Mariscat Press, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Marcia Menter and Helena Nelson
(the third copy went astray in the post to another reviewer and has not yet shown up).
This collection of love notes, sent to his wife over the course of what was clearly a very happy marriage, is my first encounter with Gael Turnbull, who died in 2004. He may not have intended to publish them, but they’re polished and graceful, full of whimsy, restraint and sheer gratitude for the woman he married. So yes, more than good enough. And from the little I could find of him online, they’re a nice taste of his work. Though they’re intentionally short and slight, the man is very much present in each one.
Okay, I have a really good marriage, and I can’t read these poems without wishing they’d been written for me. All are ‘in terms’ of other things, e.g., ‘In The Mode of a Raku Firing’:
......Of what process, then
......are you the gift?
......Of what accident,
Raku is a form of pottery used in the Japanese tea ceremony; the name means “happiness”, and the firing process is such that each piece is unique, an “accident.” It’s clearly no accident that this little poem is written in the form of a Zen Koan. Another, ‘In Terms of Sappho Among Others’, slyly and rather brilliantly evokes that poet:
......Perhaps after all the poets
......have got it right and it’s only
......this breath-halting, pulse-wavering,
......that’s the real what-it’s-all about......
......and that only happens every day and only.....
......every time, as if I counted, and only
......when I see you and know it’s you.
Others are less literary but no less endearing: ‘In Terms of A Gardening Catalogue’, ‘. . . A Supermarket Advertisement’, ‘. . . The Electric Blanket Not Working.’ I’m not about to discuss them, because your time would be much better spent reading them yourself. Besides, if your own love notes are not up to Turnbull’s, you might profitably pass this pamphlet along to your nearest and dearest.
This is a lovely little pocket-sized pamphlet. It doesn’t present as an accomplished literary set, penned for a wholly public reading. This (published in time for Valentine’s Day 2011) is a set of personal love poems, each presented to the poet’s wife “in hand-made cards, left propped up on the kitchen table . . . to find in the morning”. And most convey love “in terms of” something else, from the Oxford English Dictionary to a Supermarket Advertisement.
They are not highly polished, clever-clever texts. They are simple, clear, personal and, as a result, moving. I immediately gave my first copy away to a friend who I knew would love them, and she did. They are direct and accessible. You don’t have to be a ‘poetry person’ to relish them. But Gael Turnbull was an extraordinary man who wrote for many different audiences at different times. Here he is, as it were, naked, in ‘In Terms of Terminology’ (this is the whole poem):
......Another year, and another
......greeting, and another
......rearrangement of words, but never
......any other, other than you.
It’s a little like overhearing an intimate conversation. The reader feels privileged and also slightly awkward—that sense of not being meant to be ‘in’ on something quite so plainly . . . truthful. What does that say about modern poetry?
These poems were a beautiful gift for the woman for whom they were written, as they would be for most other lovers. There are thirty-three of them so perhaps I can quote one more. Here’s ‘A Coin Box’:
.....A coin box. A coin. ‘Nothing special.
.....Just wanted to hear your voice,’
.....I heard myself saying. ‘Just
.....wanted to.’ From wherever I was.
.....To wherever you were. As ever.
.....From wherever. To wherever.
.....No more than that. What more?