Wednesday, October 04, 2006


There are Words, the collected poems of Gael Turnbull, is an indispensable volume. At nearly 500 pages, it contains virtually all of Turnbull’s poetry that he wanted saved – perhaps the greatest omission are some site-specific “kinetic” poems that hint at Turnbull’s relation to one of Scotland’s other great poets, Ian Hamilton Finlay.

From the perspective of these shores, keeping in mind that Scotland itself has a population no greater than the state of Minnesota & that, in any event, Turnbull, tho he was born & raised in Edinburgh & returned there to live again upon his retirement from medicine in the early 1990s, spent most of his adult life in Canada, the U.S. & England, was unparalleled in his role as a connector of all these different literary worlds. Perhaps it was because, in the U.S. to study medicine, Turnbull came under the spell of another doctor-poet, William Carlos Williams. Or because The Migrant Press, which he founded upon his return to the isles in 1957, was one of the first there to focus precisely on contemporary poetry. But from the New American Poetry in the 1950s – you can find photos of young Turnbull in the Olson archives in Connecticut from that period – right up to his death at the age of 76 in 2004, Turnbull was a vital part of the whole post-avant scene. And he appears to have been a primary ambassador between the new modes of poetry then emerging in the U.K. & the New Americans stateside.

But most importantly, Gael Turnbull was a fine, sometimes great poet, right from the beginning, as with this poem, from the 1954 volume Trio:

Try Again

”Poetry New York” it said
On the mail box and ahead
Up three half-lit flights I groped
To the farthest door and hoped
That in New York at last I’d found
Poetry; but at the sound
Of each knock I gave, there came
Echoes only back, the same
Appropriately hollow rhyme
Answering me every time.

This delicious little piece operates on a number of different levels, particularly if you know Poetry New York – famous today mostly for having printed Charles Olson’s breakthrough manifesto, “Projective Verse,” but primarily a modest School of Quietude mainstay of the period. I can’t quite imagine – tho I could be wrong in this – that Turnbull already knew Creeley’s own work this early on, which also uses rhyme to undercut – Turnbull’s adjective hollow is marvelously apt – traditional verse conventions. But whether he did or not, Turnbull’s own attitude is no less sharp & his own wit no less cutting.

Everywhere you turn in this volume, there are these marvelous, exceptionally crafted, always clever, tightly contained poems. Such as “Spiritual Researches” from the 1961 volume, With Hey, Ho…

Let us titrate
the soul of a potato –

O taxable courage!
O bonded verity!

the assessment of proof
by inspiration.

One could teach an entire class on the uses of sound in the poem from that, with its fabulous contrast of vowels with the hard consonants p and especially t in the first couplet to the use of those consonants again in the last couplet, this time muted (the governing consonant of this couplet are the two pair of double s sounds).

Or this, from the very end of that same decade, a section of “Walls” dedicated to Robert Duncan:

Made up (contrived,
as if a poem,
of words) to whom
often I turn
and may return and be
always at home –

wrapped in by walls
where the echoes speak,
are clear (resounding,
many men, as tides
caught in the ear,
as if a shell
held near) and dear
with remembered names
that chime
of rhyme and Rime;
and of that rime
(condensed by chill
from the void, a precipitate)
where Ymir woke,
hoar and gigantic once ( a tale
told and retold)
the source
of all that’s shaped.

Or this, from the same sequence, dedicated “For Basil Bunting”:

not words
but a man

no wall

and a voice
to shape


Or this piece, from the early 1980s, entitled “The Ruin”:

Two lovers
driven by a summer storm
take refuge in the ruin of a tower
and with a kiss
would soon forget
those other lives undone
to shape their happiness.
Unseen above
in the fragment of an arch
a wild flower blooms
as it erodes the stone
to which it clings for root.

Or this set piece from the mid-1990s, entitled “The Poetry Reading Poem”:

The next poem is called.
Was written at.
Is dedicated to.
Was published in.
Is concerned with.
Was inspired by.

This poem contains.
Describes. Expresses.

This poem is.
This poem was.

This poem might.

Or this untitled prose “transmutation” from Might a Shape of Words, published in the year 2000:

TAKEN SEVERLY ILL, he is conscious only at brief intervals, enough to know that the diagnosis is as uncertain as the outcome and well beyond any treatment

until, one afternoon, he recovers enough to know that he is recovering, would live and not die, which seems a matter of great indifference except for the novelty. He finds himself weeping, in amazement at the gift of it, as if no more related to him than the pattern of clouds he can glimpse through a corner of the window.

There are gems like these everywhere throughout this book. Small, brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed poems, with an unmistakable ear. This last feature is especially worth thinking about, given just how different accents are in the U.K. compared with the United States. The number of, to use Charles Bernstein’s apt phrase, island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four – Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher – whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level. But I do think it’s an enormous advantage in the pure accessibility of the work.

In many respects, it makes perfect sense to think of Gael Turnbull as a Scots adjunct to the Black Mountain school – if there is a single unifying influence behind all of these varied impulses, it is not so much Williams as it is Zukofsky. Many of these poems would fit comfortably into Zukofsky’s collected shorter pieces:

There is no Why

turn, the thought may
burn, the mind’s con-
cern, it will not
      (it will not learn

know, that love may
go, the heart is
slow, but it is
      (for it so

sing, what thought may
bring, the mind may
cling, past every-
      (past everything

cry, that love may
die, the heart may
lie, there is no
      (there is no why

it will not learn
but drift and turn
for it is so
as time must show
past everything
that time may bring
or song may try
there is no why

You could put this work alongside that of Creeley & Blackburn, Duncan & Dorn and it stands up very well.

Which is to say that it is amazing, in 2006, that Gael Turnbull is not a household name, at least in many households where such as Dorn & Snyder are common currency. I don’t know whether or not one could call him a neglectorino in his own land – my sense is not, but that may be wishful thinking on my part, given just how more ill-divided institutional resources are over there & what percent of it is in the hands of the pre- (and anti-)moderns.

Whatever, the poetry of Gael Turnbull is a revelation, beginning to end. And There are Words captures this wonderfully. The book can purchased directly from the publisher or from SPD in Berkeley. But please note that SPD is down to its last ten copies.

Gael Turnbull, site specific work
Kibble Palace, Botanic Gardens
Glasgow Scotland

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