Paradise (Selected Poems 1980-2003)
Frederick Turner, Texas poet of British birth, has produced four epics (The Return, Genesis, The New World, The Ballad of the Good Cowboy), eight collections, including Hadean Eclogues, The Garden, Paradise and, with Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, the translation Foamy Sky: Major Poems of Miklos Radnóti. His essay collections—Natural Classicism; Tempest, Flute and Oz; Rebirth of Value: Essays on Literature and Science; Shakespeare and the Nature of Time—are chapters in a life’s work toward reunification of the arts and sciences. His dramatic works include Prayers of Dallas and the satire Height. The list doesn’t fit our contemporary view of the poet. Nowadays, if we believe the propaganda, a poet writes about no subject but himself. When the conflation of advertising with ideology dominates critical discussion, it is difficult to confront the work of a poet like Frederick Turner. Where is the mad genius we are instructed to expect? Where is the revelation of the poetic self, of Turner’s unique creativity?
The trouble with propaganda is that it denies any but negative comparisons with the past, as in advertising. A product must be seen as absolutely unique, a concept useful in marketing novelty, without which economic systems couldn’t promise full employment, and in the modernist revolt, for similar reasons. But this makes seeing Turner’s work all the more difficult, for a review of poetry over centuries does not reveal novelty of expression to mark generation after generation. Instead, individual poets have employed relatively universal means to examine the particulars of their time: events and personalities, ideas, hope, faith, science—traditional means with contemporary content. Take, for example, Turner’s “Spring Storm and Pear Trees”:
And the pear trees have blossomed in appalling bulges
Like white skulls of stars, like bomb-bursts,
Like ghastly balloons rising everywhere over the land.
It’s shocking, they’re the craniums of the risen dead….
With its five strong accents per line, the poem employs prosody familiar to Shakespeare or Frost, but can’t be understood without knowing what science, but few poets, know: generation is violent and creative. Capitalism works through creative destruction, but so do nature and human beings. Turner pursues this in “Wheat Field,” a lamentation for human destructiveness, where he reverses direction by observing that human beings destroy one garden to make another:
…Young families will set up their housekeeping
In raw bright rooms that after a few years
Will be the secret nests of children sleeping;
In “Engineers” Turner takes this to a transparent conclusion:
…they make the world, no less than God;
The land we shape our souls in was their shaping,
Their rationality there’s no escaping:
We are the piston, they the piston-rod.
They are God’s dactyls then, his finger-bones,
And we should honor them….
Imagine Blake reading those lines. In Blake’s early industrial age, engineers were violent interlopers, turning the earth inside out, wrecking a pastoral world: “They clothed me in the clothes of death,/and taught me to sing the notes of woe….” (“The Chimney Sweep”)
It’s not the eighteenth century anymore, and Turner, taking the turn the modernists missed, chooses classic means to illuminate a changed world. Modernist novelty, changing the surface, reflects no revolution, but suggests an unwillingness to confront the new with a common language. Turner has rejected this throughout his career.
I watch the valley, laid out like a quilt
Under the cloud-dark ranges of Kauai,
The growing green, the fallow crimson silt,
The flooded fields the color of the sky;
It is all sunlit, as things well may be
Here, where all Edens lie beside their storms,
Where time has vitalized eternity
And process is the essence of its forms.
“The Enchanted Islands” observes a nature cultivated for centuries, nature as read by science, Shakespeare or English landscape designers. When we act with intelligent design in nature, we produce not only gardens but agriculture—whole landscapes. This guiding philosophy, introduced into Turner’s work by his broad reading of, and work in, the sciences, can’t be ignored. In a recent cross-country trip, the writer listed what was not cultivated. The list was short; cultivation is what humans do. The crops can be corn, architecture, wines, paintings, science, poems and symphonies. We stir the elements and compounds to “make it new,” as Auden observed in “Sext”:
Without those judicial mouths,
Which belong for the most part
to very great scoundrels,
How squalid existence would be….
Turner’s vision is of a future unbounded by the chaotic unpredictability of creation, managed by human intelligence and divine inspiration. However, as one would expect of a poet working out of tradition, it is extracted from our world and what we do, not from a private fantasy. In this, Turner is not a modernist at all, but an American version of Milton or Virgil, less in the length of poems than in their breadth. Consider this passage from “Brine: an Erythraean Journal”:
I’m going to a place that is an icon:
The Lion of Judah, that defeated Rome,
Was followed by the Torturer, the Jackal,
Who broke the hive and stole the honeycomb….
And there’s the plain where I must learn their music,
Littered with shattered tanks, the sands of God,
That was a battlefield as grim and grievous
As those of Bloody Kursk and Stalingrad….
The poet strives to do more than write about this, but to participate, a different tack than a Confessionalist visiting a psychotherapist. Turner’s major, fourteen-part poem acts as hymn of hope.
