I forget who it was who said that the writer needs to be ‘holy in small things’, but I think there is a great deal of truth in that. That’s one reason why I’m attracted by Todd Turner’s poem ‘At Willabah’. Here, the poet guides us through the details of the landscape in a not dissimilar way to the deep engagement with particulars in such poems as Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ or Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘At the Fishhouses’. Place in poetry is often a point of exchange, and in this poem it works to become a bearer of human feeling as the speaker looks and looks at what is before him. You sense that Turner has undergone that meticulous discernment of image and word, the deep seeing that enables the world to open out, and he balances that arduous attention to detail with a lovely sense of the line and with sonic acuity as in the ‘crooning of frogs’ and the ‘searing horde of cicadas’ that ‘smoulders with a resinous hum’.
For me this poem is not so much about observation, but rather revelation gained through ‘trained worshipful attention’, the ability to keep looking and listening until the world opens itself up, until each thing becomes an object of thought, an aspect of immersion. The affectionate accuracy with which Turner makes the water and the canoe known to us keeps us engaged. He delves deeper and deeper into possibility, ‘still there is enough light, enough shadowless/ dark out here to stay and buoyantly float, hammocked, on this iridescent bed of backwater’, strenuously orchestrating his language and imagery until by the end, we too, lie ‘dumbstruck under stars’ – not an easy line to get away with unless the poet has drawn us line by line through a swell of detail, though their rhythms of affinities and recognitions, and given us opportunities to witness how sensual panorama is changed by perspective, both spatial and inner, and made complex by affect. By the end, this watertight poem has bound together weed and frogs, lily-pads and mosquitoes, nests and cicadas, water and stars and set them all magically ringing. – JB
At Willabah Walking the long trodden path down towards the dam, I hear pebble stones squelch underfoot, and the wooden jetty out over the brown spangled water pulses with the crooning of frogs. At the foot of the landing thick tangles of tall grass, green on the blade, flaxen like wheat at the tips, shoot up between the narrow gaps of slatted planks and through the middle of a weather worn tyre tube, giving the appearance of ease. Either rife or in decline, lily pads brim in bright and mottled stages of bloom and ruin. They look like a drifting patchwork of miniature parasols, each stem softly landed. But they have risen from murky depths, launched pea-green sails and hoisted ceaseless bulbs into the warm flushes of air. Late afternoon sunlight crosses the dam and an undershot cloud of tadpoles darts beneath the dirty gold shallows under the dear little dead one, floating on its side. At the first mellow hint of dusk a hidden swarm of cicadas begins to rattle, amplifying a static reverberant pitch that fills the place with a thronging charge. Upturned on stilted racks above the edges of swampish ground, a large red canoe lies heavily with its curved ends turned down. It is mosquito-peppered and sun bleached from bow to stern, has lain here long enough for a community of insects and organisms to thrive. Lifting it up and turning it over, I see a small black spider scurry across the length of the gunwale then shelter under the dry mud-caked taper of weed stuck there on its side. I lower the canoe down gently off its perch and drag it by the ring rope to the water's edge before going back for the partially sunken oars that lie in a melded slurry of bog and grass. Out over the dam, jutting there steadily, the canoe hangs in the balance on and off the jetty. I lift it from its back end, tipping the scales. It slides with a sudden splash, and in an instant, undulant wavelets swish into tremolo then recoil, whitewashed in dissolving pools. I ease myself into the lumbering vessel and wait until the rocking ceases... Tideless, level and brilliantly still, the water is a reflecting threshold of the bottomless blue, a blank scroll glazed with a long shot sequence of idle air and suspended inland sky. I set off, levering the blade-end of the oar into a rung and mutable clouds lap in diminishing ripples. I row on across the silvery water mirror before letting the canoe drift and curve then run aground into the twig-ends of a white, overhanging lichened tree, where an almost unseeable nest, not wedged but pierced, woven around a branch, is stitched and webbed there into place. As night sinks in, blue lit, draining the heat, the searing horde of cicadas gradually dims and smoulders with a resinous hum. Though still there is enough light, enough shadowless dark out here to stay and buoyantly float, hammocked, on this iridescent bed of backwater. I let the oar slip, the canoe slide, and soaking it all up, run my hands through the rain and sun-struck litres. Feeling no solidity as the water recedes and emptying flows, I notice a gentle braiding between skin and bone, leaving only a distilled measure of silt to behold. Now, drawing upon its intricate undergoings, its fervent source, the dam, doused in nightfall, magnetically blackens and seeps like a fumarole. I lean back, immersed in a brightening shroud, watching the smoke-spun strands of vapour freeze in a levitation of steaming shafts. Cutting through the thick of it and crossing the haze, I gape, lying dumbstruck under stars.