How the World Ends: On Lindsay Turner’s “The Upstate”
By Rona CranNovember 4, 2023
The Upstate by Lindsay Turner
This complicated state of being underpins—drives—The Upstate, Turner’s Appalachia-inspired second collection. Songs & Ballads (2018), Turner’s first collection, is animated by a preoccupation with poetic responsibility to the world (“What’s the ragged quatrain’s job?”), and The Upstate intensifies this focus, while departing from the playfulness of Songs & Ballads. The Upstate is seamed with quiet, shifting visions of impending horrors: “the end of air” (“The Upstate”), or “things [that] dissolve in toxic fog” (“Vacation Song”), as well as bleak appeals to magical thinking, one speaker soliciting a “promise” that “it will not be in our lifetimes that it turns to fire” (“Vows”). But as the poems obliquely suggest, this existence is not (yet) without its everyday pleasures too, those of dogs or trees (one poem is simply a “List of Flowering Trees”), of the “crooked little smile moon” (“The Compass”) or a “black swallow way up high” (“Vows”), or “[p]ollen piles on the mailbox” (“A Bad Spring”). Turner’s sense of our precarious, increasingly degraded existence informs and animates The Upstate, alongside her preoccupation with the failure and responsibilities of language in relation to such an existence. This is a poetics of crisis—ecological and existential—of what it means to live, and to write, in close proximity to the violence of environmental crisis and to the jagged, resilient beauty of what remains of the natural world.
The Upstate’s jacket notes that this “is a book about southern Appalachia”—and it is, woven through with misty mountains, forests, rolling storms, and subtle delineations of savagery or decay that recall Cormac McCarthy, moments of violence encountered askance and unexplained, from the “animals with bloodied muzzles,” in the first of a sequence of four quite different poems titled “The Upstate” that punctuate the book, to the image of “rotted out rope strands / the rope hollow at the core” in “Forms of Displeasure.” But it is not only about southern Appalachia. Turner is careful to locate her poems in time and space, but with an expansive ambiguity that both accommodates and moves away from the poems’ titles, akin to John Ashbery or James Schuyler. “It always was a little like an outpost here,” she writes (“The Upstate”), wondering “what would it be like to stay here forever” (“Tennessee Quatrains”); “this is now,” we learn, twice, in the second “The Upstate” and in “Overlook.”
These lines leave room for readers (particularly those not familiar with US geography) to wonder what it means to be “here,” when “now” really is, where we are, and when. Turner’s elliptical poetics enacts the ubiquity of climate crisis, cultivating an awareness that apocalypse can happen anywhere, or everywhere, a “cycle of toxic violence” that “grows / Violence” (“The Capitals”). After all, as she writes in “Tennessee Quatrains,” gesturing to the intersections of the politics of gender and the environment, “men put their hands wherever they want to.”
Her obstruction of the surety of poetic location, perspective, even voice, is often shared by her speakers, who ask, variously, “what would it take to get at the truth of it” (“The Upstate,” third version) or, in “Song of Accumulation,” “please explain exactly what you mean.” Such explanation, such “truth,” is not straightforwardly forthcoming. Sure, we could “squint” (“the truth is what everything is when you squint,” she writes in the third title poem), but Turner also writes of the unknowable, the “unanswerable” (“The Compass”), the “untellable” (“Song of Untellable Distances”), the “out of place” (“Vacation Song”). The collection is a sequence of dreamlike impediments to easy intelligibility; a poetic performance of static on the line; an assortment of crackles, delays, mishearings, and unfinished sentences.
It’s a little like Kazuo Ishiguro’s enigmatic and unsettling novel The Unconsoled (1995), in which the protagonist, a pianist, encounters one banal impediment to his concert preparations after another, an accumulating loss of control that unfolds according to a stressful dream logic that the reader, in reading, also experiences. It reminds me too of the epigraph to Elizabeth Bishop’s Geography III (1976), another collection about how to speak to a “land unanswerable.” Bishop, quoting a series of childlike yet simultaneously existential questions from a 19th-century geography textbook (“What is the Earth? […] What is a Map? […] In what direction is the Volcano? […] What is in the East?”), highlights both the inadequacies and the possibilities of our supposedly objective ways of learning about the world. In exposing the gulf between the theory and the realities of geography, Bishop suggests that we may not be able to read this map, but we can imagine it.
Turner poses correspondingly bland yet provocatively cryptic questions in “Tennessee Quatrains”—“what kind of thing stays away in the mountains,” “what kind of mud understructures the house,” “what kind of thing’s hiding under this rock”—while “The Compass” similarly offers little sense of where we are or how we might navigate, despite its title’s promise. Like Bishop and Ishiguro, Turner is interested in what happens when our environments, and the tools we use to read them, stop making sense, and in how, as we seek out other ways of knowing, we pilot our way through them.
