Pause for thought. I’m not sure why the poetry of Gael Turnbull moves me so much. Perhaps because he was a hands-on doctor as well as a poet – and I often think of my GP brother working at the sharp end of the pandemic, meeting real people in real life, taking the occasional breather to make a black joke.
“I’ll be mighty pissed off if I die in my last year at work,” he texted last March as Covid put paid to his plans for earlyish retirement and the local health authority struggled to meet demand for personal protective equipment. Nevertheless, I was proud to discover, he insists on seeing his patients in person, distrusting the evidence presented on screens: “Doctors need to prod patients.”
Turnbull, I suspect, would agree. And he was also able to see the bleakly funny side, grasping laughter from the day’s twists and turns. His wholly human poem, From a Year and a Day: captures the rapid see-saw of emotions between tragedy and farce as the surgery door opens and closes on each patient.
‘If you want my considered judgement: he’s pissed.’
The line has me laughing, or at least smiling, again. It’s that burst of light relief just when you need it, an almost guilty surprise among piercing glimpses of other people’s lives, brief encounters of human loss and suffering. The young mother with breast cancer and her two-year-old child who can’t understand why hugging is no longer allowed; the twinkle of the ‘plum-pudding wife’ and her man with mouth stretched in permanent grin ‘one tooth showing.’ So deftly described. Such skilful economy of words. It seems to me Turnbull has the touch of a short story writer. No words wasted.
Life is too short for the long read
And that’s it. I confess brevity appeals to me. The older I get the more impatient I am with wasted words. Life begins to feel too short for the long read! (Although of course there are seductive writers who can lead you on a long enlightening journey without you ever minding the distance or the time it takes.)
Anyway, I just want to record what grabbed me when the Scottish Poetry Library‘s new year ‘Poem of the Moment’ opened an invigorating new world of work. ‘The sound of loosening ice/ revives the air with the almost forgotten song/of snow melting to water’.
Gael Turnbull was born in Edinburgh in 1928. Poignantly, Do You, a tender suggestion of ageing and death, was included in Best Scottish Poems of 2004 the year of his sudden death of a brain haemorrhage
Do you sense at your elbow
an old friend but can’t guess who?
That is death, faithful shadow,
laughing with you.
Tools of the trade
I wrote about him in the January Sceptical Scot poetry post and I think I will now send some of his work to my brother as a late Christmas present. Perhaps better, an early Easter gift. The snow will surely melt.
From a Year and a Day: 19 October 1979 – 19 October 1980 To be taken in small doses as required, was included in the second edition of Tools of the Trade: Poems for new doctors (Scottish Poetry Library, 2016). A pocket-sized anthology edited by doctors, including work by doctor-poets, Tools of the Trade has been given free to all graduating doctors in Scotland since 2014. This year is no exception.
To buy a copy for £6.99 + £2 p+p, visit the Scottish Poetry Library’s online Shop