For anyone who has seen Tim Turnbull read, the real question when considering his second book is: how do his poems hold up without the benefit of his dulcet tones? Turnbull's voice, lying somewhere between Chorlton the dragon and a deep-throated cello, is the perfect vessel for pieces which eulogise irreverently, ridicule pithily and more than flirt with ribaldry. How can a mere sheaf of paper possibly compete?
The title poem is a brilliantly sustained sales pitch for The Sickest Show On Earth
Of course, it helps no end that Turnbull is published by Donut, a poetry press whose books are not just beautifully but also appropriately designed. Just check out that glorious cover, which ties in to the short poem 'Fountain':
"Damien, Damien, think about this:
Maybe Marcel was just taking the piss ..."
And there's the other thing: Turnbull is eminently accessible. He does bold rhymes, caustic commentary and mucky jokes, all in an affable deadpan. Comparisons to Tony Harrison are understandable but specifically, this is Harrison translating Martial, seamlessly transposed to Daily Mail Britain. Whether it's kids, suicides or office managers running amok, Turnbull has a smart rhyme and a punchline for it, and though he's particularly adroit when it comes to epigrams, he can also maintain his wit for pages at a time. In fact, the two longest pieces in the book are also stand-outs; the title poem is a brilliantly sustained sales pitch for The Sickest Show On Earth, while 'Oi! Actaeon, No!' retells the Greek myth as the story of an East End gangster turned into a grass when he tries to cop off with an imprisoned crime lord's wife. The crime lord is God, and Actaeon himself is a delightful thug-cum-knobend:
"... He met her eye and found that, sure as German porn,
her bellicosity was giving him the raging horn
and this increased her anger, which, in turn, increased his lust
which evident concupiscence again stoked her disgust..."
Then there's even more cover version fun with 'The Red Wheelbarrow' and 'Ode on a Grayson Perry Urn' - shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem last year.
Not every poem lives up to the performance, however. 'Who's that Handsome Fellow?', a rollicking music hall pastiche about a celebrity with a surgically attached second head, is all too much like reading sheet music or a lyric booklet. It begs to be sung. Your mileage may vary on the satire too, for while all targets are equally deserving, none are exactly sacred cows: preemptive striking in 'Quicksand', cankerous social climbers in 'Troll', conservative Christians in 'Apocalypse Next Wednesday', headlines, modern art and trustifarian radicals. Unfortunately, the stereotype-bashing tends to overshadow the sharper, more poised aspects of Turnbull's lyrical assault, where he skewers our common foibles, or reflects more softly and wistfully on wasted lives and irrepressible foolishness. You have to dig a little deeper to find it, but it's there. And in abundance.
Several of the poems in this book deal with the embuggerances of Dirk the office worker, the poet's beleaguered secret agent in the 'carnival of banality'. I suppose he's the sort of character non-genii like myself will be rooting for when they read this book, but for my part I wished for him to be plucked out his drudgeon and exposed to ranging and exhilarating horrors. It seems unfair that he must deal with modern urban mundanity while Turnbull sends the entire Modernist clique to 'A Concert Party in Hell', takes popular entertainment to its fittingly visceral conclusion in 'Caligula On Ice' and even permits Bunty and Malcolm an encounter with the devil in 'Apocalypse Next Wednesday'. Poor Dirk.