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Frederick Turner

Frederick Turner - AH - Founders Professor - LiteratureBIO

Frederick Turner, Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, was educated at Oxford University. A poet, critic, interdisciplinary scholar, public intellectual, translator, and former editor of The Kenyon Review, he has authored over 30 books, including The New World; Beauty: The Value of Values; The Culture of Hope; Genesis: an Epic Poem; Hadean Eclogues; Shakespeare’s Twenty-First Century Economics; Paradise: Selected Poems 1990-2003, Two Ghost Poems, and Epic: Form, Content, History. His many honors include the Levinson prize for poetry and the Milan Fust Prize, Hungary’s highest literary honor.

 

Half Sister
For Annemarie

It is as if in some Europe of the mind
or of the last postglacial, in spring
when the salmon come back and the roebuck,
the wild horses, the small sour-sweet plums,
the nightingales singing all night as if drunk on the blackberries;

Or of the dark ages in Languedoc, Limburg or Burgundy,
when for years no one came riding
on the old Roman road, and the beehives hummed
and the windmill turned, the silly old priest
blessed the young couples in May,
and the four big cheerful knights of the place
helped out with the harvest,
and that girl with the long hair who lived in the Barbican
worked on the tapestry;

Or a Europe to come, after the apocalypse
When poets again start to wander through Lotharingia,

It is as if I‘d grown up with that wayward half-sister,
the girl with the surprised face who gets into trouble
who makes those intricate things and squeaks when they work,
who as a little girl scandalized everyone
by forgetting to put on anything under her waist,
whose voice goes up and down like a circus organ,
who studies dragonflies, bird psychology,
people who were abandoned as children, and
who when violence occurs simply commences to cry;
who walks unafraid in the dungeons of spirits and dreams,
who some in the village think should be burned as a witch,
but who went on to marry that beautiful gloomy Viking,
gave him a bough broken off from the tree overladen with cherries;

Or it is as if much later in life
I’d found that half-sister, parted at birth,
and we grinned at each other
and recognized right away our mother’s mannerisms,

and laughed when we completed each other’s sentences.

 

On being told the story of a talented young composer, who hearing from his master that we all had to write like Schoenberg now, took up mathematics instead

When players make their private music
For their own skilled ear,
They ornament the piece they’ve chosen,
Just because it’s dear.

In plainchant, brawl, pavane or nocturne,
Oratorio,
In raga, country, blues, or ballad,
Grace-notes always flow.

We scarcely hum a thing, but strangely,
Variations spring
Out of the branches that the master
Thought but did not sing.

Supreme at this was our loved Mozart:
Always what we thought
Would be the next phrase, he would alter
Into what we’d sought.

But nobody can alter Schoenberg
Or his children now,
For who would ornament his structures,
Were he to allow?

Let art be always rich and open
To be snatched away
By any lover of its branches
Of unwritten play!

 

 

From Apocalypse: An Epic Poem, Book 3

Banks Island Christmases are something else.

The population is a curious mix

Of recent Polynesians, who had found

The island emptied by a smallpox plague,

And mated with some shipwrecked deportees

And stranded whalers, Brits and Jonathans;

And Joseph Banks touched here and left a team

Of Royal Navy sun astronomers,

Two of whom married Polynesian girls

And stayed to sire a line of harbormasters.

Their Christmas music is a quirky mashup

Of Micronesian melodies and chants

With old sea-shanty tunes and ancient carols;

Their cuisine from Tahiti and Gravesend

And Cornwall, Melanesia, and Nantucket.

So now the season tips the longest day

In passing, and the little town of Honey

Prepares to celebrate that odd old myth,

And you can hear the full-voiced island choir

Rehearsing in the tiny village church

(Clean painted clapboard, dark green trimmed with white,

A little wooden spire, and nice acoustics,

Built by an earnest mission Methodist).

And strings of tiny lights begin to glow

Among the blossoms of the jacarandas

As night falls golden round the deep blue bay,

And the strange smell of nutmeg, cinnamon

And candied fruit and raisins soaked in rum

Wafts from warm kitchens where tradition holds

And Christmas puddings must be stirred and steamed.

