Todd Turner: Woodsmoke

North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2014, 56pp.

Todd Turner’s first book is a very handsome object and an excellent collection of varied but essentially lyric poems. And, like all good lyrics, these poems are sensitive but tough and intelligent at the same time. Woodsmoke’s title poem is not only one of the best poems in the book but it is also important in helping readers make some sense of the other poems. The smoke of the title (significantly “woodsmoke” is compressed into a single, iconic word) is a kind of inversion of rain, another element which figures largely in the poems and is often associated with smoke. But the smoke is described in such a way that it isn’t simply the result of a natural process – the coal, timber or wet grass which is burning has its own history so that the smoke is that history making itself manifest:

It plumes from the fire’s red hearth,
sends up its flag of stored aeons
and multifarious resins in a surly

blue charred haze. Rain-cloud dark
and featherweight, it leaks from any
pooled heat or gone-to-ground tinder

along the craquelure of lost leaves,
rising tightly at first in a single plait
before shaking out its winter hair . . .

Not only is it the inverse of rain and an expression of the history of one of the earth’s forms of life, it is also described as “what // passes for benediction” and the end of the poem describes it as being “set / amid the downy blueprint of allegory”. History, grace and meaning are abstractions which bulk very large in Woodsmoke.

This title poem is so central and so strong that, initially, you wonder why it is the third poem in the book rather than the first. The answer may be that that would make the rest of the book seem no more than a programmatic extension of a single poem. But I’m inclined to see other possibilities in the arrangement of the first three poems. The first, “Shelling Peas”, is one of a group of poems which deal with family life in the poet’s past, with history in other words, the history of his family. It is an odd piece with a refrain – “Snap off the ends, tear open a strip, / split the hull and with a run of the thumb / rake the peas into the pot. Repeat.” – which stresses the repetitive nature of the activity. Its own “blueprint of allegory” might be no more than the conventional trope of the artist finding the valuable fruit inside the dry shell but I think the emphasis is rather on the poet’s use of his hands “intent / and nimble as a lace maker’s”. Turner is, in professional life, a maker of jewellery (I’m not sure of the correct noun for this art) and may want to stress at the outset that his engagement with the natural world is not always of the passive, meditative type of the title poem. “Shelling Peas” has a counterpart, late in the book, called “Apprentice”, about the jeweller’s trade and which focusses very much on the doings of the hands. “Apprentice” might – in its “blueprint of allegory” – be about making poems:

. . . . .
                          The last link in the chain, 
he combed through lost lemel for a glint.

Given tools, his hands were engaged
with implements of improbable need;
wedlocked in the grips of some dogged
perfection, jigged epiphanies, theorems

in the crux of being stubbornly made . . .

but I think the emphasis is on a profoundly manual engagement with the world.

Between “Shelling Peas” and “Woodsmoke” is “Heading West to Koorawatha” a formally organised lyric in two five line stanzas of diminishing line length which focusses on the visual (“the last of the light / falls onto the canola fields, and onto the hillsides / full of Paterson’s curse”) and introduces the speaker simply as observer at the end. My sense of the idea behind this opening is that the three poems canvas different ways of approaching the natural world and, by juxtaposition, critique each other. The second and third are compromised by the first because they don’t detail the writer’s physical interactions with the world. The third is compromised by the first and second because they make it seem wordily interpretive and densely packed with meditative meaning whereas the third compromises the first two by showing how, in their suggestiveness, they can be coyly gestural. And so on. None of this may have been intended but those three poems together, rather than “Woodsmoke” on its own, prepare us for most of what happens in this book.

Family history is the subject of many of the poems in the first half of the book and Turner is one of a number of recent poets to focus on (in Gary Catalano’s phrase) remembering the rural life. It’s not an easy thing to do well but there is a nice balance here between remembered sensations from a time of sensitivity and an appreciation of the way family members are both separate individuals and also parts of a genetic chain that includes the author. Thus a poem which begins with the father quickly modulates to an uncle’s memory of the grandfather – “could ride a wild horse to a standstill, // round penned horses all his life” – and imagines the grandfather looking sceptically at his sons before the poet, the most recent “link in the chain” (to continue the jewellery motif of “Apprentice”) looks at the fresh crops emerging year after year. There’s also a sensitivity here to responsibilities to previous generations and, perhaps, the thought that a man who has dedicated his life to poetry and making jewellery might appear an oddity, and even a disappointment, to the ancestors who produced him. It’s not an uncommon experience for Australian poets with a rural background since Australia is not, after all, one of those cultures where a family’s proudest achievement would be to produce a poet.

