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TURNBULL, Gael (Lundin)


Nationality: Scottish. Born: Edinburgh, 7 April 1928. Education: Cambridge University, B.A. 1948; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, M.D. 1951. Family: Married 1) Jonnie May Draper in 1952 (divorced 1983), three daughters; 2) Pamela Jill Iles in 1983. Career: Medical practitioner, 1952–89. Editor, with Michael Shayer, Migrant magazine, Worcester, and Ventura, California, 1959–60. Awards: Union League and Arts Foundation prize (Poetry, Chicago), 1965; Alice Hunt Bartlett prize, 1968. Address: 12 Strathearn Place, Edinburgh EH9 2AL, Scotland.

Publications

Poetry

Trio, with Eli Mandel and Phyllis Webb. Toronto, Contact Press, 1954.

The Knot in the Wood and Fifteen Other Poems. London, Revision Press, 1955.

Bjarni Spike-Helgi's Son and Other Poems. Ashland, Massachusetts, Origin Press, 1956.

A Libation. Glasgow, The Poet, 1957.

With Hey, Ho…. Worcester and Ventura, California, Migrant Press, 1961.

To You, I Write. Worcester and Ventura, California, Migrant Press, 1963.

A Very Particular Hill. Edinburgh, Wild Hawthorn Press, 1963.

Twenty Words, Twenty Days: A Sketchbook and a Morula. Birmingham, Migrant Press, 1966.

Walls. Privately printed, 1967.

Briefly. Nottingham, Tarasque Press, 1967.

A Trampoline: Poems 1952–1964. London, Cape Goliard Press, 1968.

Seven from Stifford's. Privately printed, 1968.

I, Maksoud. Exeter, University of Exeter, 1969.

Scantlings: Poems 1964–1969. London, Cape Goliard Press, 1970.

Finger Cymbals. Edinburgh, Satis, 1971.

A Sea Story. Saffron Walden, Essex, Byways, 1973(?).

A Random Sapling. Newcastle upon Tyne, Pig Press, 1974.

Wulstan. Bradford, Yorkshire, Blue Tunnel, 1975.

Witley Court Revisited. Malvern, Worcestershire, Migrant Press, 1975.

Residues: Down the Sluice of Time. Pensnett, Staffordshire, Grosseteste, 1976.

Thronging the Heart. Belper, Derbyshire, Aggie Weston's, 1976.

What Makes the Weeds Grow Tall. Hereford, Five Seasons Press, 1978.

If a Glance Could Be Enough. Edinburgh, Satis, 1978.

The Small Change. Malvern, Worcestershire, Migrant Press, 1980.

Rain in Wales. Edinburgh, Satis, 1981.

Nine Intersections. Twickenham, Middlesex, Circle Press, 1982.

A Gathering of Poems 1950–1980. London, Anvil Press Poetry, 1983.

From the Language of the Heart. Glasgow, Mariscat Press, 1983; enlarged edition, Lexington, Kentucky, Gnomon, 1985.

Traces. Twickenham, Middlesex, Circle Press, 1983.

Circus. Malvern, Worcestershire, Peacock Press, 1984.

Spaces. Edinburgh, Satis, 1986.

A Winter Journey. Durham, Pig Press, 1987.

Strands: As from a Fleece. London, Circle Press, 1990.

While Breath Persist. Erin, Ontario, The Porcupine's Quill, 1992.

For Whose Delight. Glasgow, Mariscat Press, 1995.

Transmutations. Nottingham, Shoestring Press, 1997.

A Rattle of Scree. Kirkcaldy, Akros, 1997.

Amorous Greeting. Staines, Vennel Press, 1998.

Other

A Year and a Day. Glasgow, Mariscat Press, 1985.

Translator, with Jean Beaupré, Nine Poems, by Hector de Saint-Denys-Garneau. Privately printed, 1955.

Translator, with Jean Beaupré, Eight Poems, by Roland Giguère. Privately printed, 1955.

Translator, with Jean Beaupré, Seven Poems, by Giles Hénault. Privately printed, 1955.

