Todd Turner’s debut collection deals mostly with the every-day: weeding, burning off garden waste, lying in the yard watching beetles, driving through the city, growing a bonsai wattle in a pot. The book is arranged in a loose chronology, with the earlier poems about rural childhood or family history, and the later ones set in adulthood in an urban environment – Sydney in at least some of them. The hinge between the two halves is Homecoming, a harrowing poem about the death of a brother.
Many of the poems in Woodsmoke (e.g. "Shelling Peas", which is excerpted on the back cover) consist of finely-crafted description set forth with little comment. The tone is sober, matter-of-fact, precise; and there is a fastidious avoidance of overstatement and verbal ostentation. They tend to regular stanzas, with lines of roughly equal length (there may be a more formal metrics at play):
Whenever my mother took hold of the spade
and handed me the cardboard box, I knew
we’d be doing the weeds. She’d dig, while
I stood there beside her as she threw them in.
("The Weeds" 5)
A few poems (e.g. "Heading West to Koorawatha", "September on Gasworks Bridge", "Leaving My Place on the River") offer the same basic aesthetic, but with irregular stanzas and line-lengths, and are reminiscent of poets such as Robert Bly and James Wright. The final section of "Heading West to Koorawatha" reads:
It is almost dark, and the last of the light
falls onto the canola fields, and onto the hillsides
full of Paterson’s curse.
I pull over and watch the sun sink
into a stretch of grass.
("Heading West to Koorawatha" 2)
Nature poets since Wordsworth have been afflicted by the urge to moralise, to view the natural world as a teacher of lessons which it is the poet’s job to interpret. Turner’s collection is, on the whole, markedly free of this tendency. In fact, I found poems such as "The Weeds", "Lot" and "After Chores" a little puzzling: the descriptions are finely wrought, but the emotional significance of the activities described is unclear. Perhaps the determination not to over-state, not to over-write, can go too far.
My favourite poems in the book ("Woodsmoke", "A Penance", "Nocturne", "Fieldwork") are those that break free of the propensity to (stylistic and/or emotional) sobriety. In the title poem, the language is unusually extravagant: woodsmoke
sends up its flag of stored aeons
and multifarious resins in a surly
blue charred blaze.
The poet reveals that he thinks of it
passes for benediction; the tenured
door through which seasons pass,
a time-tempered passage
This poem ends:
Somewhere lost among the welcome
arms of the woodland trees I see it,
adrift in a smock of ribbons, and set
amid the downy blueprint of allegory,
charted, in the aftermath of flame.
Todd Turner, Woodsmoke. North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2014. ISBN 9781876044862