What Was That?

Tim Turnbull

Donut Press ISBN 0-954-19834-4


Andy Ching, the brain and balls behind Donut Press, obviously has his eye on the potential for the wider appeal of poetry. Everything from the impressive stable of talent he has published – the likes of Jonathan Asser, John Stammers and Tim Wells in addition to Tim Turnbull – down to the smart and attractive design, provides welcome relief from the safe-but-dated poetry of so many of those published by larger concerns, and their old-fashioned designs, unfriendly fonts and generic formats. Perhaps this is me being shallow, but then isn’t poetry all about the little details?

Back in the late 80s and early 90s there was a mini-revolution in the world of the novel. A new wave of gritty, urban writing emerged, spearheaded by a number of Scottish authors, such as James Kelman and Alisdair Gray. I say mini-revolution – no-one was killed or anything, but these writers certainly crunched down on a few delicate toes and got up a number of upturned snub noses. 

Although the regional background and the stylistics differ, for my money – and I’m generally not a betting man – Tim Turnbull has the potential to do something very similar in the poetry world. He undoubtedly has his fans, but his acceptance as a poet on the page has suffered from his reputation as a gritty writer and performer. 

It’s fair to say that perfomance poets, or those who lean towards that end of the spectrum, are often looked down on by the wider poetic community – usually with good reason; it’s also fair to say that there is nothing new in a writer who is out to shock the sensibilities of their audience. True, Turnbull makes no distinction between page and performance and, yes, much of his subject matter is not for the faint-hearted, the stars and the gutter both being worthwhile subjects for him. (I can imagine a certain line or phrase at a reading has caused the little old dear in the corner to wince.) But, as his body of work expands and develops, it is getting harder and harder to ignore him. The problem for the poetic prude is that Turnbull is undeniably good and getting better all the time.

This, Turnbull’s follow-up to 2001’s “Work”, is a pamphlet that showcases his ability to embrace an amazing range of subject and form, and a unique dexterity that enables him to blend the crude and the profound like few other poets. “Turnbull continually surprises”, as Clare Pollard succinctly puts it in her foreword. To be sure, the Turnbull cocktail is a slug of artistic and cultural observation, a dash of social and political commentary, laced with a dark, sardonic and moral humour that calls a spade a spade – the kind of drink, to which the only response could be, “What Was That?” 

His opening salvo, “The Toerag Situationists”, a poem about a group of criminals making their musical tastes apparent to the authorities, paves the way for a radical re-examination of expression and art in the  modern world. “In The Prospect of Whitby after the Private View” meditates on the co-dependence of culture and anti-culture, with S&M home movies chucked into the bargain; “Revolutionary Art” offers up the defensive war efforts of the Taliban as “A conceptualist masterpiece”; while “Angel in a Vest” does pretty much what it says on the tin, lovingly depicting the stone effigy of an angel in a cemetary, to whom someone has donated a Bacardi T-shirt.

Turnbull is also awake to the social injustices of the modern world, from animal experimentation to exploitative stand-up comics to the American sense of superiority over the rest of the world. He also has an unflinching eye for recording tragic events that have moved people, on an international, national or personal level: from the simple and moving lyric of “9/11” to the masterful “Not The Whitsun Weddings” to the dark and honest “Et in Arcadia Ego“. Perhaps not surprisingly, I cringed when I read “9/11” on the contents page – having seen so many trite, over-reaching attempts at the subject by other poets – only to discover a simple and sincere take on the shock felt at ground level throughout the western world on that day. His re-working of Larkin’s “Whitsun Weddings” casts a sad and cynical eye on the tragic crassness of stag and hen parties, with their interwoven quests for booze and casual sex, while the events of the Potters Bar rail crash lurk “untoward but comfortably vague” in the background. Tragedy in a smaller context is depicted in “Et in Arcadia Ego”, which deals with the scene of a car crash in the aftermath.

Turnbull also finds space for a couple of love poems – love, that is, from the skewed Turnbull perspective. “The Golden Boys” deals with male shitbags, while “Succubus” depicts the life of a chap with a female stalker, all delivered with trademark sardonic wit. Only occasionally does Turnbull’s humour spill over into the self-indulgent, such as the snipe at Jay Kay in “Landcrab”. I admit I found it funny but, particularly as it’s the kind of thing at which the little old dear at the reading would gape, at which the poetry prude would sneer, it is less justifiable than a number of his other more subtly delivered lines.

 This is a minor criticism.  At his best, Turnbull is capable of vicious satire and unflinching honesty, can seamlessly stitch the crude to the magnificent, and draw out a fresh, canny perspective on a subject. Beneath all this, and the crafted bricks and mortar of form and structure, beats a big, warm heart. It’s this in the end that will win even the doubters over. All I can hope is that the bigger boys will soon be kicking themselves for lacking the courage or foresight of Donut Press, because Tim Turnbull is shaping up to be one of the most unique and important poetic voices of the decade. Buy “What Was That?”. If you read it and disagree, I’ll give you your money back.