Moments of absence, loss, and disappearance thus punctuate The Upstate, which is in part a rumination on how nothingness transpires. Absent of knowledge, the speaker repeats “I don’t know […] I don’t know” in “A Bad Spring,” while in “Poem” the implied return that underpins Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (“Oh, where have you been?”) is turned on its head:
where has it gone, my booming voice
I wanted to take it with me through the streets
where has it gone, the train I took
I wanted to lie down in the sharp snowy sticks
No hard rain in this poem, only that “terrifically blank” sky, and the lingering impact of the previous poem’s “executioner’s whistle” and suggestion that this “might be / how the world ends” (“Vacation Song”). The collection ends with a litany of losses:
Latin without Latin
salt without salt
heat without heat
fuel without fuel
friends without betraying friends
friends without betraying anyone
friendship without even trying
the long dusty hallway in the dead of night
age without gender
care without what uses up
spring without bug noises throbbing
summer with only mosquitoes from the trash cans, could you
imagine, summer without worry
their faces without bone structure
the ducks landing on the brown dead water anyway
walking without money
friendship without money
money without death without the deaths of anyone
money without death
The speaker navigates here, at the collection’s close, an accretive, associative vanishing, touching on the essences of ancient language, nourishment, warmth, movement, friendship, fear, care, gender, growing old, seasons, wildlife, water, money, and death. Gradually, horror becomes a kind of utopian imaginary, wherein the significance of loss or absence is figured in the shifting terms of an apocalypse part dreaded for its privations and part desired for the opportunities it might afford to begin anew.
This concluding litany is of a piece with much of The Upstate’s quietly prophetic register. Many of Turner’s poems embody a slightly spooky, occult idealism, that she nonetheless roots firmly in the banal skepticism of the everyday. “I wanted to cast a spell on it […] to protect it from becoming what they advertised,” she writes in “New City,” and in “Charm for J,” she asks, “who cares if the thing’s a scam,” taking seriously the desire to use language to change the future. After all, a spell is like a poem, a carefully chosen set of words articulated in just the right order to achieve their magic. In particular, in The Upstate’s second section, “Spells & Charms,” Turner’s speakers express themselves from a space just outside of time, able to read aspects of the future, but only if they “squint.” Their attempts to identify, to survive, to see a way out of catastrophe, present and imminent, take the forms of spells and charms and songs; these are poems written in a lightly folkloric style—they feel singsong and haunting, written to be enunciated over gemstones and herbs:
ruby, garnet, opal ring
what rescues you could lose its hold
the honeysuckle leaves went dark
pick a birthstone for the past
But Turner is conscious, too, that turning to spells and charms in our efforts to navigate an increasingly inhospitable environment is an uncertain process, one that might effect a rescue but also one that might, just as easily, “lose its hold.” This brings us back to her sustained evocation of the enmeshment of the inadequacies, complexities, and opportunities of language with environment. Language in The Upstate is as present an entity as the trees and highways, an object, albeit mercurial, with which Turner’s speakers grapple. In “Overlook,” language is both literalized and out of control: a “verb” is “lost / in the mountains” and must be found and endured or even indulged (“find the verb and suffer it,” “suffer through the verb together”), only “the paper mill” has “released it all into the air.” In the fourth poem titled “The Upstate,” language takes a step away from the metaphorical, the experimental, in the face of pandemic panic:
the changes gather in the bloodstream and move out from there
the people gather shouting at airports or are stuck there
the people gather somewhere or die trying
this is neither metaphorical nor new
This, our crisis of existence, is real, and what Turner offers in response is words. In “Dogwood,” poetry is made in and out of nature (“With the light in it the dogwood / Seemed to want to make a rhyme”), while in “Song of Untellable Distances” written language is deployed as a means of preserving the natural world: “When the bird stops, write a letter, write a letter every time the bird stops until you spell our death, all of us. Untell it till we’re talking only about animals and the air.”
Echoing through The Upstate, in addition to the voices of the animals and plant life of southern Appalachia, we hear those of writers as varied as Denise Levertov, Frank O’Hara, W. B. Yeats, William Carlos Williams, Bob Kaufman, Gary Snyder, and even Stephen King, poets of saxifrage and phone calls to the beyond, of second comings and unlikely survival. It is “September / and everything hot and trembling” (“The Compass”): great changes are afoot, and like those contemplating the “harms and fears” of the “[m]oving of th’earth” in John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” it’s easy to become fixated not just on what is happening but also on what it means. While The Upstate is about making meaning out of disaster, it also attends, powerfully, to the “trepidation of the spheres” (“The Compass”); to “what’s strange” (“New City”) or beyond our control, linguistically and otherwise; to the beautiful and resilient, the unruly and unsanctioned.
Rona Cran is a writer and scholar living in London.
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