Todd Turner: Thorn

Waratah, NSW: Puncher and Wattmann, 2019, 79pp.

A second book always gives readers a chance to see what in the first book was central and what was tangential, stuff to be got out of the way before moving on in one’s poetic career. And Todd Turner’s Thorn begins by making an immediate connection to its predecessor, Woodsmoke. The last poem of that book called “Fieldwork” in a deliberate reference to Seamus Heaney’s poem (and the book it gives its title to) was an extended move down into the detritus of a forest floor, into the lives of beetles and their larvae, nesting in the rotting remains of dead birds. It summarises the recurrent images of leaf-rot and its inhabitants which recur in the poems of that book. But it’s also about the searching as much as the symbolic significance of creative decay, the foul rag and bone shop of a particular heart, and perhaps it’s also about the limits of poetic knowledge. The first poem of Thorn is called “Thread” and is about a similar search, even if the setting is the inside of a person’s body and mind rather than the forest floor.

It is actually quite a daunting poem for a reader to come across first up. Something begins internally – “A pulse, an inkling. Numinous wellings” – and tracking it to its source opens out into a metaphor of landscape – “an unremembered wilderness”. We are told that this is done “more out of hope than quest” which is possibly a reminder that the archetype being invoked here, Theseus in the labyrinth, uses the unspooled thread (the English word “clue” develops out of the word for a spool of thread) not as a way in on some quest but as an exit strategy. At any rate the landscape becomes an internal one, overlaying images of the natural world with those of the body, overlaying silt and sinew:

. . . . . 
Though it takes something more or less
like groundwork for the tracks to reappear
in the vein and slipstream of a path
made unfamiliar to you now. Still,
you forage the pith and purblind chamber,
the heart hauled bloodlines of inherent bone.

And out of the marrowing absence comes
an undertow, tinctured within the weight,
a kind of nothingness that’s been threading
away in the silt and sinew of some buried truth,
like the pause before the breathless becoming
of a word that draw on its implicit shape.

This is complex and not entirely comfortable for the reader. The main issue is the question of what it is that emerges out of this weird internal geography, and the two candidates are probably poetry and one’s genetic history. If it is the latter then the reference to a word will have to be read as an expression of features of one’s past. Certainly, as one tries to work one’s way into Turner’s complex view of the things that make up his interior landscape, these are themes that recur.

At a fairly basic level, there is the theme of work, given a pre-eminence in both books. The first poem of Woodsmoke was a strange little piece about regularly shelling peas and there is always an emphasis on labour in Turner’s poetry. It is encapsulated, of course, in the pregnant phrase “field work” in which one works in an actual field of grass, grain and rotting plants but also in a metaphorical area of one’s expertise. (Interestingly, in this latter use of the term, fieldwork is seen as one method of research for sciences like Anthropology or Linguistics in which one actually gets out of the library or seminar room and into “the field”.) In “Thread”, field work is recalled by a related and equally pregnant word, “groundwork”.

“Thread” shows us is that the commitment to being “bottom-up” and always beginning with a respect for the ground of any issue, whether it is something as internally complex as the metaphor here or something comparatively unexceptionable like domestic tasks or rural labour, is a part of Woodsmoke that will continue in Thorn. Thorn also shows us that the interest in parental forebears isn’t something that the earlier book got out of the way but is, instead, a continuing obsession. I use the mealy-mouthed phrase “parental forebears” because there isn’t much in the two books about current family life (partner, children) and what there is is easily outweighed by poems devoted to the poet’s parents. The poem, “Kooravale, 1959” in Woodsmoke, which dealt with his mother’s flight from an overbearing father, is expanded into an eight-sonnet sequence in Thorn. And the greater length allows for some really interesting explorations. The title, “My Middle Name”, gives something of a clue since the series is not only about the way his mother and father fled by train to the capital but about the way in which such a denial of a parent on her part produces an absence in her son, reflected in his lack of a middle name. And so the sequence begins:

The sound of my middle name is silence -
my birthright by my mother’s reckoning.

We were bound by the broken bond,
the standoff between my mother

and her father . . .

Among the pulses and inklings that rise from the lower depths of consciousness and have to be listened for carefully and attentively are the inheritances of parents and grandparents in the form of our genes. “Heirloom” (which is “after” Hardy’s poem “Heredity”, itself a celebration of the way facial features outlive their incarnations in an individual and thus defeat time and mortality) focusses on these intimations. Genetic features are, in the language of the forest floor, things “you sense by impulse, like shoots of an under-level earth” and which resurface having been “sprung in roots”. Hence the title since these genes are “not a jewel or a thing you can touch” but instead a kind of loom in which a recurring pattern appears as long as one is receptive to it. It’s no accident that the poem includes the words “clue” and “trace”.

The second section of Thorn, devoted to poems about animals, looks, on the surface, to be a kind of relaxation into poems of observation, but actually it forms an extension of the themes of the first part in that it is their relationship to the ground, their “field work”, that interests Turner. Magpies for example are immediately introduced by a process of correction (as was the concept of inheritance in “Heirloom”) as being creatures of the ground rather than the air:

Easily mistaken as unearthly
yet far more grounded
than otherworldly,

poised and counterpoised
on two taut limbs,
strolling the parks . . .