Translator, with Jean Beaupré, Six Poems, by Paul-Marie Lapointe. Privately printed, 1955.

Translator, with Jean Beaupré and Jill Iles, Twelve Poems, by Jean Follain. Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, Moschatel Press, n.d.

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Manuscript Collections: Mitchell Library, Glasgow; National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Critical Studies: "Gael Turnbull's Poetry" by Kenneth Cox, in Scripsi (Melbourne), June 1984; "Heart of Saying: The Poetry of Gael Turnbull" by David Miller in New British Poetries, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1993; by M. Simpson, in Critical Survey (Oxford, England), 8(3), 1996.

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Gael Turnbull has a place in literary history because of his work with Migrant— both the magazine and the press—in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was responsible for providing a platform for many forward-looking poets at a time when their outlets were limited, and he acted as a contact point for writers on both sides of the Atlantic. His work in this respect should never be overlooked. But Turnbull has also been a consistently good poet himself, though never getting the attention he deserves.

What is always apparent from a reading of any of Turnbull's scattered pamphlets and his handful of major collections is the accessibility of his writing. He is never obscure and offers a consistent and civilized point of view as a central theme of his work. One of his chief accomplishments, the long poem "Twenty Words, Twenty Days," perhaps stands as a demonstration of form and content coming together in such a way as to provide the reader with an overall view of the man and poet. Turnbull decided to take a word at random from the dictionary on each day between 17 November and 6 December 1963 and then build a section of the poem around it. This kind of device could lead some poets into a hit-or-miss affair of impressions, loose word associations, and inconsequential details, but Turnbull lays a solid base of meaning for his observations of each day's events. His work as a doctor, his family commitments, his activities as a publisher, and his awareness of himself as a poet are all intertwined in the poem, as they are in real life. The language is clear and direct, and the rhythm, subtly constructed from the natural flow of ordinary speech, keeps the whole moving in a relaxed manner. Although the poem looks deceptively casual on the page, there is no doubt at all that it is well constructed, and it never loses control of what it wants to say.

"Twenty Words, Twenty Days" was originally published as a pamphlet, but it is, quite naturally, central to A Gathering Of Poems, described by Turnbull as a "comprehensive collection" of his work between 1950 and 1980. Also of importance is "Residues: Down the Sluice of Time," another long piece that impresses with its combination of technique and content. The reader is made aware of the importance of people, both past and present, to Turnbull's work. He can write effectively about landscapes and nature, but the relationship of people to both is always stressed. These lengthy poems are difficult to illustrate in short extracts, and it would be unfair to do so anyway because of their completeness. They need to be read in full if one is to understand them properly.

But it would be wrong to overlook Turnbull's shorter poems. Many of them are, it is true, fairly straightforward and simple, but they are none the worse for it. He is not afraid of a charming kind of innocence or of sounding almost naive. And he sometimes writes in the manner of old songs and nursery rhymes:

Daft about Sally—
who's daft enough to be
sometimes, when she fancies,
a bit daft about me.

Turnbull can also be satirical, as in "Thighs Gripping," and sharp about social matters, as in "At Mareta":

The poor are starving at Mareta,
not exclusively at Mareta
but particularly.

The shorter poems I have mentioned, together with many others, stand on their own merits, but it needs to be said that some of Turnbull's minor pieces have to be seen in context to take on meaning. Placed on a page on their own, they can seem slight, but read in relation to other, similar poems, they have more substance. The small collection A Winter Journey has a number of short statements that benefit from being seen as a part, rather than the whole, of something:

As the darkness hardens
in the tightening frost
and the last flakes of snow
sift from the impoverished air,
scree drifts of stars appear
and thicken, flinty bright

It is all there, the easy rhythm, the liking for direct language, the delight in the natural world, and it is like listening to the familiar voice of a friend one has come to know and trust. It makes the reader realize that Turnbull's work represents a point of view that has remained true and steady. The same voice can be heard in all of the poems. He may not be a major poet, and his writing never gives the impression that he has deliberately aimed for that status, but at his best he is a skilled and wonderfully readable writer.

—Jim Burns

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Turnbull, Gael (Lundin)

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