James Matthew Wilson
August 28, 2017
s Belle Turnbull, a nineteenth-century Colorado school teacher and prize-winning poet, a forgotten American master? Or is she, as former Colorado poet laureate David Mason has suggested, forgettable, except to those readers who primarily appreciate her poetry because of its focus on America’s far west? Turnbull has certainly been forgotten—her novel and three volumes of verse are out of print—and her poems are not generally included in masters’ anthologies. In Belle Turnbull: On the Life & Work of an American Master, David J. Rothman and Jeffrey R. Villines render an ambiguous verdict.
Raised in Colorado Springs, Turnbull attended Vassar before returning to Colorado to teach English. Upon retirement, she “pulled up stakes and moved to the high mountains” to spend the next thirty years of her life in Breckenridge, a former mining town. Turnbull published her first works in 1922, but her literary career really began after her retirement: her verse novel, Goldboat, appeared in 1940. Houghton Mifflin’s hope that Goldboat would launch Turnbull’s career failed to pay dividends, and her next book, The Other Side of the Hill, wasn’t published until 1953. Her first collection of short poems, The Tenmile Range, came out four years later, while a small chapbook, Trails, followed just two years before her death.
Turnbull’s early poems are graceful, softly elegant performances. The love for her choice subjects—high mountains and the harsh life of old mining towns—shines through. Her modest, innovative versecraft adaptations of modernist techniques gives a unique and colorful perspective on the Rocky Mountain west. Her Colorado—full of resource exporters and barren landscapes—was thin soil for building a regional culture, not to mention a literature. And yet, Turnbull clearly relished its every detail. In an early poem, “Mountain Mad,” she borrowed Emily Dickinson’s technique and ecstatic playfulness:
Mountains cast spells on me—
Why, because of the way
Earth-heaps lie, should I be
Choked by joy mysteriously;
Stilled or drunken-gay?
Dickinson could have written a better poem, but Turnbull’s reference to mountains as “Earth-heaps” hints at the realism and the disenchanted materialism that became more evident in her mature work. The western writing of Yvor Winters and Robinson Jeffers similarly scrutinized the region’s landscape as if to expose its sublime beauty as a deception meant to manipulate one into thinking it more than dust piles. Turnbull herself referred to the mountains as “atoms” several times, seemingly to remind herself that the whole was never more than the sum of its parts. A similarly disillusioned voice stains her autobiographical prose, where she depicts herself as an old cuss who has rejected her “fancy” Vassar education in favor of the true grit of rock, timber, and altitude.
Although literature as an expression of regional and national culture goes back to Homer, the early nineteenth century’s advent of political romanticism inspired many authors and readers to enlist literature as primarily a tool for developing the national culture and consciousness. Romanticism reoriented education from the study of Western civilization’s enduring classics to a focus on national literature. Educated citizens became those whose sensibilities were in alignment with the nation’s zeitgeist; literature became the tool by which the national spirit revealed itself to its citizens and shaped their souls in its image. American authors wanted to write the “great American novel” or become the great American poet, but such ambitions often took on a regional character: Hawthorne and Melville wrote about New England; Steinbeck, the West; and Willa Cather, the Midwest. This regional interest wasn’t anthropological, but aimed to make Americans appreciate their regional characters and landscapes.
Regional authors’ tendency to reduce subjects to raw material substrate emerges from their philosophical convictions. The young Winters and mature Jeffers were materialists: for them, since matter alone is real, its particulate’s fluctuations make worthy themes. Turnbull, however, tried to capture the essence of Colorado’s sublime beauty, aiming to aid her readers’ sight of it through verse. Her style served that purpose. She wrote in a knotted, trochaic pentameter rhythm that flirts with a melodic beauty before undermining it—however slightly—with a thudding fall. Consider these lines from Goldboat, depicting the arrival of mining engineer John Dorn at Breckenridge stand-in “Rockinghorse,” where he has come to build a gold dredge:
Over the valley grassed and bare of timber,
Sparsely graced by June bouquets of aspen,
Over the buckbush hovering hidden channels,
Over the soil’s core washed from the side gulches,
Over the pits and scars of the first deflowering,
The old quick rape of grassroots, traveled Dorn’s eyes,
In this first ride, to probe for gold at bedrock.
The first five lines begin with a heavy stress (OV-er) and all seven end with feminine or falling rhythm (TIM-ber). Turnbull employs this traditionaly-humorous rhythm ironically; it lends her style a hard-scrabble edge that amounts to no mere tick but a general method. Her use of it is the most obvious sign that she has studied T.S. Eliot and literary modernism.
We find this practice frequently. The “Forward” to The Tenmile Range, concludes,
Never along that range is ease:
Things are warped that are too near heaven,
Ink runs clotted down the pen,
Verse has the twist of timberline trees.
The contorted syntax and falling rhythm give a “twist” to the lines that Turnbull thought essentially expressive of tree line’s harsh environment. So do lines like these: “Intolerable the marching of this range,” and “Mayflower gulch is deep, is still. / Over its walls the range winds toss,” and “Five hewn logs bedded in moss and mallow.”
Turnbull knew what she was doing. An early sonnet on romantic love, spoken by a woman to her beloved, is composed entirely of mellifluous iambic lines:
There yet remain the mountain and the moon,
Too surely poised, too splendidly austere:
They do not care that all my senses swoon—
My veins run white—because of you, my dear.
Here, the lines flow into one another; later, they will tumble over each other. Turnbull’s mature style conveys a sturdy and truculent rhythm that suits harsh Colorado mountain life. They do so with a measured voice that is certainly an American original.
But there is a problem: much like her view of the western range, her good lines and passages are less than the sum of their parts. They never become good wholes. Only the spare narrative sequence about a miner named Mr. Probus can be said to be simply and wholly good. In fact, there she sounds as if she has the observant and laconic genius to do for the West what E.A. Robinson did for small town Maine. No wonder that those sonnets were the occasion of her greatest recognition as a poet—the Monroe prize. The opening one, “Time as a Well-Spring,” alone would suffice to justify the publication of this volume. That is a small claim, but one best not forgotten.