We meet the proto-poet in a number of these poems, perhaps most interestingly in “Lot” which seems, at first, to be a poem about growing plants at a domestic level (the title refers to both a rural address and a rural fate) but quickly turns into a poem about burning the refuse and thus generating woodsmoke:

. . . . . 
I can remember my mother jamming the rose

thorns and summer-end weeds in the fire
with the back end of a hoe, my brothers

and I spying into the flames, watching the cinders
spray up over the fence, while the uprooted

green stems crackled in the heat.
. . . 
When there was nothing to do, I’d kick off
a charred end of a branch from the fire bin

and draw circles or birds on the pavement. Other
times, I’d scratch my name in the dirt with a stick.

It makes the point, fairly subtly, that the first expressions of childish creativity, probably common to all, are here made with a fire-burned stick which, as the title poem pointed out, had released its history to the air.

As an isolated subject, benediction figures mainly in poems later in the book but one of these early poems is significantly called “A Penance”. It’s not an easy poem to speak confidently about as a reader but the early description of the situation – “I gathered pips from its / edges, back-burned and heaped smoke with / sodden leaves. I was given pods to split, straw / to pull and a grove of sticks to whittle a field” – is so impregnated with images that are significant in this book that one is forced to return to it and look at it carefully. It is about the processes of cutting out the dead wood and remains of the crop and burning it on granite outcrops (a word that one suddenly realises connects rocks with plants). But instead of allegorising this out into a statement about war – as Murray’s “A New England Farm, August 1914” does – it focusses on the ethical implications of tilling the land, calling it, somewhat mysteriously, “a reckoning”, and finishing up by making an offering:

                   Late harvest, when the wheat
bloomed, I made a wreath of roots and intricate
weeds, hung it with a nail on a deadwood tree.
I knelt beneath it shredding strips of sackcloth

and rough threaded jute that had stored the seed
of the harvest grain. The wind blew hard across
the furrows, and ash from the outcrops plumed
in the air. I stayed kneeling, and struck a match.

It’s a complex holocaust containing none of the scent of animal fats to appease hungry sky-gods but instead the remains of what needs to be destroyed so that new life can prosper. There are complicated responsibilities being negotiated here and perhaps it is significant that the last of the poems about family is devoted to an Aunt Leila whose house was incinerated in the Black Saturday bushfires.

At other places, benediction is approached more gesturally. “Nocturne” is a celebration of domestic bliss where, after putting his daughter to sleep, the poet makes her next day’s lunch and sees how the “servant moonlight falls faithfully / now, into the earthen pots”, and “A Gift” celebrates an ineffable moment of “stinging grace” when “everything that seemed distant / or unnoticed was drawn near”. “Grace” celebrates such moments but, instead of being open-ended, concludes by putting them in an ethical context:

There was something in the rain, in the way it fell.
Something in the way of the birds. And in
the way of the river. Something in the way it fell.
Something about how the river rose, and
about the stillness of the birds on the banks
in the rain
and about the way the air made it feel possible
to forgive -
and be forgiven.

Perhaps the poem that most intensely addresses these issues of history, the interrelation of life and death, and how we are engaged with both in an ethical sense, is the final poem of Woodsmoke, “Fieldwork”. There must be a glance at Seamus Heaney here though the title, like “woodsmoke”, is made into a single word whereas in Heaney the terms are separated, maximising the allegorical possibilities. The situation involves finding a dead magpie and burying it so that the natural processes of decay, reduction and at least some form of new life can occur:

. . . . .
I left her there to the hide beetles
and the flesh-boring burying beetles,
who would come to grapple through seed-cone,
stick and leaf, mud, and at last, by way
of orifice, would sheath her, nosh on her

ripe tissue and fleshy muck, before leaving
eggs in a crypt scraped under her remains.
Larvae would move into beetledom, into
the birthwing of the hutted carcass . . .

When he revisits the remains of the grave and finds a skull and a clump of feathers and wing we are provided with questions and an open-ended conclusion:

                        I know what the cycle
serves, but what is being served by 
the cycle? It’s arguable, I know – best
to just walk and fall in love with the field,
the beloved range of the ubiquitous grass.

It takes some work at first to prise two meanings out of what seems a simple repetition of meaning in both active and passive voices – what the cycle serves should be the same as what is being served by the cycle. One way is to split the meaning of the word “serve” so that the active means, “I know what the cycle does – it serves Life” and the passive means, “Why is the cycle as brutally cruel and wasteful as this? Why must life be built on death?” Ubiquitous grass may be one kind of benediction (and a painless provider, when burnt in the family incinerator, of woodsmoke) but this is a poetry that wants to pursue questions about how we are engaged in the natural world as much as it wants to celebrate the blessings that world provides. As “Shelling Peas” suggests, it will be a “hands-on” approach.