i m Gael Turnbull, poet, 1928-2004
They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary. Isaiah, 40 v 31
Today – so many Gaels; each from the same spring
of modesty, of graciousness, intelligence. Even now
he settles like a butterfly among us; a bright sun still
lighting him and the hills beyond, his final pathway.
There was always something of the conjurer about him:
busking the Royal Mile, top hatted; or minting meanings
from ordinary words; or sweeping us up in the absurd;
or paying each the compliment of complete attention.
Three images remain: a piper playing a lament, leading
the coffin to the graveside; a threat of morris dancers
from the faint tinkle of bells just as the hearse pulled away
and it was over. And the story of his childhood fidelity:
A journey with his little sister, but money for just one ticket,
and the young boy running, keeping up with the tram,
re-assuring her with his steady wave. That picture
imprinted lightly on our day, our journeying, this finality.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2006. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2006 was Janice Galloway.
An elegy of four stanzas and three snapshots, containing more. Vivid and warm, and more than memorial.
I wrote 'Conjuring words' in memory of the poet Gael Turnbull who died in 2004. Gael's career, not just as a poet and small-press publisher but also as a doctor, was impressive both here and across the Atlantic. His widow, Jill, worked tirelessly to track down his unpublished poetry and we are grateful for her efforts – we now have There are words (Shearsman, 2006), his collected poems.
The poem, or the ideas and images for it, came to me as I was attending his funeral. It was a suitably sunny day. While family and friends gathered, a piper outside the kirk drowned out the classical music playing inside – I could imagine Gael finding the cacophony amusing. There was a delightful informality about his funeral despite the dignity of the occasion. It was difficult to be sad. And yet of course we were.
I wanted to evoke the man: his warmth, his humour, his lightness of being as well as his poetic gifts. Knowing too that he had his dark days. I have no idea whether there were bells tinkling near the cemetery or just in my head, but I did hear them! (Gael was a keen morris dancer with The Original Welsh Border Morris Dancers, and other sides, and they later performed a dance, complete with their bells, sticks and blackened faces, at his memorial event). The incident from his boyhood in the final stanza was from something his sister Tess said in her funeral tribute. That made me think of the beautiful verse from Isaiah 'They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.' Gael lives on in the memories of so many people, hence the poem's ending. The title was easier than usual to find: he was playful in his poetry, in his use of word and image and even choice of medium. He was a consummate conjurer.
The poem comprises four simple stanzas, largely unrhymed but hopefully with a degree of shape and rhythm, spun along with occasional half rhymes. Gael wasn't one for formal verse!
I decided to have this as the closing poem of Parallel Worlds as, although it had a sad tinge to it, it was also upbeat. As penultimate poem, I chose to have his 'It is not' which I had translated into Shetlandic about the same time. It is a deceptively simple poem and quintessential Gael. I think that odd 'transmutation' (a favourite word of his) might have amused him too. I hope so.