Dressing Up, Giles L. Turnbull
Cinnamon Press, 2017 £4.99
Light touch, lasting impression
I noticed lots of clocks and shoes in this playful collection – both of which I was tempted to write about. But another point of interest attracted me more. Although some of the poems might look quite slight at first – with their short lines and jokey titles – this is deceptive. Despite its lightness of touch, this collection is thought-provoking and moving.
The work does not burden in any way. It’s generous and often humorous but a certain fragility does get communicated. One of my favourite poems has the (to me) unlikely title ‘Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day’. (This poem may all be about butterflies – I’m not quite sure.) But that slightly pep-talk title, and some of its later images, set, for me, a rather different pace – at the start of this day, a day when we’re going to get on and achieve…
Then, woe betide all those of us who don’t quite fit:
I am the coca cola Red Admiral
with skinny arms
it’s tough landing a job
when you’re uncomfortably skin and bone…
Its last lines are:
Across the swanky table
the power suits
staring at me
staring at my pink shoes.
Those ‘pink shoes’ seem to me an abiding image for all our accumulated, small humiliations (and I enjoy the ambiguity of whether it’s me, or ‘the power suits’ staring at them; either works). And yet, still, despite all of life’s many challenges, a ‘knight in ordinary coat / holds on to hope…’ (‘Dressing Down’).
The last poem in the book is called ‘Ordinary Lives and Painful’. ‘How special is special?’ it asks;
What treasures would bloom
if every reflection came back
with stories fit to hold a room in raptures?
Here, for me, a wish seems quietly registered. Then we rediscover the poem’s title, in the wonderful: ‘fancy would never flatter / ordinary lives, and painful / imperfections in the loves that matter’. And I especially like the poem’s – and pamphlet’s – final couplet:
and therein lies strength and character –
so much coming from apparent failure.
Sensory detail: seeing, hearing and touching
Disclosure: Giles Turnbull is blind, though it doesn’t say so in the pamphlet (it does on the website).
So because I know the poet is blind, I was struck by how visual the writing is. And if you think all poets are visual – trust me, they’re not. The opening poem is full of colour: orange, yellow, purple. ‘Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day’ has ‘effervescent green’, ‘a coca cola Red Admiral’ and ‘pink shoes’. And there’s other imagery as vivid as a video: ‘slowly / but surely / eyelids slide / and shutter’ (in ‘Bored Meeting’); ‘With this rose between my teeth / I turn my collar to the wind’ (in ‘Dressing Down’). ‘That embroidered v-neck / is to die for!’ (in ‘Glad Rags’); ‘The future / flapping / like a flag’ (in ‘Tomorrow’s Dancers’).
It’s not that I think blind poets can’t visualise – especially those not blind from birth – but the fact of knowing that the author can’t see makes me sight-self-conscious, as it were.
But in fact, this is a richly sensory poet, and his world is alive with sound and touch as well. For example, ‘the clocks / [...] wake us with a morning slap / for juice’ in ‘Alarm’, and those ticking clocks recur in ‘Tomorrow’s Dancers’ and ‘Sharp’ and ‘Bored Meeting’ and even in the Rolex, perhaps, in ‘Glad Rags’. My very favourite piece of imagery may be in ‘Four Walls’, where Pandora’s box is ‘a biscuit tin containing only crumbs / and a room full of noises’.
It is possible to write powerfully without drawing on the senses at all. Turnbull can do that too. In ‘All the Worlds Are Stages’:
At that moment my eyes are closed
and the present becomes an intangible fragment.
Because there is only me.
Because there is only you.
Because there is only everybody else.
Almost a contradiction in terms there – in that ‘intangible fragment’, except it is precisely right. You can’t touch the present and you can’t ‘see’ a state of being. It simply is.
This pamphlet made me ‘see’ vividly, but it also made me think. And ‘seeing’ must be the oldest metaphor in the book for ‘thinking’, isn’t it?