from the full reach of the Atlantic
as they move in from over the horizon
in unwearied sequence to some rhythm
familiar beyond definition, to remember
the eyes of a man by the road somewhere
in the southern bush, who said, when asked
how many years he'd lived, just "much"
_steering by where we come from_
after day's travel, equatorial sun,
rinsing beneath a water fall to glimpse
a rainbow ...
Hard to give an adequate impression of these longer pieces, other than
to say that the sense of "we" and "us" is strong in them, as incidents
pile up to interact with, bounce off, other particulars. There are
also smaller forms which are uniquely his own, such as the _Spaces_ -
two-liners with a gap between the two lines "to indicate a pause or
hesitation, perhaps something unsaid or implied, even a shift or
dislocation of atention" :
HOMAGE TO EDWIN MORGAN
Perhaps everything happens eventually and
in any event nothing happens perhaps.
There's no Turnbull Collected in print in the UK (The Anvil Press _A
Gathering_ is long out-of-print) but the poems above come from _While
Breath Persist_ (Porcupine's Quill, Erin Ontario, 1992) and _For Whose
Delight_ (Mariscat Press, Glasgow 1995).