Gael Turnbull

Internationalist poet whose Migrant Press pointed the way to the British poetry renaissance
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The Independent Online

Critics were unsure whether Gael Turnbull was Canadian, American or Scottish. Donald M. Allen's seminal anthology The New American Poetry (1960) includes him under publishers - "Migrant Press, 1199 Church Street, Ventura, Calif. (Or, 2 Camp Hill Road, Worcester, ENGL.)" - but omits his poetry entirely.

Gael Lundin Turnbull, poet, medical practitioner and anaesthesiologist: born Edinburgh 7 April 1928; married 1952 Jonnie Draper (three daughters; marriage dissolved 1983), 1983 Jill Iles (née Norman); died Hereford 2 July 2004.

Critics were unsure whether Gael Turnbull was Canadian, American or Scottish. Donald M. Allen's seminal anthology The New American Poetry (1960) includes him under publishers - "Migrant Press, 1199 Church Street, Ventura, Calif. (Or, 2 Camp Hill Road, Worcester, ENGL.)" - but omits his poetry entirely.

Turnbull was a Scottish poet but an internationalist (he was told he had a "disturbed accent"), who crossed the ocean back and forth, to forge a rapport with Quebecois poets, French prose poets, Black Mountain poets, Beat poets, concrete poets, exiled Scottish and English poets. His role in transatlantic poetics was pivotal, pointing the way to the British poetry renaissance of the 1960s.

He founded Migrant Press in 1957 in Ventura, joined by the poet Michael Shayer (in Worcester) in 1959. Migrant was the first transatlantic publisher of predominantly modernist poetry to attain international notice after the Second World War.

Turnbull himself was a multi-faceted artist: a translator, lyricist, prose-poem writer, kinetic sculptor and book maker. He was also a doctor and anaesthesiologist; conscientious and intuitive in his trade.

His poetry, of which there is plenty, coursed in his bloodstream; he was brought up with border ballads and skaldic sagas. His disciplined approach to a lifetime of fervently inventive but practical projects derived in part from his physician's temperament. His father, Ralph Gale Turnbull, was a butcher's son who worked his way up through the farm and feed business in Scotland, to freelance employment in the church ministry in Scotland and Canada. He became a Professor in Homiletics and published books of sermons.

Gael Turnbull was born in Tollcross, by the Meadows in Edinburgh, in the spring of 1928. He was the firstborn of four children. In 1923 his father had emigrated from Scotland to attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Here he met Anne Lundin, the daughter of Swedish immigrants who farmed in Dassel, Minnesota. They married in 1926, and returned to Scotland. Ralph began his formal ministry in a Baptist chapel at Jarrow, Co Durham, in 1931.

His son would later write:

My father's family are hereditary freemen of Berwick-on-Tweed, so that I suppose I am a "borderer" . . . but the Borders are not just those between England and Scotland, but between those countries and America as well.

In 1934 the Turnbulls settled in Blackpool, where Ralph was minister at a large Baptist chapel. Gael attended the Arnold School until he was 11, and remembered a "happy" childhood. When war broke out, his father, dissatisfied with his ministry in Britain, decided to return to America. Anne and Gael's two sisters went on ahead. Shortly after his father went to Berwick to claim his freedom, he and Gael set sail in September 1939.

In fact they settled in Winnipeg, Canada, where Gael boarded at St John's College. Four years later, alone and aged 16, he left Canada for England, with returning evacuees on a light cruiser, to attend the Perse School in Cambridge. The following year he entered Christ's College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences, rejoining his parents in 1948 and enrolling at medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, to take his MD in 1951.

From 1950 Gael Turnbull's poetry was published in Canada, America, England and Scotland, in magazines including Black Mountain Review, Origin, Poor.Old.Tired.Horse., New Departures, Poetry Review, Grosseteste, Sulfur, Edinburgh Review, Object Permanence. Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Christie published his work in fine editions. Elegant book production came from Tarasque Press, Cape Goliard and Anvil.