…The gardens had succumbed to waste and weed;
What expert European would succeed him?
What wise American would run the farm?
Who would take on the master’s fruitful vineyard
And keep the shepherd’s sheep from taint and harm?
And Carl surprised us, pointed down the table
To Samuel, who sat there silently,
The young biologist from Asmara,
The African with the advanced degree….
…black men would plant gardens of the sea.
Denied humanity by Europeans and fellow Africans, Erythraeans demonstrated it by undertaking that most human task, cultivating earth and society. For demolishing ideological shibboleths, Turner’s approach is unmatched by any prosy screed. The deliberate limitations of stanza, line and meter, the most traditional prosody, force us to look directly at the subject and the poet’s startling interpretation, which is both didactic and judgmental. Milton’s procedure is an obvious comparison. In the Temptation scene in Paradise Lost, written in stout blank verse, Milton subverts the story by describing Eve’s act in heroic language, suggesting that overthrowing the religious order might be a liberating act. Turner is even more direct. He can be; he doesn’t have a royal censor staring over his shoulder.
Like Milton, Turner has been a lifelong polemicist. While the term often has a negative connotation, its best sense is of a writer who takes sharply critical views of doctrinal assumptions, where doctrine is viewed as perilously close to the irrational. In both epic and lyric poems, as well as in numerous essays, Turner has waged war on the pseudo-sciences, whether of radical environmentalism or of cultural relativism. Like Milton, he will not truck with religious hypocrites, as in “Why They Hate America”:
Because they have a child in their basement,
An odd-skinned child, that has gone mad with the beating,
And America would set that child free.
Because their woman would not lie still
And be mounted again and be silent
If America came and unlocked her shrill voice.
Because America is the young father of the world
And fathers should be old and love punishments.
Because they killed their own father—not to be free,
For that would make others, also, dangerously free:
But instead, to take over his power
without the expense of his love….
Milton, a principal figure in the English Revolution, the Trotsky of Cromwell’s government, was unrelenting in his convictions. One cannot write with such clarity without a strong moral sense, but that sense can cripple both political action and art if unleavened by toleration of difference. In that, Turner has a wider eye than his predecessor. One can’t imagine Milton writing “For Mei Lin, on Our Twenty-fourth Anniversary,” or to engage in the pained, one-way conversation of a father to an abandoning son in “Sonnets to Hamnet.” Such explorations were beneath Milton’s gaze, but not that of one of Turner’s other mentors-in-spirit, Shakespeare. One can’t see Milton writing with tender, philosophical richness about human gardening of this world, or of another, as Turner has done in poems cited above and in Genesis. Both use almost the same means, but their lives unfolded under different possibilities and choices. And clarity is not achieved solely by conviction.
Turner’s is also built on prosody: strict to looser meters, rhyme and stanza, blank verse. These elements counterpoint coherent expression, creating tension between sentence and line that generates not only poetry but an urgent sense of time, without which stories are meaningless. His models in this are not modern but ancient. The content is modern, the means traditional.
Turner’s coherent development of a figure is another means. In “Shaving,” he proceeds from an image in the mirror of “the hairy outline of the beast” to the function of hair in mammals— “…to threaten other striving males?”—to its climax, returning to the original, now amplified:
Pathetic animal, who claims a soul,
And cuts the graying fleece from off its face,
Whose mother screams when forcing through her hole
The great skull of the gentle killer race….
A poet can’t do that with pure inspiration. Developing metaphors requires deliberation and passion. This, not investment in chaotic thinking, is how we see something new. Shakespeare understood this, so did Donne. Both lived in times as perilous as our own yet chose orderly expression to show them. Some comparison of John Donne with Frederick Turner is also in order. Though a poet with a radically different approach to prosody, Donne, like Turner, was widely traveled, read science, had strong and openly expressed theological views, and was involved in the English exploration celebrated by Hakluyt in The Chronicles. He conflated science with theology in such poems as Anatomy of the World, stretching both in new directions.
A traditional poet’s deliberate composition distresses current critics; it implies that the poet is in control, that he or she is not a servant of a demon, but of an art. One has to ask: which is investing in the irrational? Anthropologist Robin Fox complains in “Anthropologists at the Teddy Bears’ Picnic” that “lazy minds are happiest with the mere voicing of opinion.” In contemporary poetry, the analogy is sincere prose about the author passing for poetic expression, opinion uninformed by contrary experience. Its writers have no investment in the world; the issues they buy are internal. It’s no wonder their work has less than face value and that a poet of Turner’s skills would turn with such energy away from that approach.
Turner takes a stance that, to write poetry, one must invest in our world and that of our ancestors. He is not embarrassed to say that he stands on the shoulders of giants, a credo that Virgil, Shakespeare or Milton would have embraced. In Paradise, as throughout his work, he provides best evidence for how well he has followed his passions and design.