Guest Review: Wilkinson on Turnbull

Ben Wilkinson reviews
Stranded in Sub-Atomica (Donut Press) by Tim Turnbull

It’s interesting that one of the poems early on in this shiny and slickly produced first collection gives Simon Armitage a decisive ribbing, albeit a distinctly tongue-in-cheek one. The target here is ‘Chainsaw versus the Pampas Grass’, a poem from Armitage’s 2002 collection, The Universal Home Doctor. Turnbull’s poem functions as a sort of dialogue piece, then, sarcastically questioning whether Armitage has ever actually ‘heard the creaking hinge [of a genuine chainsaw] / and rushing air as six tons of timber and branch / come roaring, like a train crash, to the ground’, or whether, as is more likely, he’s simply the proud owner of a ‘glorified hedge trimmer.’ And it’s suitably ironic because, what with all the down-to-earth humour and barefaced honesty that marks it, Turnbull’s work ultimately owes a lot to his hedge-trimming contemporary. The other trademarks are there, too, from a commitment to the present (and indeed, northern) vernacular, to the darkly comic twists and idiomatic turns of phrase that lend both Turnbull’s and Armitage’s poems their verve and edge.

This is particularly evident in the collection’s title poem, which compares the eviction of a man from his flat with the Fantastic Four’s efforts to ‘reverse Doctor Doom’s shrinking-ray / or be marooned / forever’, epic fantasy meeting everyday reality in similar ways to Armitage’s ‘Zoom!’. Life’s cruel humour also works its way into the poem’s opening lines, where the narrator reveals how ‘after four years of wrangling over unpaid rent, the housing co-op, / the one he helped found / in the seventies, obtained an eviction order and repossessed.’ Further to this, and like much of Armitage’s early work, the scene Turnbull vividly paints is a harrowingly familiar and contemporary dystopia: a room full of ‘shit’ containing ‘a pamphlet biography / of Rosa Luxembourg, copies of Green Anarchist, assorted tracts / from the WRP, / A Nietzsche Reader’, as well as the brilliantly illuminating image of ‘stacks of PG Tips boxes which leaked residue / like bracken spores / when moved and gave a deep brown dusting to the work tops / and the grease-caked floor.’

Whatever a number of Turnbull’s poems might owe to Armitage, however, becomes largely irrelevant when one considers the scope, ambition and variety of much of the collection. In fact, the poems are often most impressive when Turnbull moves away from his usual (and no doubt anecdotal) territory of chainsaws, motorbikes and cars that, at least in tone and rhythmical execution, seem to come most naturally to him. Such an ‘alternative’ highlight is ‘Not the Whitsun Weddings’, a poem in which Turnbull meticulously adopts Larkin’s rhyme scheme and eye-opening train journey to his own updated, yet similarly cynical, intentions. Here, instead of Larkin’s crowd of brides, grooms and families, the poem recounts a group of ‘Stags’ (‘a laddish plague / infecting all the coach with noise and beer’) and ‘Hens’ (who ‘play it dumb-but-sly and soak the flattery up’) boarding the train carriage, less to celebrate the marriage of their friends and more for the excuse of a party; amid ‘air perfumed with booze / and latent sex.’ In addition to this, and in its cynicism and twisted humour, the story of an imagined government genetics experiment, ‘It Lives!’, is similarly captivating, largely due to Turnbull’s tapping into the more paranoiac and uncomfortable elements of the political zeitgeist: ‘the mind of a pig, / implanted in the body of a pig, / dressed up in a cheap suit, furnished […] / with a full set of opinions and let loose.’

What really helps this collection to stand out, however, aside from the fact that Turnbull is that rare combination of a technically accomplished writer and a strong live performer (which undoubtedly lends many of his poems their liveliness and memorability on the page), is poems like ‘Johnny Cash’. In this paean to the country & western legend, Turnbull deftly blends humour, wit, and the trials of male adolescence towards a personal revelation that holds an unfortunate but likely truth for all of us. As well as imagining Cash at a Led Zeppelin gig, then, humbling Jimmy Page and quietly threatening to ‘ram that violin bow up [the guitarist’s] ass – saadways’, Turnbull draws the ‘sad conclusion’ that brings the various elements of the poem together perfectly, recognising ‘as so often in my life, that all that adolescent self-assertion / was in vain. / Me mam was right again. My name is Sue. How do you do? My name is Tim, / Johnny, and things are looking grim.’ Good job on the promise of this first book, then, that the same can’t be said for Turnbull’s poetic future.

Wilkinson is a poet who recently completed his BA in English and Philosophy at University of Sheffield. His dissertation was on the New Generation Poets of 1994, primarily the work of Simon Armitage, Don Paterson, and Carol Ann Duffy. His poems have appeared in various magazines, including Poetry Review, The Frogmore Papers, and The TLS. He has been an Eyewear Featured Poet.