July 2003

David Harris

fiction

Crossing the Outskirts by Julian Turner

Even if you know nothing of Julian Turner's background, upon reading Crossing the Outskirts, it is easy to see his Yorkshire environment. Both the content and dialectical cues of his personal poems place us in this ancient geography. The place and time are supported by classical and formal poetic structures, but the images conjured by Turner are often contemporary - a refreshing style, so often missing from the blank and free-form verse of incessantly postmodern poets.

Crossing the Outskirts combines the topics of geography and death in exploring the borders of life and land. This often leads to a melancholic feel, especially in those pieces that are personal and concern the poet's parents and relatives. Even the poem about his daughter, "As Blue Light Slips Away" - "Looking up I see my daughter rest/her head on prayer hands/her body's mountain deepening/as blue light slips away." - seems to capture both the beginning and end of life. Perhaps this should not be read with any sadness but with joy of a daughter's growth as a celebration of the entirety of the life process, including the frightening unknowns of its boundaries.

Indeed, the end of life is seen as a renewal, such as when Turner writes of his dead mother in "The Start of Something New," concluding "a figure/with my mother's hair/beginning her waiting game."Even geography is given a rebirth. "The 1963 Clarendon Press Atlas of Britain and Northern Ireland" takes a discarded book with an outdated description of the land, and gives it new life, this time in the poet's mind - "transporting me from shelves and Dewey system/to the dark blue of unnamed, unnumbered contours."

The disconnect between the natural world and human perceptions of it is often highlighted. In the ironically titled "Eclogue," the poet's continual close interaction with nature, an interaction closely connected with his personal interaction, ends up being artificially expressed.

But what happens when the disconnect between the natural world and human perceptions of it is stretched too far? This idea is explored in Turner's "Inside the Panopticon." In the foundations of classical criminology, we find the concept of the panopticon, a physical structure for a prison that allows a single warden to view all inmates without the inmates being able to see the warden. Discussed as a thought experiment by Cesare Beccaria (1767) and Jeremy Bentham (1843), it examines the role of punishment in the criminal justice system. A seminal concept ever since, Michel Foucault revisits the idea in Discipline and Punish (1975). In Foucault's model of power and knowledge, the effect of the institution on the prisoner is intensified as the one-way knowledge enhances the power imbalance. It also dehumanizes the power because the panopticon is just as effective with no warden because the prisoners must assume that a warden is present and watching at all times.

"Inside the Panopticon," written from the perspective of a prisoner, turns the idea of power on its head as he attempts to cope with the situation. The prisoner envisages the warden as mad, by virtue of his indiscriminate viewing of every single action. The prisoner lets the warden's view transform into an infinitely penetrating perception, turning the prisoner and his environs glass-like. With everything glass, he realizes his freedom - his personal behaviors cannot be seen among the background noise of excessive knowledge. Unfortunately, this technique leads to only one place - insanity for the prisoner, his only way to cope with the initial and perhaps unavoidable assumption of the warden's omniscience.

Altered perceptions and the boundaries of expressibility are explored in "Reportage." As a journalist, the poet tries to understand the life of children in a hostile environment - probably war-torn and translatable to the third-world, or even the forgotten underbelly of a large, allegedly first-world city. The poet comes to the realization that he simply cannot describe the situation. His experience with the children is, at best, on the outskirts of most people's experience, and he is alone in this new world he has discovered.

Held together by the theme of outskirts, these poems cover a wide range of concepts, but all succeed in doing what poetry ought - taking us beyond what is representable by mere descriptive words, through the outskirts of language to new, previously uncharted ideas.

Crossing the Outskirts by Julian Turner
Anvil Press Poetry
ISBN: 0856463523
64 pages