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And then one day there was post-modernism. I think I must’ve missed the official announcement, perhaps I was at the supermarket or on the ’phone or something. But there it was, large as life, re-setting the agenda, opening up new territories and allowing new ‘modes of discourse’. Things were going to be different around here. A poet didn’t need to ally herself to one school or tradition, there was a new tradition, a tradition that swirled-up and shuffled all the old traditions, that squeezed Baroque and Modernist and Neo-classical into the same frame or on to the same page; that had New Brutalism rubbing shoulders with High Camp – simply to see what happened. And some of us thought, ‘Hey, this looks like fun!’ And some of us thought, ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all!’ And some of us thought both things at the same time and it gave us a headache.

Simon Turner’s diverse and genuinely entertaining collection of poems, ‘You Are Here’, comes out of this new tradition, I think. (I mean post-modernism, by the way, not the headache tradition; if that
is a tradition, which, given some poetry, it might well be, of course.) The book is divided up into 4 chapters/sections, book-ended by a couple of translations of German poems - by way of an overture - and a couple of pages of ‘Notes’ - as a sort of Coda. The text of the opening poems doesn’t include the German originals – so I’m guessing the real business here is not ‘translation’ per se, but a sort of looser re-imagining of the verses. The first one is by Friedrich von Logau, the second by Gottfried Benn. Both poems are about language at a very basic level (those of a more delicate disposition should look away now):

Letter you’re a killer,
a cuntish gouge
in the page’s white earth

from Der Buchstabe tötet


The word, breeding a sentence:
life, a plain sense of it,
stutters out of language –

from Ein Wort, ein Satz


After these opening pieces we get a bit of white space, a chapter heading – ‘Groundwork’ – and then ... nature poems!

...an imperious purple spear
thrusts up through mizzling rain,
tough roots nudging under rubble ...

from Purple Toadflax


which is a bit Hughes-ish, isn’t it? And where is this purple toadflax thrusting? That’s right, the same place that Ted’s fox was heading ‘...into fiery coherence on the page’ (my italics). There are poems about storms, weirs, next door’s lilac, buddleia bushes and so on. And very engaging they are too. The language has a muscular, alliterative, quasi-Anglo-Saxon spin on it. Sometimes Big Ted is the presiding spirit, sometimes Briggflats Basil, as in

Spring runoff from the Pennines
enrages the river, churns the weir
to beer-froth. Submerged ash
& willow flail malnourished limbs;
drenched reeds stoop to ancient gods.

from section III of Geographies


It’s all very agreeably ... chewy ... if you know what I mean, and read aloud, it makes for an excellent work out for the maxillary muscles. As the blurb to ‘You Are Here’ accurately points out, Simon Turner does have ‘a deft touch in rendering the natural world’. But this is Post-Modernville, remember, where, within the space of a page, the nature poet can slip out of his waxed jacket and into the donnish tweeds of an arch modernist.

‘Book City’, the second section of the book, gives us poems that address language, literature and poetry in an upfront kind of way. It opens with ‘Bibliogenesis’

In the beginning was the word
In the beginning was the worsted
In the beginning was the wraith
In the beginning was the wreck
In the beginning was the wrick
In the beginning was the writer ...

and so on. You get the idea, I’m sure. There are a lot of lists here, some with biblical echoes, some with hints of indices and contents pages, and lists are interesting. Poetry loves lists; it always has. There’s something about the emotional distance they create between the words and the subject matter, a distance which the reader has to then infer and inhabit for herself. And their incantatory quality can bring out the music and mystery inherent in the otherwise mundane. There’s a lot of mystery about lists. So it’s no surprise then that much of the ‘Notes’ section deals with poems from ‘Book City’. You get a good (if sideways) sense of these poems from the following excerpts:

‘Autumn Processional was created by repeatedly mutilating an untitled poem of mine through online translation software ...’

‘Phrases in this poem originate from any number of sources, including cut-ups, mutations, spam e-mails, Donald Bartheme’s short stories ...’

‘This poem is an assemblage of phrases from ...’

‘A permutational cut-up of a paragraph dealing with the American Futurist painter
on page 174 of Michael Pye’s Maximum City ...’

Next up in the roll-call of styles is the Prose Poem, in the section titled ‘Brummagem’. These are pieces about The City, specifically Birmingham, but a Birmingham of the mind as well as the world. It’s the city in abstract, as seen by and as it relates to the poet - Eliot, Pound, MacNeice and, of course, Simon Turner - but the city in telling, descriptive, concrete detail too:

...standing on an overpass at rush hour, watching late light flare blue then gold then deep amber in the windows of towerblocks ...

Lovely, isn’t it?

Eventually we arrive at the concluding section, ‘Municipal Amenities’ in which nature and the city and language all collide in a kind of mad poetry vortex

Fraught June & the swifts feed
in clay-baked air over Marlborough Street ...

Apostrophes & ampersands
their flicking & sniping
through tough light brags bad grammar ...

from Swifts


which is descriptively tricksy and tenderly felt and clever
all at the same time. An impressively neat manoeuvre by any standards.

Lists also insinuate their way in to this section. The concluding poem, ‘On Condition That’ is the sort of list that starts to sound like secular prayer:

If only the night were not so jittery with sodium
If only there were traffic on the A road
the shudder of hulking concrete struts
If only the Absolute Mystery would now show itself fully ...

... If only our shared language amounted to more than
Clearance Sale: Bifidus Digestivum : Emergency Stop

It would be easy for the poet to be lost in all of this, to disappear into the thicket of styles and registers. We might wonder if that would leave the reader feeling a little ... abandoned, a little alone maybe. Well, maybe. But somehow there is a recognisable Simon Turner who, if not at the centre of these poems, sometimes pops up and sometimes drifts wraith-like through them, a Simon Turner we might bump into unexpectedly. Hello, Simon, we say, How are you? It’s really interesting here, isn’t it? Did you meet those German guys earlier? We watched the sunset on the overpass; it was amazing. And hey, what about those swifts ...!




Copyright © C. J. Allen, 2009



C.J. Allen


HOW ARE YOU?

You Are Here by Simon Turner (Heaven Tree Press) Price: £7.99. ISBN: 978-1-906038-05-2. 100pp.

First things first: the cover – which is something we shouldn’t judge a book by, isn’t it? We shouldn’t, but we do – because we’re only frail and human after all, our higher instincts degraded by late capitalism, by the gradual moral erosion of years of consumerism. It’s a very nice cover actually; it’s an abstract painting called ‘Overview’, by David Dewis. But here’s the odd thing: there’s no text. That’s right, no title, no author’s name. Zip. (If you want to find out what the book’s called and who wrote it you need to check the spine or the back-cover.) Is this perhaps a post-modern sideswipe at our expectations? Whatever the motivation, it’s an interesting ploy and it sort of sets the tone for what’s between the covers.

Once upon a time, poets were pretty consistently one thing or another. They were Romantic or Modern or New Formalists or Martians, and they more or less stuck to the prescribed territory, writing from a pre-determined set of assumptions, in a style implied by those assumptions.