Frederick Turner, Two Ghost Poems

by John Ridland

Cincinnati: Turning Point, 2011. 99 pp.

 

Fred Turner has been dubbed a “polymath”:

The jolly sciences, the dismal one,1 and jolly math

Fall in his purview, and his reader must

Take them in stride, in confidence, and on trust.

(To judge how wide and deep his knowledge spreads

You’d have to call a clutch of talking heads.)

 

His boldest ploy is to imagine Time

(As in his Shakespeare book2) as a sublime

Tinker Toy that our minds can pry apart,

Rearrange, reassemble, with fresh art.

Throughout these two long poems, he’ll jump sideways,

Forward and back, through narrow and through wide ways;

You’ll need to muster all the nimbleness

Of mind you can to keep pace, more or less.

I’ll offer what I can as a rough guide

(And I mean rough) to what you’ll find inside.

 

In the first Ghost, an unnamed hero wanders

“The undiscovered country” (hint!), and ponders

Everything under––not the Sun––the Moon,

Whose tidal rhythms play a soothing tune

Which he begins to sleep to. When awake,

There’s no predicting which old road he’ll take

To get to some new place, where he will meet

Familiar friends. He sees down one posh street

A woman whom he’d known before––his wife?

Strange things do happen, jumping from the life

Of living to the life of death. You’d have

To be a ghost in order not to halve

Your substance on the way. He sees the woman

That he was married to when he was human

Has married someone else, and rather than

Be jealous, he feels happy for the man

And for his (ex-)wife. When we reach the last of

Some sixty pages, we’re aware the past of

The Wayfarer is done, the present as well.

Since there’s no Heaven and, it seems, no Hell,

Where in the Universe does he go now?

And equally intriguing, when and how?

 

After he scans the beauty our Earth gives,

Ending in Texas (where Fred Turner lives),

The hero joins a tour group with a leader,

The Colonel, who’s an information feeder.

The planet they’re all off to, Gondolier’s

Distant from Earth a mere two hundred years.

The Coracle is “the ark of their intending,”

And via comprehending and transcending,

“They’ll put away all Earthly calendars”

And “see at last the fields of naked stars,”

Rocketing into space. So, true Sci-Fi,

Amplified by the delicate hi-fi

Of Verse––the Muse of Epic Poetry,

Calliope, turning the pages for him––

He writes and sings out, as the lights grow dim.

The next page-turn, scarce a pause between

The two Ghost Poems, brings us on a scene

Narrated by a POET, introducing

The “team” of “buried souls” he will be using,

“The dressing station of the lost, we’re called.”

(In other Epics, many are galled and mauled.)

Among some made-up names––Eiko, Castellax

(Who rhymes not with relax, it’s clear, but relics),

Doreen,––are others who are real-world creatures.

Among these folk who lived, Fred Turner features

With Sappho, Stanley Spencer, Henry Darger––

Whose posthumous reputation’s growing larger

For painting masses of Outsider Art

And writing fantasies, the greater part

Concerning some six sisters, Vivian Girls,

Who ventured in and out among the curls

And curlicues of his watercolor works

Blessed by the Bishop of our Cultural Quirks,

John Ashbery. Enough of Darger. More

Would be required to summarize the lore

Concerning Hanuman, the Monkey God

From India: Google has him, too. This pod,

A stellar group, each one of them a star,

With Fred, on Earth still, hold a seminar,

Investigating how a fatal flaw

Slipped into Western thinking, jammed its maw

With Deconstructive garbage––and right here

I must confess I gave a hearty cheer.

 

And now the philosophical tone grows shriller,

The Philosophical tome converts to Thriller,

As they pursue a known, notorious killer––

Of souls and minds, not bodies––whose publications

Had clamped an Ice Age on “human relations.”

(Donatien Sacher-Friedrich is his name,

Which doesn’t mean a thing to me: my shame.)

Donatien’s a villain like Herr Hitler;

His vileness makes Der Fuehrer’s seem the littler.

A mirror from Fred’s Great Ones tricks the prating

Pre-Deconstructionist into evaporating.

 

I should have said the first of the two Ghost

Poems is done in sonnets, not the most

Difficult rhyme scheme (the Italian) but

Shakespeare’s (three quatrains upturned on their butt

By a quick couplet). Sonnets will deliver,

The most dependable arrow in the quiver

Of the New Formalists––Fred snaps: “Doggone it,

Give me a topic, I’ll expand upon it.

I use a sonnet like a novelist.

I’m not New Formalist, I’m Expansivist.”3

And when it comes to Epics, Fred has hurled

More thunderbolts than any: The New World,

Genesis, these Two Ghosts, which have some claim

In style and plot to bear that honored name.

 

The final question is: What’s the connection

Between the two Ghost Poems? On reflection

I am beginning to suspect the Wanderer

(Of whom each time I read I grow the fonderer)

Is the same “you” the seminar addresses.

But if so, Fred the POET often stresses

The fact that “you” are dead, as they are too––

A funny thought, since clearly Fred and “you”

Are both alive, one writing and the other

Reading. Ah well! I won’t go to the bother

Of solving that. Just let me pack my valise

And head off for the Coracle. As Alice

Dove down the rabbit hole to Wonderland,

I will be rocketed to a Thunderland

Of lightning thoughts, all tumbling all the time

In silver blank verse or in golden rhyme.

Like pebbles in a stream, they come out shining;

Thinking and feeling move together, twining,

As they should do in poems, as in song

Lyrics and music help each other along.

So praise them as they tumble, loud and strong,

And fill your book’s wide margins up with notes:

You’ll find a dozen practicable quotes.

I rest my case: this slender, chockfull book

Is worth a busy reader’s second look.

 

Notes

1. See his Shakespeare’s Twenty-First-Century Economics: The Morality of Love and Money (Oxford University Press, 1999).

Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford University Press, 1971).

3 See R.S. Gwynn’s extensive Contents list in New Expansive Poetry (Story Line Press, 1999).

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2012, Volume 29, Number 3