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.

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.