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Gael Turnbull, There Are Words: Collected Poems, Shearsman Books in assocation with Mariscat Press

Gael Turnbull was a highly influential poetry editor and a remarkable poet. He would have shied away from such a statement, a genuine sense of modesty being deep in the grain of all his literary work. Yet in the late 1950s and early 60s his magazine Migrant and his poetry imprint of the same name, he made one of the most significant transatlantic bridges in modern poetry. The poems collected here demonstrate what readers of his own books, usually issued in honed volumes by small presses, already knew: that he was also a quietly experimental poet concerned to testify lyrically to the experiences of the apparently “ordinary”, a poet who had a sense of delighting fun and charming tenderness, and who articulated a profound sense of human mortality.

In the Migrant years, Turnbull published many of the poets associated with the experimental Black Mountain College and other American-based writers with strong individual voices, including Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and Cid Corman. Probably taking his cue from the international work published in the magazine The Poet, edited in the mid Fifties by Turnbull’s Glasgow-based friend W. Price Turner, he placed these State-side authors in the company of English and Scottish poets such as Charles Tomlinson, Roy Fisher, Edwin Morgan, and Ian Hamilton Finlay. To those first readers Migrant’s pale blue covers and yellow pages, printed by Gestetner-style typed stencil, must have radiated both a friendly, homespun welcome and eye-opening inspiration, transmitting new kinds of text – minimalist and ‘maximilist’, direct and oblique – and offering a sense of community across vast distances.

Turnbull in his early years was very much a migrant himself. Born in Edinburgh in 1928 he emigrated with his parents to Canada at the beginning of the War, returning to England in 1944 to continue his education to degree level. Although he then lived in the States for some time, his work as a doctor and anaesthetist in northern Ontario in the 1950s left a great impression on him. Canadian landscapes feature across the years of his work, as do artfully re-cast life-and-death incidents taken from his experiences as a doctor. After various further moves he settled in Worcester (England) in 1964, where he continued to work in medicine until his retirement in 1989. He then returned to Edinburgh where, through publications by Mariscat and Akros and others, through his readings, and through the poetry installations he made for places such as the Scottish Poetry Library in his home city and the Botanical Gardens in Glasgow, he was gradually discovered by a wider Scottish readership. He died in 2004.

In one of Turnbull’s early poems, “An Irish Monk on Lindisfarne, about 650 AD”, published in 1956, the speaker of the title observes “the patience of the bricklayer / is assumed in the dream of the architect.” For Turnbull’s longer poems there is a sense of that architect not so much dreaming as setting out a pre-determined over-arching idea for the poem which the attentive detail and craftsmanship of the bricklayer must then bring to realisation: Turnbull is dreamer, designer and specialist artisan all in one. In “Perhaps if I begin”, first collected in To You I Write (1963), the proposition of the poem is the act of writing itself, starting “Perhaps if I begin here this evening and go onward hopefully towards whatever kind of statement you might lead me into”. As the poem proceeds what began in part as a conceptual work, foregrounding the act of writing, enriches its own philosophical enquiry with human urgency: “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.”

Formally, “Perhaps if I begin” is almost a prose poem, with its very long lines, each a semantic clause, having to be broken across two or three print-lines to accommodate its statement-by-statement rhythm. This weaving of poetry’s qualities in, around and through prose, is another characteristic of Turnbull’s experimentation, which is paralleled by many of his poems bearing witness via the incorporation of personal and historical accounts. “Twenty Words, Twenty Days” (1966) introduces a random element – each of its twenty sections is inspired by a randomly chosen word from the dictionary – that is crossed with improvisations based on the poet’s experiences of the day in question, including what he was reading. By treating his material in an oblique way the effect is not especially autobiographical, an approach about which Turnbull had serious reservations. Rather, in a way that is reminiscent of the passion-guarding extremity in Samuel Beckett’s later monologues, an elided narrative dramatically comes through. This achieves a high emotional resonance from re-cast pieces originally uttered in a range of registers but which are now merged and pulse through in different line lengths and line positions: “did I dial the right number? did I dial it correctly? or if dialled, did the / number go through? and etcetera…/ at war with distance, and a / gadget - / in quest? or on a ramble? – / to find a place knowable, / circumscribed, having identity - .”

Other experiments would follow, always with that attention to human drama. Formally, Turnbull was especially interested in a binary structure that might imply a third almost revelatory line of thinking without actually stating it. Hence his invention of the two line “space” form that literally builds in thinking space in the middle of the poem, and the two-paragraph “Transmutations”, in which a perception of a human relationship is transformed by the ‘pivot’ of the silence between the paragraphs.

Sisyphus appears in one of Turnbull’s poems, “Not piecework”, and the poet’s sympathy for the drudge reaches across the length of this volume. But “delight” is a favoured word in Turnbull’s oeuvre and if there are poems here dealing with heartbreak and brutal loss, not to mention texts which are formally fascinating, there are also poems that are whimsical, funny, and loving (and, of course, these categories overlap). Perhaps his most tender are in From the Language of the Heart (1985): in one poem there, “Your Hands, Their Touch,” the speaker compares his loved-one’s hands to the sea (or, rather, the sense of the sea), “so are your hands, their murmuring touch, / in long strokes, wakening tides, no rush, / to surge and carry us, lapped by delight, / in the stillness of one bed.”

“Acquiring is what’s easy / Relinquishing, what’s hard,” Turnbull says in his poem “National Trust”. That may be true for many things, but for years, without a single large selection in print, Turnbull’s work was very much in danger of being “relinquished”: Shearsman have done a great service to poetry by making sure the range of Gael Turnbull’s poetry is available now.

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