The oldsters tend the fire-pit, wrap the pig

In fresh banana leaves with seasonings

And yams and taro from the rainy side,

And girls half Polynesian and half Woolwich

With pink-gold faces giggle at the boys

Who’re raising an enormous Norfolk pine

Between the harbor master’s and the chapel;

And the old priestess-healer, who’s a poet,

Recalls how Taonoui-Mary bore

The savior Tane to the Skyfather,

How Tane’s birth, shown to the fishermen

By angels with their albatross’s wings,

Defeated Death, and made the whole world holy;

And how the hero Tane taught us love,

Destined before that other Mary, Hina,

To learn from humans how to die and rise.

 

Lucy, who knows the shaman Hina’ea,

Later that night asks Noah to midnight Mass,

To hear the singing, celebrate the myth

Of heaven raining down into the world–

Or world, a human womb, seducing down

All possible perfections to itself

And breaking them to make a new creation.

The Dao here splits to yin and yang, and splits

Again, again, to make a world of time,

A world of freedom, beauty, tragedy,

Magnificat, Madonna, mystery.

 

Afterwards Noah turns to Lucy, asks

If she is tired.  She’s not, and nor is he.

“I’d meant to wait until tomorrow, but

There’s something that I want to show you now

If you don’t mind a walk along the shore.”

“Lead on,” says Lucy.  Over the calm bay

A brilliant oval moon stands high and clear

And Christmas lights cast lesser tracks of fire

Down from the margins of the darker shore.

It seems they’re heading for the boathouse, where

Noah has had his simple quarters made.

A little chuckle from his guest: “O dear!

What does the master aim to do with me–

Poor helpless maiden, in his wicked clutches?”

“Aha, my pretty one, you find me out.

Come in, and you will see what is in store.”

They don’t go upstairs though, into the rooms,

But straight into the dark and lapping space

Where the soft sea bumps something at the wharf.

Noah claps the lights on.  In the deep green water

There lies a lovely boat, white lined with blue.

“I had her printed up some days ago.

She’s yours, in thanks for all you’ve done for me.

She’s default automatic, and sleeps four.

You could go safely round the world in her,

The sails are solar batteries, the hull

Is graphene, stronger than hard steel,

And harvests energy from flowing water…”

After a while, embarrassed, he slows down,

Aware that Lucy’s grinning sweetly at him.

“You are absurd, entirely,” Lucy says,

And quite the loveliest sugar-daddy too.”

“You want to take her out?  It’s Christmas day.”

They step aboard, the boathouse door goes up,

The powerful electric motor hums,

A boiling surge sends the boat skimming out,

To settle as the tall mast telescopes

And the sheer sails whisper to their peaks.

Only the faintest breeze, that now has risen,

Is quite enough to make a little whisper

Beneath the bow, and down the slippery flank.

“Here, take the helm.  She’s totally forgiving.”

Lucy with practiced hand takes up the sheet

And thumbs the tiller switch to go to manual.

“She’s like a dream, the old dream you can fly.

I was determined that I should refuse—

What would the old man want then in return?—

But sheer cupidity and selfishness

Defeat my honor and my better judgement.

–Look, seriously though, you shouldn’t have,

But I accept it from a generous heart.”

And now she has a richer, dark, reflection.

Somehow this Noah must have found a way

To close his mourning time and make again

The gift that cost him almost everything.

No wonder he would go on about safety!

He’s cast his bread again upon the waters,

Or so it seems to wise old Lucy Wu.

 

They’re silent as the boat tacks on, and opens

Drake Inlet’s moonlit avenues and reaches,

And a long trace of pale green phosphorescence

Marks how precise and sure is Lucy’s wake.

Suddenly both of them look up, toward

That same lacuna, between Hercules

And Serpens, that they now have learned to see

From local astronomical folklore

As like a winged god, dark as he could be,

But dark with fullness, not with emptiness.

 

*****