His technical versatility is already displayed in his first book, Trio:

"Now That April's Here"

It's raining on the Brussels sprouts

The fire is smoking in the grate.

Macmillan says he has no doubts.

Will Oxford beat the Cambridge eight?

Some bright intervals tomorrow.

Sixpence on a football pool.

Seven per cent if you want to borrow.

Charles is settling down to school.

Put the Great back in Great Britain.

Writer a letter to The Times.

Lots of fun with Billy Butlin.

It's a poem if it rhymes.

In 1952 Turnbull had married Jonnie Draper, a theatre student at Carnegie Tech. To avoid being drafted for the Korean War Turnbull caught a bus on a day trip to Montreal with a shopping bag; Jonnie and their cases were on the train. They stayed in Canada and, after requalifying in 1952, Turnbull accepted a job with a medical practice in the logging camps in Iroquois Falls, northern Ontario. In 1955-56 they were briefly back in London, then they were over the Atlantic again. Driving across the continent from New York, Turnbull found work at County Hospital, Ventura, as an anaesthetist, on the coast just south of Santa Barbara.

In 1954 Contact Press in Toronto had published Trio, featuring poems of Phyllis Webb, Turnbull and Eli Mandel. Webb recalled Turnbull's four collaborative translations of French poets the following year with Jean Beaupré. They showed he had "quickly and astutely diagnosed the need for more communication between French-speaking and English- speaking writers in Canada and set out to remedy the situation".

Cid Corman's Origin Press published Bjarni Spike-Helgi's Son and Other Poems (1956), initiating a lifelong correspondence. Collecting material for a British edition of Origin, Turnbull chanced on a poem in the magazine The Window, entitled "The Lemon Bride". It was written by Roy Fisher. Turnbull sought more of Fisher's work, thereby introducing the less travelled Fisher overnight to unique exponents of American modernism. But Philip Larkin was also chosen for Origin 20:

Larkin was sent a complimentary copy of the magazine, to see what kind of magazine he was going to be in. He opened it and sent by registered post a countermand to withdraw all his material.

Fisher came on board Migrant as business editor in 1965 and in 1988 would dedicate his Poems 1955-1987 to Turnbull. Theirs was a close friendship. "Our ways of working, and the results, hardly overlapped," he said:

But he was wholly responsible for making it possible for me to see how I could do anything at all in poetry, and for giving me visibility and a context.

Fisher characterises Migrant as

eclectic, had open door, wasn't reputationist, was ramshackle, the magazines were

given away free or sold for three and sixpence, some miserable poems of mine finished the issue. Receiving and distributing small press items overstamping them "Migrant Books", traded or given. Creeley's The Whip [1957], William Bronk's first book [ Light and Dark, Origin Press, 1956], Bunting's The Spoils [1965].

Turnbull had first met Basil Bunting at Throckley in 1956, during the long silence before Briggflatts (1965), and the older poet would be a mentor to Turnbull. The editorial address became Fisher's front room, 7 Endwood Court Road, Handsworth, Birmingham. The Dancers Inherit the Party by Ian Hamilton Finlay (1960), What I See in the Maximus Poems by Edward Dorn (1960), Sovpoems by Edwin Morgan (1961), Fisher's own City (1961) and Turnbull's Twenty Words, Twenty Days (1966) are just five of their titles. Fisher carried on trading after production had ended, and till the demand faded.

Gael Turnbull's poetry was now lodged in enough places to gain him a British reputation. Cape Goliard published a selection of his poems, A Trampoline, in 1968. Black-witted and memorable, this contained transversions from Norse sagas, poems of doctoring, family and parochial satire. Prose poetry was strongly represented, of which "Homage to Jean Follain" is justly revered:

I think you must have written them on postcards, your poems; like something one sends home while visiting abroad;

or like woodcuts that one finds in an old book in the attic and stares at on a rainy day, forgetting supper, forgetting to switch on the light

Turnbull had no wish to be drafted for Vietnam as a medical orderly, so, in 1964, the family returned to England. They settled at Stifford's Bridge, outside Malvern, in Worcestershire. Gael went into a practice at the Ronkswood Hospital, Worcester. This region was to give him his significant English location. He enjoyed the terraced workman's house he had bought in Malvern, which had a demolition order on it, close to his family's house. Here he kept all his writing, had the poets to stay, preserved cobwebs in corner of the room, and stacked china in the oven he never lit. He became a Morris dancer, and joined a local folk group, Undercurrent Productions. They performed with Gael in a waistcoat playing finger cymbals, giving him a teenage abandon he had not had 20 years earlier.