The snail and the echidna (whose image features on the cover) are celebrated as indefatigable dwellers on the floor, especially the latter who gets a six-poem sequence to itself concentrating on its slow evolution “past the bones of dinosaurs” and development into a “site-specific excavator / of the underground”. Two poems of this section are devoted to the horse which does not, superficially, seem a candidate for celebration since it was domesticated specifically to carry humans rapidly across land in a way which ignored the gritty specificity of the mud and gravel of the long-trodden tracks that our distant ancestors were stuck with. The first of these poems is about a fall, and thus is interested in the way the rider and her horse make contact with the ground. The former says that it (ie riding) “is in my blood” which suggests that we should transfer the interest in the subtly felt intimations that Thorn is interested in into a pattern of the self that can derive from the forest floor of genetic instincts, rather like the face in “Heirloom”. But, at the same time, it’s hard not to feel the poem’s interest is also in the literal mud which both rider and horse finish up in.

The second “horse” poem (it’s not its fault that it’s just called, “Horse”) looks like a set of metaphors derived from the landscape whose function is to “capture” its subject. But what the poem does is conceptualise its horse as an embodiment of that landscape:

Bending to the earth, the silhouette of a horse
is a hillside, dense as almond wood.
From wither to tail, a bristling escarpment
drops to a levelling range and a broadening flatland,
its bare-blank spine, cradles the sprawling horizon
and valley depths . . .

It’s a most unusual perspective, carried on through a lengthy poem, until, finally, the dozing horse moves not into the landscape but into its own mind – “Motionless, under half-closed lids it has slipped, / as if flown from the bars of an unlocked gate, / bolted to the blind spot between its eyes, / dawning headlong deep in the dew” – a movement that recalls the first poem of the book as well as a fine poem about horses in Woodsmoke, “At Cobark”.

As though to make clear that this pattern of belief and imagery is not the whole truth about life and poetry, and that to see Turner’s poems as an assault on all forms of rising above, of transcendence, is to see only half the picture, there are a series of poems in Thorn which are exactly about balance. “Solar Lunar” explores the interaction between sun and moon in a “dance between gravity and space” that determines the interaction of light and dark on the surface of the earth. Although this cosmic perspective seems a long way from the forest floor, the interest is in the balance of light and dark and the final lines – “the bright rhythms / in sync with the dark degrees of under-goings” – suggest that our “under-goings”, interpretable as experiences (what we “undergo”) as well as deaths, involve a return to earth and mud. “The Juggler” and “A Ladder” are both concerned with balancings between the earthy origins of things and some kind of transcendence, what the latter poem calls, “ascension / as if the world were put on hold”. One of the most interesting poems of this section is “The Sweet Science” a poem about, of all things, boxing – it follows a poem called “The Ring” but that is about a wedding ring! “The Sweet Science” fits in with earlier poems because, in being about “ringcraft”, it recalls those words, “field work” and “groundwork”. Boxers work their ring as echidnas work their fertile detritus and poets work their themes and obsessions. The poem’s material derives from the well-observed variety of the boxers – amateurs, old pros, a “toe-tuned Joe Marvellous”, and so on – but its focus is on the common experience which is, in a phrase that deliberately recalls the end of “Solar Lunar”, “the undisputed dance to undergo and overcome”.

Not unsurprisingly there is sometimes a Wordsworthian turn in some of these poems, a detailed narrative of external experiences which form part of the “growth of a poet’s mind” as they do in The Prelude. We can see this in “The Raft”, “At Willabah” and “Tent”. There’s a relaxed expansiveness about these narrative-based poems that isn’t found in dense poems like “Thread” and, as with all such expanded narratives, the meanings are allowed to unfold as part of the fabric of the poem resulting organically from the events it recounts. True, each of them finishes with a climactic image. In “The Raft” which is written in the past tense and recounts a childhood experience of launching a raft, we are left with the symbolically significant image of someone leaping from the solid ground onto a raft, becoming “suddenly adrift, / all at sea, toeing the waters of uncharted skin”. It could be about that moment in adolescence when we realise that, far from being the centre of the universe, we are afloat in an inconceivably complex social ocean. Or it could be about what happens to poets when they begin a poem and find themselves frustratingly but creatively “all at sea”. “At Willabah” is also about setting sail – this time in a canoe – and it concludes with an image of the poet on his back looking upward at the stars. “Tent”, the book’s last poem and hence not one to be taken lightly, also seems to be about the balance between the forest floor and the stars but also the balance between the private world, symbolised by the tent, a “pinned-down dwelling place, / small abode”, and the great world outside. It may even be committed to investigating the notion of the perceiver and his or her interactions with the perceived.

These narratives are fine, stately poems and, presumably, Turner is faced with the issue in his further work of how far he should go down this track (an apposite metaphor) and how far he should confine himself to the intense and compressed meditative lyricism of pieces like “Thread”. He is such a good poet that it will be fascinating to see what choices he makes.