Sunday, 19 October 2008

You Are Here - Simon Turner

You Are Here - Simon Turner
(Heaventree Press, 2007) £7.99

Birmingham gets a raw deal, if you ask me. For far too long, the mere name of the city has been a byword for industrial decline and an urban landscape embodying the worst of post-war town planning and architecture.

Me, though, I’ve always liked the place. A lot. The train journey from Leicester to Brum always seemed to involve mile after mile of fragmented, semi-neglected suburbia, and yet it was always exciting. And then the centre, whatever the lack of fit between its Victorian glories and its more recent experiments, was never less than vibrantly alive, yet never managed to attain the sort of glamour or cool that Manchester, for example, has managed.

In the poetry world, though, it does get the celebration it deserves. That’s been down to Roy Fisher, most notably, and in the notes to this remarkably assured first collection, Simon Turner says: “I avoided reading Roy Fisher for a long time, worried that, as a fellow Midlands-based writer, he would come to dominate my style once I had. I was right.”

He’s being far too modest, because while Turner’s poetry does at times bear the trace of Fisher’s relaxed, inclusive modernism, he’s far too good a writer not to let his own voice come through loud and clear.

This is a book in four sections, some relatively lyrical, others dominated by linguistic experimentation, but that fragmented landscape I talked about is a constant presence throughout. It’s there in the nature poems, such as Storm Journal, which choose less obvious subjects than most poets would, and which combine acute observation with a subtle, suggestive language. And importantly, the poet himself is never foregrounded in these works, even when he’s aware of his presence within the scene. The excellent Swifts even references this, being split into the two sections what I say and what they say which wittily rewrite each other from different viewpoints, while in Geographies he even asks: “Why write? These things / are so much themselves.” They are, but his poetry allows for that fact rather than diminishing it.

Turner isn’t afraid to return to the same territory again and again, sometimes within individual poems, but it never gets repetitive because he’s always aware that language has the power to freshen it up each time. The result is a bit like one of those train journeys I mentioned earlier – at times you find yourself moving into a new part of town that looks uncannily similar to where you came from; at others, the passing of time has wrought subtle changes. And so the city is simultaneously ugly and beautiful.

I’ll be honest. A few of the most experimental pieces left me cold, but it’s a good-sized collection and none the worse for taking the opportunity to try things out, take risks. And one of the most impressive features is the way that Turner doesn’t play with language merely for its own sake. Instead, it’s a constant part of the landscape too – crows scry their new alphabet “on the scorched parchment sky”; “the town’s frayed outskirts” become the “furthest edges of speech”; high rise blocks are “a stuttered plea” that the “crazed sky ponders and declines”.

Oh, and one last thing. I’d only come across one Heaventree publication before, Andy Brown’s pamphlet The Trust Territory, but this book confirms the good physical impression made by that. It’s a really nicely put together paperback, with a splendid cover by David Dewis. I know I’ve said it before, but that matters to me.

Of course, it would matter too if the contents didn’t live up to the package, but there’s no problem on that count. Simon Turner is here, to stay I hope.

No comments: