As a doctor and poet he was wary of the alleged therapeutic value of poetry. One year the slogan of National Poetry Day was ‘Transform your life with poetry’. Gael Turnbull would rather it had been ‘Transform your poetry with life’. Scottish Poetry Library
The poet Gael Turnbull was also a GP though he was said not to like doctoring very much (‘but it paid the bills’). He was a natural scientist too and that knowledge sparkles and sings in A single quaver, the first 2021 poem of the moment chosen by Scottish Poetry Library. The sound of loosening ice ‘revives the air/with the almost forgotten song/of snow melting to water’.
Yet it’s the doctor’s insight and stamina that seems to course through the selection of Turnbull’s poems held in the library’s online archive.
As our health service strains every sinew to cope with the upsurge in Covid cases, I can’t think of a better tribute to ‘doctoring’ than the deep human understanding in Turnbull’s words, crafted with such crystal clear simplicity.
The art of listening
Just read From a Year and a Day: 19 October 1979 – 19 October 1980. How fitting that this poem, 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.
Compassion, humour and insight are the stuff of Turnbull’s poetry; his words informed, strengthened and coloured by the ability to listen.
‘Gael was a good listener and observer of detail’ writes his wife Jill in the notes to From a Year and a Day, ‘essential to both his writing and doctoring. His spur-of-the-moment decision to record something heard, seen or experienced every day for a year brings to life the resilience, humour, sorrow and strength of his patients and the small delights of the seasons.’
There’s the skill of the short-story writer in piercing glimpses of surgery encounters: the pain of the young mother with breast cancer and her two-year-old child who can’t understand why hugging is no longer permitted; the twinkle of the ‘plum-pudding wife’ and her man with mouth stretched in permanent grin ‘one tooth showing.’
At the risk of breaching copyright let’s settle for just two direct quotes.
A sudden belly laugh:
If you want my considered judgement: he’s pissed.
And a moment’s delight:
Behind the Surgery car park, a blush of roses and on the
lawn, a milky way of daisies.
Our many selves
Gael Turnbull’s own life is full of fascinating detail (‘he wrote once that ‘We are all many selves and lead many lives’) as revealed in SPL’s deftly written biographical notes. Born in Edinburgh in 1928, the son of a minister would move back and forward between Scotland, England and North America (Canada and US), first following his father’s postings and then his own career path. His first degree in Natural Sciences was from Cambridge. His second in medicine was from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. Somehow – in the turbulent wake of the 2020 US election – it now feels significant that the young doctor’s first internship was in Pittsburgh (where Trump was roundly beaten in November).
The poet was a pioneer of inventive practices – in the US publishing a magazine Migrant, in Edinburgh exploring kinetic verse “texts for installation in which the movement of the reader and/or of the text became part of the reading experience” Not surprisingly, perhaps, he included among his wide circle of poet friends Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan. (Morgan succinctly described Turnbull’s ‘kindly clarities’)
The medical man was both general practitioner and anaesthetist and that experience is also expressed in If it is Our Mission, his tribute to James Young Simpson (from The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn).
“If it is our mission…to alleviate suffering as well as to preserve life …” Then, Turnbull suggests, ten to twenty ‘inspirations’ of chloroform might just do the trick. Borrowed from Simpson, the inspiration of that word ‘inspirations’.
Personal responses to poetry can depend on so many uncontrollable or chance elements: time of day, change in the weather, family news, the latest Covid briefings…For me, this Turnbull selection feels like a timely gift, and – confession – a rich new seam of poetry to explore. Particularly (for me) valuable because of their brevity (life at the moment feels too short for long reads) the SPL-selected poems suggest themes of living, loving, enduring, ageing, and respecting the strange elasticity of time – how it can simultaneously stretch and tighten. It’s been…a long time…yet no time at all.
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.
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