Orphan Sites review
Poetry London, Spring 2007
Amy Wack reviews new work from Ireland, New York and Yorkshire
Julian Turner’s Orphan Sites is that difficult thing, a second collection. I wouldn’t yet rate him as highly as either Fried or Groarke, but his first collection, Crossing the Outskirts, was well-received (A PBS Recommendation and also nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection) and there are promising qualities here.
Most notable is his use of formal rhyme and metre, which indicates knowledge, ambition and most of all, sheer graft. His sensibility is altogether other as well. The title is indicative. Like Roethke, he must resurrect the stunned child from the ruins of a cruel childhood. This gives his poetry a compelling drive and purpose. However, it is no excuse for the grim cover art, a murky mixed media piece that looks like a black-and-white photo of a bombed out town, thematically apt, maybe, but unattractive. Perhaps the power of the original artwork is constrained by reproduction. In contrast, the print (in Monotype Dante) is beautifully designed and a pleasure to contemplate.
Nature, a guiding premise in this collection, is both refuge and destiny. In ‘Compass’ an ‘ordinary field’ is the ‘universe’ for a 13-year old:
Of course I can still smell the pollen haze
or feel the dew drench through my baseball boots,
the vast prairie that was the holidays
stretching as far as lunch, explore the roots
of elms along the field’s far borders, count
the countless magpies in the trees of dawn
when the immediate was paramount:
a gold-leaf glitter off immortal corn,
I also liked his poem to rain, ‘In His Element’ : ‘the kind of rain which fills / forests with the scent of resin; / rain the eraser wiping out whole valleys of black tenements’. This unforced affinity with the natural world gives Turner’s poetry a native strength, not only as a well of imagery but as something of a moral touchstone. He is less susceptible to the complex lures of an ironic standpoint than Groarke or Fried, and therefore is perhaps more likely to unleash a surprising burst of emotion.
Turner’s youth, spent in Yorkshire/Lancashire (one poem mentions he could see the Pennines from his house), does not mean that he shares all the stereotypical characteristics of poets writing from the ‘deprived’ north. However, his politics might be inferred from the protagonist’s disgust at his aristocratic patrons and their rarified dialogue in ‘Byron’s Gondolier’:
…Now can we go home?
No. They want to loll here for hours.
It doesn’t seem to bother them
that night has fallen and the powers
of nature brew themselves a storm.
Like some of the northern poets of a generation preceeding his, such as Sean O’Brien and Tony Harrison, Turner shares a taste for rigorous form and for nature but he doesn’t have their deep bitterness at social injustice. He is, at most, a miffed rather than an angry young man. The villains in this piece, the snakes in his woods, are the parents. A heartbreakingly unfeeling mother is movingly portrayed in ‘Cold Spell’ where the writer confronts her ghost: ‘Back from the grave my mother chills the air / as she used to. “It wasn’t like that at all,” she says, / speaking from a frosted pain on the stairs’. The impact of the father is implied in the poem ‘The End of Tyranny’, where the speaker and his brother eventually throw their father onto a sofa. It is no wonder the derelict ‘Orphan Sites’ of the title poem are beautifully observed:
At first light this one shimmers in a veil
of corrugated air, its apron spread
with dust and rubble where the ghost of oil
fades from the forecourt; silhouetted sheds,
abandoned drums, old tyres in dim relief
against the shoulder of the city’s rim
reflected in the puddles left by brief
before-dawn bursts of rain, their rainbow skim
like breakdown products of old promises;
all quarantined by wire mesh from the sprawl
of suburbs which would once have fed off this,
a mocking echo of the water hole.
This wrecked landscape echoes the dark places in the poet’s memories; the poem is both elegy and excorcism.
I also liked the few, perhaps too few, love poems: ‘Partner’ and ‘Oven Gloves’ – both of which are full of feeling while avoiding sentimentality. If I have any bones to pick it is that Turner is occasionally too scrupulous, too exacting, too reserved. There is also a dark, indeed almost a gothic strain to some of the most compelling poems that appear late in the book.
‘Repulsion’ elucidates the dissolution of a corpse, either by means of burying or cremation. It is a memorably horrific meditation on modern mortality. As the first line says ‘The mind shies away from it’ – but the eyes can’t help but look as ‘your skin blisters, your organs liquefy’. It retrieves and revives the horror of death. ‘The Cradle Song of the Grandmothers’ is also a beautifully executed nightmare, and resurrects the myth of the witch (who might also be your granny):
Under my ancient gaze your dreams
dissolve in sonar clicks;
I empty every pore of you
and fill you with my tricks.
What begins to attract me in these volumes might be considered lapses of taste by some. The current standards of what makes good verse seem so rigorously exclusive. As an antidote to all this sophistication, emotional subtlety, technical unobtrusiveness, I advise a dose of medieval poetry where the hero warrior must risk his life in battle, and where nature is still a dark wood where the bloodthirsty beast lurks in its lair.
Amy Wack, originally from California, is the Poetry Editor for Seren Books. Her recent anthology is Seren Selections, featuring a group of new poets from Wales.