Alberta Turner: What do you mean, mean?

Alberta Turner (1919-2003)

Alberta Turner (1919-2003)

In 2006, C. A. Conrad launched the Neglectorino Project, inviting people to bring to light their favourite poets relegated to obscurity instead of basking in the posterity they deserved. Luckily, the list is still up and running, and it’s open for anyone to name their own favourites in the comments
boxes . . .


http://neglectorino.blogspot.com/

. . . which I just did: Alberta Turner. Her most recent publication, I believe, is a new and selected collection, Beginning with And (Bottom Dog Press, 1994). It’s available from Small Press Distribution.

Bottom Dog Press, 1994

Bottom Dog Press, 1994

Perhaps she’s less neglected a poet than I am assuming. Out of curiosity I searched the Poetics archives and found narry a mention of her (except for one post by me a couple of years ago). On that listserv, her death in 2003 didn’t register a tremor on the Richter scale. I also checked some long-standing and prominent poetry blogs of Poetics List members, and again, no mention. So I don’t think that she is particularly well known among the more experimentally inclined.

Thematically, she is a poet of the quotidian: she observes the minute moments of ordinary life and turns them inside-out to bring to light the contents of their pockets. She also knocks the icon of the domestic goddess off her pedestal.

In a sonnet entitled “Accounting,” a woman putters around the house, cooking in the kitchen, getting dressed, and tying her shoelaces that have come undone. All the while, she obsessively counts things in the kitchen and then her own multiple selves that seem to be reflected in a domestic hall of mirrors:

Accounting

Twenty of them. Count
five with heads
eight with holes
seven of some soft stuff—

You put boots on the cat,
a diamond bracelet on the crow.
Look at yourself grinning out of the spider web,
stuffing your twins into a pouch.

Two of you have identical spoons,
four go to the same shelf for salt,
three return to the fifth stone from the door
to tie your shoes.

A dried bee crunches underfoot.
Two of you will crunch bees.

Lid and Spoon (1977)

Her sardonic response to the tiresome, petty activities of daily life is evident in her reference to food she is preparing (“seven of some soft stuff”) and her self-mockery dressing before a cracked mirror (“stuffing your twins into a pouch”). She also inserts an element of absurdity and self-deprecation in her dressing, which is described in the language of the folk tale: “You put boots on the cat” (perhaps a reference to puss-in-boots, a children’s tale) and “a diamond bracelet on the crow” (“old crow” being derogatory slang for an unattractive woman).

Her counting exercise magnifies her sense of ennui performing repetitive mundane actions—holding a spoon, reaching for salt on a shelf, getting dressed before a cracked mirror, and hearing the crunch of stepping on dried insects. And her reference to herself in the second person reveals her alienation from herself. It is as though she were outside her body observing with subtle and good-humoured mockery her multiplied selves do chores.

Turner experienced the women’s movement of the 60s during her 40s; thus she spent the first twenty years of her adulthood in an overtly sexist society in which women were still by and large expected to function in traditional domestic roles. Turner, with sly humour, makes fun of her role, which she obviously doesn’t relish, of perfoming household duties.

Turner is not only a poet of domestic dissent. Her work, while largely accessible, is edgy and often disjunctive, qualities that threw off some critics, such as Margaret Gibson, who reviewed Lids and Spoons in the Library Journal in 1977. Gibson disparages Turner’s “astigmatic” vision in her “surreal collages” and “oracular riddles.” On the other hand, she praises Turner’s poems that form “organic wholes anchored in a world we can recognize for ourselves.” Critics who were accustomed to more accessible poetry were puzzled by her work’s experimental qualities such as odd juxtapositions, fragmentary phrases, and, as in the following poem, the unsettling use of nouns for verbs:

Mean, MEAN

Little eggs—blue, specked.
Laid, they grape;
feathered, they bead;
beaded, they
bird
very small birds
blur or brown, bellied
in white
What they mean is small:
beak-bite, spur prick,
brittle
spike.

*

I heard you,
MEAN!

Because hinge? Because tile’s hollow—
and straws and legs?
Because feet have the soles of feet?

Pockets for tails. A tail graft in
Capetown has held three weeks.

