These Are Our Toys’: Desolate Market By Julian Turner
There is a vast unfathomable symmetry to Julian Turner’s new collection, whose conclusion in deep space is as intrinsically unknowable as the remote landscape of the Cairngorms in which the opening poem, ‘Lairig Grhu’, is set. The sense of foreboding inhering, like mist, to the rocks in the ancient mountain pass is replicated in the cosmic fastnesses of the ‘silent vacuum’ in ‘Asteroid Hyalosis’.
In the ‘groyning’ of landscapes – earth’s rock is no less a monument to the cosmos than distant dwarf planets – elemental cores are in continual flux. And one of Turner’s many points in Desolate Market
is that the phenomenal ‘manufactory’ of our planet’s tectonic and volcanic shifts - of what will become – is a window on the wider universe. In a book of extraordinary macroscopic vision, there is unacknowledged consolation in the sense of cold geological continuity. And in star-gazing, of the sort which focuses the prehensile mind:
‘They are a kind of comfort, in the way
illusions are: my Hilda Family
of specks and wires that move as my eyes move’. (from ‘Asteroid Hyalosis’)
That intense focus is evident in the seductive ‘Mingulay’ whose huge cliff faces and ‘green immensity’ disorder visual perception and throw balance, leaving an almost mystical connection with the sea in their wake, long after the ‘grateful’ protagonists retire to the ‘café listing dangerously’: ‘our spirits / tug against the moorings of our bodies, / hear the gannets call us as they pass.’
There is comfort for the reader, too, in the poet’s assiduous assimilation of precise formal measures, which underwrite that continuity as the narrator turns guide in a Miltonic passage through a fractured and evolving landscape. Turner’s attention cleaves to the bigger picture, to the failure of evolution to work for humanity, to human transience, and to the systematic undermining of our endeavours by insane, inexorable market forces and ecological negligence. That humanity is somehow out of reach in Turner’s swathing, magnificent conception pays lips service to a terrible miscalculation; what remain are the dead, the anaesthetised, the metamorphosed and shadows.
Landscapes, in these poems, are disturbed by powers that lie beneath, and by the spectral presence of anthropomorphic figures whose roving is sensed in the ancient rock, and who hold mirrors to all of our futures. The ‘Yorkshire Giant’ who stalks the wooded slope of Otley’s Chevin is a harbinger of nemesis amongst detritus. Nature’s corrective, the giant’s eye is as inescapable as fate as he overturns the inventory of dumped rubbish in the first octet – ‘the black bin bags spilling yellow Fosters tins’ – to roam ‘the empty roads by dark’ of the second verse, ‘in search of people and their secret stains’.
The ‘secret stains’ are worn complacently by most of us – ‘islands’ of plastic floating in the oceans are the external effluvia of domestic inertia – and Turner’s irrationally agoraphobic fear in ‘Lairig Grhu’ and elsewhere is symptomatic not only of an overwhelmed imagination, but of the barely-contained power of injured nature, of restored balance. Metaphors of injustice and abuse are apt here: ‘the drone and sobs of a sore wind / that whines across the moors and drowns / the isolated hums of life.’
Such energy is given to volatility, a perfect metaphor for irruptions of restorative violence. Turner’ s frequent ‘harnessing’ of energy for the purpose of describing the volcanic torment of re-configuration is a powerful suit in a book about the astonishing dynamism of the imagination. In this landscape of rock and water, which yields the illusion of seamless oneness, the mystical gigantism of the beheld gives notice of raw, uncontained power. The narrator’s enfeebled humanness – ‘dwarfed by the buckled ramparts’ banded gneiss’ (‘Mingulay’) – is drawn in violent consonantal conflict.
Turner returns to the far north west of Scotland frequently here. The birth of geological time is bound in the gneiss and gabbro whose precipitous peaks are as sharp as sharks’ teeth, and there is a sense of cosmic impermanence in the seemingly permanent, encouraged by the ebbing and flowing of the seas around their ripped edges.
Rendering a kind of general homage to the earth-defining tectonic process, the poet digs deep to the dyspeptic mantle to find the sublime in mass forces whose scale we cannot truly comprehend. ‘Local God’ describes a Britain as though in permanent making by mystical forces beyond our reckoning:
‘God without a name whom none can see,
look out for me
above the soup-thick magma sea,
and in between the lava’s fuss,
of fumaroles and fire,
be what you are,
be what is underlying us.’
I have never seen ‘fumaroles’ used before, except in Tony Harrison’s oeuvre, and there are echoes of Turner in Harrison’s seminal V
., where the poet finds a similar sense of comfort and continuity in abandonment in the subsiding chambers of ‘rabblement and bone’ beneath Leeds’ Beeston cemetery, into which the desecrated gravestone of his parents will one day collapse.
And ‘desecration’ is an apt way of delineating the outcome of the corrupting market forces which bear the weight of their own inherently divisive momentum. It is a testament to Turner’s pliable thinking that the four sections of this seductive collection overlap and shape each other. Part three, which gives its name to the book’s title, and originates in William Blake’s Vala, or the Four Zoas
, is a fatalistic overview of a world centripetally-charmed by a capitalist enterprise which is fundamentally without meaning.
Using a range of acerbically perfect metaphors, Turner views the wreckage from the perspective of the collateral damage. Whilst the appalling rapacity of an infestation figures for both an inexorable corporatism and a yielding to its invasive blandishments in ‘The Slug Autumn’, the resoundingly pointed rhyming quatrains of ‘Care’ measure empathic decline in brazen metaphors of redundant machinery and rainbow pools of sump oil. The boom/bust of commercial imperatives bring wastelands, then one further, this time terminal, ‘prospect’ in their wake: the sardonic spectre of Heritage Britain:
‘The word itself still stands, hollow, ill-used.
They were planning a museum in it, but staff
have been laid off and cobwebs handkerchief
the corners where a glint of kindness is accused.’
This is fine, ironic writing, whose duty of remembrance is repeated in the strange and moving sonnet, ‘The Rhubarb Triangle’, which cleverly conflates images of rhubarb grown on an industrial scale in the rough geographical area between Leeds and Wakefield, with the silent disappearance of children to dispossession and anonymity.
And here, too, in the ‘tusky’ fields, there is a further echo of Tony Harrison, whose omnivorous championing of the language of the working classes enabled an ironic efflorescence in the vernacular reading of ‘rhubarb’, and its brutal corollary, ‘Rhubarbarians’. The forgotten, inarticulate poor who, for Harrison, demand commemoration, find mirrors in Turner’s ‘wan-faced kids’ who are rendered voiceless by socio-economic circumstance, ‘are harvested and flee to London on / the Rhubarb Trains or disappear in Leeds’.
The agency which animates Turner’s narrative of despair finds mythical shape in ‘Morrigan’, a legendary harpy who drives the negative energy of poisonous rhetoric into the minds of the susceptible, and leaves victims unable to discern between good and ill. The sense of deterministic agency is a neat device in the poet’s over-arching thematic strategy: a kind of historical inevitability besets human invention and the evolutionary process. A return to the isolationist political motivations of the 1930s, now resurging across Europe, is mirrored in ‘Morrigan’, together with the insidious process of insinuation which is drip-fed populations in the form of media scapegoating, anodyne TV, and the all-seeing internet eye. ‘Her voice’, the narrator says, ‘is sleep-inducing, laced with hate. / What would happen if her trap was sprung ? / We wouldn’t know until it was too late.’
The fear of a new form of totalitarianism remains central to Turner’s cry of anguish. In an intriguing short section called ‘The Black Box’, his narrator charts the development of machineries of mind-control as they encourage us to sleepwalk towards a cliff edge of dangerous, uncommunicative introspection, where the sheer prevalence of forms of surveillance and CCTV encourage a somnolent complacency. The perception altering markers of Virtual Reality, the displacements of truth in Fake News, and the inability to discern between real and synthetic experience, presage a frighteningly schizophrenic future characterised by deep ambiguity, and over which the ‘knowing’ few may exert undiluted control:
‘A false self camped inside each sleeping brain,
Manchurian candidates who dream of power,
fifth columnists inside a conquered self,
Helsinki syndrome separatists who signed
for someone else the future of us all’. (‘Remote Surveillance 2017)
Turner’s well-wrought dystopia is a condition which begins to look more mystically unreal as the barriers between it, and our present, fall away. Finding residual comfort in the knowledge of an unheeding universe’s endless turning, this fabulous body of poems obliges us to do the same.
‘I raise my head and watch the fountain flow,
its currents knotting up loose ends in me,
dwarfed by this huge, disinterested machine
spinning its great designs of flesh and soul’ (‘The Fountain’)
is published by Carcanet Press