In 1973 Jonnie took a job as librarian and copy-taker with the Worcester Evening News, and the Turnbulls moved to Malvern, but in 1981, amicably, they separated.

A wealth of small press publications characterises the 1970s. Turnbull's prose poetry would, for a time, be less predominant. Grosseteste published the dense striations of Residues: down the sluice of time in 1976. Villanelles and ballads remained an important cast of his oral repertoire. His lyrics were probing. Each verse of the lament "They Have Taken My Father" was informed by the physician's knowledge of how much a body could endure:

They have taken my sister

and bred her to a beast.

They have taken my brother

and cut one little cord in his heart.

Turnbull undervalued his A Winter Journey (Pig Press, 1987). It stands as a noble, otherworldly dream. Anvil's retrospective A Gathering of Poems, 1950-1980 (1983) represented the first 30 years, but the poet would seem happiest at the photocopier, making his own booklets. Stains (1995) contained a reversed-image cover and an application of Ronseal.

He met his second wife, Jill Iles, in Hay on Wye at a medieval festival. Turnbull appeared as Dr Stale Gullible wearing a top hat and tails, doing a performance piece about the Malvern water cure. She was hooked. They married in 1983, and in 1989 settled in Edinburgh, where Iles researched the history of the Scottish glass industry.

Gael Turnbull was a modest, generous and unterritorial poet, who internalised his thoughts, which took him figuratively and literally in directions of his own. He said there were four types of poem: poems that emerge from a plan, from mistake, from the compost of earlier poems and poems which fall from the ceiling.

Since 1985 he wrote textualist poems, "making a fresh texture, previously only implicit, from an already existing text". Next he rethought the prose poem, developing the 1997 series Transmutations. Kinetic sculpture, which he began to make in 1997, he displayed each summer on the Royal Mile at the Edinburgh Festival, official busker's badge in his rucksack. In 1999 Turnbull also saw the fruits of his part in the Calton Terrace vigil, when Scotland was devolved.

A new generation of Scottish presses wanted to publish the man who had taught, and given, their forebears so much. (But why had official records of Scottish poetry excluded his work for so long? Because he had crossed the border?) Morning Star's commissions and Mariscat's feuilletons were colourful squid in Turnbull's shoal of publications.

This "minimal missive", issued in 1994 from Strathearn Place, was a masterpiece, entitled Impellings. Here is its penultimate verse:

with an owl sounding in the dark

above a lapping millpond, wildflowers

on a kitchen table, a last butterfly

drowsy by a windowsill, the tea things

washed and put away, her eyes

lit by the open hearth, the others gone

and no more to be done, he turned

to find himself at last and without words

reaching out one hand, was gripped by hers

Gael Turnbull gave his final reading on a library roof in bright sunlight this May at Exeter's tEXt festival. He had boarded the train loaded with kinetic sculpture and Zola's La Bête humaine to read. In Devon in the next 24 hours he visited Exbourne Church to peruse its tithe map, drank in the Scottish poet Seán Rafferty's pub and saw his old house, whittled a wooden dagger, checked my ill son's temperature, recited "Sir Patrick Spens" by heart and found a cob wall full of doves. The next day, thronged by people, he read participatory kinetic poems, and left for St Ives.

Turnbull died, aged 76, after falling ill at a 21st-anniversary family camp at Pembridge, Herefordshire. (Being Gael, he was pitching a tent.) In spring 2005 Etruscan Books will publish a "Selected Poems", Time is a Fisherman.

Nicholas Johnson



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