An independent small press poetry review

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Donut Press
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N4 1EW
ISBN 0 9541983 4 4

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Tim Turnbull has been a regular participant in slam competitions, and was the winner of the inaugural Edinburgh Book Festival Slam Competition in 2002. Poetry for performance is often best heard and listened to, where immediacy enhances the work, but Turnbull's poetry is immensely readable.

WHAT WAS THAT?, is a collection of fifteen poems by Turnbull, published by Donut Press. We encounter a variety of dialects, tones and language which blend to create a lively and diverse group of poems. This variety, conversely, helps contribute to a number of themes which run through them.

Turnbull's poetry is the place of extremes and of challenges for art. Poems of geography, of lists and collective nouns mingle in humorous, and sometimes sinister, undertones, taking the reader on journeys of adventure, revelation and surprise. Turnbull is a deft storyteller with a cinematographic eye, continually offering a unique view. We eavesdrop on a world of many voices, populated by the most extraordinary, everyday people, characterised by the strength of these voices.

A prominent theme combines the everyday world and the world of art. This collection almost seems like a book of reviews on art, in poetic form, using real-life characterisation. Questions for high art and culture in everyday contexts, which often represent opposites, are skilfully gathered in Turnbull's poetry. These perceived conflicts are a vehicle in which to approach the world of art, with her vanities and fashions, using earthy language as commentary upon it. No room here for the clichéd, high-brow language of art reception. In Turnbull's poetry, culture and art are linked to the people. The volume's title, WHAT WAS THAT? is a question often asked of art and posed by art, the telling of which marks success and the artist's reception in the art world. For Turnbull, reputations are made and lost, not by authorities on art, but by people like the discerning thieves in the first poem of the collection, THE TOERAG SITUATIONISTS, who leave behind the music of Elton John in,

	our lass's Astra GTi
while stealing everything else. The poem then relates how, during a warehouse theft of CDs, the same thieves,
	mystified the police
by taking time to sort their haul,
	and left behind the Bee Gees.
Turnbull humorously shows the human side of the thieves, as critical and discerning as anyone else and willing to take time to be so. Turnbull poses the question that perhaps the ordinary people, with no axe to grind or benefactor to sweeten, are equally capable judges of artistic merit.

The re-view of art criticism and art critics in the poem, IN THE PROSPECT OF WHITBY AFTER THE PRIVATE VIEW, follows this theme. The first line is written phonetically, humorously reinforcing the voice of dialect,

	Two faaz'n years of culchah, Mickey Nails
	complains and snorts into his beer
Mickey's view is scathing about the,
	avant-gardists' aspirations
and the lines,
	The selfharmer stroke
	performance artists's photographs of cuts
	looked superficial and did not impress us
underpin the questions posed for art in the poem; how real is real in the art world and who decides? The word, stroke, successfully jolts the rhythm and brings concepts of realism and modernism, language/art into a questioning light. This question is also reflected in the surroundings where,
	yuppies ...
	glide like ghosts
among the,
	scum and arty hangers-on
The line seems thinly drawn between those who court art for money and those for kudos. The last line is the same as the first, but with the humourless and grammatically correct,
	Oh Yeah, two thousand years of culture
This emphasis on voice and dialect contribute wholly to the poem's meaning.

Turnbull's poetry understands the importance of contexts, most eloquently displayed in the poem, "9/11", where a direct voice tells us,

	The first I hear of it is in the butcher's shop
We read the sense in which the events seem unreal to a younger generation in the line,
	I scuff the sawdust, draw on the sticky scent
responding to the, old fella, who would gladly, go again. With a swipe at the concept of civilisation's progress, the poem ends with the phrase,
	we're where we started from
In, NOT THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS, the poem is set in a contemporary context and dialogue responding to the contexts of Larkin's England revealed in his, THE WHITSUN WEDDINGS, written in 1958. The subtle shifting and sharing between the two poems cleverly reveals the change in our culture in a short period of time. Appropriately, the language, tone and voice used are clearly distinct from, yet reflective of, Larkin's.

Names and name-dropping are prevalent in the poetry. The reader might recognise names as eclectic as Patience Strong, Yeats, Ma Broon and Tennyson, but the numerous references to other named characters might drive you, as it did me, off to the reference books. Objects such as beers, Bacardis and cars are also found to be in abundance. In the poem, ARCHIE RICE WITH EVERYTHING, we meet the seedier side of humour in the character of Archie Rice. The poet tells us in a fine juxtaposition of words that the,

	fat comedian's looking rather smug
and that he's,
	... just done Tony Blair
	and wanking, mobile phones and Class B drugs
This seems a world apart from the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, who appear in the final poem (and on the book's cover), WHAT WAS THAT?, but it is more a reconciliation. The poem shows, with somewhat melancholy voice, that progress is an inevitable, double-edged sword, including in this progress the worlds of philosophy, music, literature and art as well as science. Turnbull shows us that humour is a requirement for survival and seems to echo with the late Bill Hick's view of life,
The world is like a ride in an amusement park and when you choose to go on it you think it's real, because that's how powerful our minds are.
Mixing Sartre with slapstick and Oppenheimer, the poem ends, as does the collection, with the lines,
	... a horse
	on a piano that makes you laugh until you
	gasp for air and, lastly, hear
	the music. It's "The Cuckoo Waltz".
An enigmatic line to end a very interesting and entertaining collection of poems.

reviewer: Irene Hossack.