Brian Hawkins reviews Woodsmoke by Todd Turner

Todd Turner, Woodsmoke. North Fitzroy: Black Pepper, 2014. ISBN 9781876044862

 

Brian Hawkins

 

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

                                                as what

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.

(“Woodsmoke” 3)

 

Brian Hawkins

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