*

The soft part of conchs,
the stuff between shells.
I have bells of pods, necklaces of
teeth, but my tools
are spoon—somewhere a
pulp needs me—a drying juice,
an unhoused snail.

Learning to Count (1974)

The title, with its imperative to produce a more transparent meaning, could be a response to her critics who would tame the syntax and bridge the gaps. The first section begins quietly with a line designed, perhaps, to appeal to her critics. It is an image fairly bursting with preciosity: “Little eggs—blue, specked.” Then Turner slyly subverts the syntactical normalcy by splashing the parts of speech wherever she likes with quick, sure strokes: “Laid, they grape; / feathered, they bead; / beaded they bird.” Next follow three lines describing the “very small birds” in a tone similar to the first line.

She seems to turn to her critics to tell them what the poem means in case they missed it: “small.” The final three lines contain only six words, but they are so thick with alliteration, assonance, and near-rhymes that their meaning fades into the background and their sounds take precedence:

beak-bite, spur prick,
brittle
spike.

In their dense musicality, these short, energetic lines are reminiscent of troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel, particularly his chanson “L’aur amara,” which is also about birds, a favourite subject of Daniel:

L’aur amara
fa’ls bruels brancutz
clarzir,
que’l dous’espeis’ab fuelhs,
e’ls letz
becx
dels auzels ramencx
te babs e mutz,
pars
e non pars,
. . .

Even if you haven’t learned Medieval Occitan (and who has the time for it these days?), you can tell the extreme care with which Daniel selected each word to achieve a complex sonic weaving. *

In Turner’s three lines,

beak-bite, spur prick,
brittle
spike.

the “beak,” “spur,” and “spike” are tiny in relation to a bird’s body. But smallness is also expressed through the sounds of the words, which have a short, pecking quality to my ears, signifying the tiny motions of the bird’s beak, just as the sounds of Daniel’s lines might suggest the chirping of birds.

In the second section, Turner again seems to turn to her critics who would have her write more “meaningful” poetry, this time with extreme annoyance: “I heard you, / MEAN!” She then asks why she should mean, but her very questions belie her tendency to disjunction rather than “organic wholes”:

Because hinge? Because tile’s hollow—
and straws and legs?
Because feet have the soles of feet?

The last two lines are delightfully indecipherable. At this point, she is off the beaten track of clear meaning, talking in dry reportage style about “pockets,” “tails,” and a “tail graft in / Capetown.”

Turner has it her way in the third section, and this time, no critics are invited. The musicality of Turner’s range of tones and timbres is again reminiscent of Daniel:

The soft part of conchs,
the stuff between shells.
I have bells of pods, necklaces of
teeth, but my tools
are spoon—somewhere a
pulp needs me—a drying juice,
an unhoused snail.

In spite of its disjunctiveness (spoons and mollusks), the poem’s images echo impressionistically—although perhaps not in Gibson’s desired “organic unity.”

There’s one other poem by Alberta Turner that I’d like to post (mercifully) without comment:

HOOD BUTTON SHELL FUR

Gravity and wind so bells
feet in pairs ring pant legs
sausage curls clang hoods
domes hunch on traffic lights that lift
and swing

also cold its squirrel tail its nose drop
and cannon mouths their coin
*
One slave
to fasten the clasp of her cross
one
to slice her butter onto her toast

And she is fatherless
fed the bully to the meanest hog
sewed his buttons on a girl’s coat
*
Assume
that custard is smooth
that blue is sad and kind

Assume a god
ladle of fish
ladle of glue

And why not perch the snail shell on the log
as if the snail were still climbing out?
*
Three beans in a row red beans
three snows with no salt between
Ladder perhaps?

“Stop” And I would
But without wheels? Without road?
Stop an axe drop a hand

And fur is as angry as I can today

Lid and Spoon (1977)

* Ezra Pound, an admirer and translator of Daniel’s chansons, renders these lines as follows:

The bitter air
Strips panoply
From trees
Where softer winds set leaves,
And glad
Beaks
Now in breaks are coy,
Scarce peep the wee
Mates
And un-mates

 

Camille Martin
http://www.camillemartin.ca

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One response to “Alberta Turner: What do you mean, mean?

  1. Pingback: Roundup: Poetry Close Readings and Appreciations « Rogue Embryo

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