Alberta Turner, Poet, 1919–2003
1985 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR LITERATURE
For almost three decades,
arising sometimes even before daybreak, Alberta Turner boarded a
Greyhound bus in Oberlin, Ohio, and made the one-hour trip in to
Cleveland, often not returning home till late in the evening. In her
office on the 18th floor of Cleveland State University’s Rhodes Tower,
she met with students throughout the day, continuing conversations in
the elevator on her way down to class. And one Friday a month, for 26
years, she presided over an open poetry workshop that might run till 11
p.m—at the conclusion of which, her longtime colleague
Leonard Trawick remembers, she would toss her arms and proclaim, “It’s
been such a wonderful day!”
Turner’s zest for life was legend. It is also apparent on every page of the eight books of poetry she found time to write—when
she wasn’t arranging for a major literary figure like Allen Ginsberg or
Seamus Heaney to give a reading or workshop at CSU, or publishing an
article about Milton (on whose poetry she was an authority) or poring
over a manuscript in her capacity as director of the CSU Poetry Center.
(The Center’s annual competition and prize, which included publication
of a book, drew between 800 and 1,000 manuscripts a year from around
the U.S. and the world at the height of its glory.) The Harvard Review pronounced her own work “constantly fresh, surprising, and singular.”
poems bristle with startling, often surreal images that keep you off
balance, upsetting your settled way of thinking about the world; they
force you to experience life afresh. “Some have stars on their
foreheads,” begins a poem called “Houses Trot Toward Us” that goes on
to infuse the simple act of walking down the street with a new
vibrancy: “They trot porch to porch, screen doors snapping, / shades
lowering and lifting. / Just out of reach they toss their eaves, /
lower their front steps, and begin to graze.” She is a master of the
verb: trot . . . snapping . . . graze. Tall spruces “shiver like bliss”
when the axe bites. “All day,” confides an angry housewife, “I blind
potatoes, strip beans, gut squashes.”
if Turner often writes cryptically, and without explaining references
(“Prue” is her daughter, “Brent” her son), or about personal situations
and experiences, her work is always provocative. Her themes are
universal: married life, grief, childhood, widowhood, growing old. But
the treatment is edgy and free of cliché. Part of the power comes from
Turner’s candor; she reports the facts in honest, unsparing words. (The
first section of her 1982 textbook, To Make a Poem, consists
of exercises designed to encourage the beginning poet not to censor his
or her true feelings.) Another source of her poetry’s edginess is its
aura of mystery:
A white birch dies. You don’t bother
to saw it into logs. You rinse your cup
without scrubbing it. You wait till Sunday
to look in the mailbox. You nick your finger
while cutting bread, and butter over the blood.
Where did you lose your anger, Childheart?
And your whistle? When did you last pick bees?
Many of Turner’s poems, up through and including the 1983 collection A Belfry of Knees,
are built in short, terse phrases that recall Emily Dickinson in their
aphoristic groping after some hard kernel of truth. (Leonard Trawick
says Turner sometimes pieced together her poems from fragments—shards of poignant realization—written in the early morning hours or late at night on the bus.) The poems that make up the last part of Beginning with And: New and Selected Poems
(Bottom Dog Press, 1994) are more ruminative, even conversational. The
multi-part sequence “Man and Wife,” written after her husband Arthur’s
death in 1984, picks through the detritus of a shared life—bronzed baby shoes, photographs on the piano, a pair of crutches on the garage wall—with a mix of tenderness and rue.
in 1919 in Pleasantville, New York, Alberta Tucker attended Hunter
College, earning her master’s and Ph.D. at Wellesley College and Ohio
State University. At OSU she met and married Arthur Turner, a brilliant
graduate student who wore leg braces as a result of polio. In 1947,
Arthur began teaching English at Oberlin College. The school’s nepotism
clause limited Alberta to teaching only the occasional course, so in
1964 she accepted a part-time teaching position at Cleveland’s Fenn
College—along with the directorship of its Poetry Forum, an
ambitious project established a year or two earlier by the poet Lewis
Turco. Turner continued in both capacities after Fenn was subsumed in
1967 into the new Cleveland State University. In 1969 she moved to
full-time status. The same year, at Oberlin, she co-founded Field,
an journal of contemporary poetry and politics that over the next 20
years would bring her into contact with, and earn her the respect of,
most of the eminent poets then writing in America and England.
was 51 when the first of her own eight books of poetry, a small
chapbook inspired by a recent trip to Alaska, was published by
Triskelian Press in Oberlin.
Three more collections soon followed: Need (1971), Learning to Count (1974) and Lid and Spoon
(1977), the last two under the prestigious imprint of the University of
Pittsburgh Press. Turner’s growing reputation as “a wordsmith of the
first order” (poet and Newbery medalist Nancy Willard) was cemented
that same year with the first of a series of books she was to edit or
write on the art of poetry, Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process (New York: McKay). In Poets Teaching
(New York: Longman, 1980), she looked over the shoulder of 32 teaching
poets as they imparted the secrets of their craft, helping students
rework and sharpen their poems.
into mandatory retirement from CSU in 1990 at age 70, Turner jumped at
the chance to continue teaching there part-time. She maintained contact
with her former students, some now published poets, and continued to be
active with the Poetry Center and its press, which in 1993 brought out
its 100th title. Her own last book of poems, Tomorrow Is a Tight Fist, was published in 2001 when she was 81. Alberta Turner died in 2003 at her home in Oberlin.
While his crib still had sides he woke screaming
arms beating as if he’d been dropped
Found it easy to bite off stems
bits of skin spit them out
But numbers came wrong three apples
take away three left three cores
When he blew on a grass blade
no one came When he caught a finch
he squeezed too hard
He enjoyed fire ears wrinkled hair hissed
But his own finger hurt
Old Clootie Teaser Lad
Lurk in a pocket Lurk behind the cross
Take the hindmost Beat your wife
behind the door with a leg of lamb
Your special shoes your forked sock
your Bedpost Paintbrush Darning Needle Apron
your Young your Milk—
and all you know of falling is that dream
—A Belfry of Knees (University of Alabama Press, 1983)
I’m smart for a woman, smart as a man.
Say I mated a fox and my whelps run
bushy and sharp and a beautiful shade of red.
—Lid and Spoon (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997)
Hi, I brought an apple.
The wind’s March, but the sun’s warm.
Nothing much happened this year:
I broke my foot, but it healed;
Prue got married again—your kind of man.
All their boys have red hair.
I don’t think of you often,
just when the lawn mower won’t start,
and in the dark, when I put my hand
under the cat to feel for the tiny heads.
Thought I heard a call, but wasn’t sure,
more than a squeak, not quite a word.
no growl in it. It wasn’t for me—I think.
Nor the phone: “No, I already have
storm doors. Sorry, I’m not home Mondays.
Sorry, that’s not my name.”
I’ll be back. I’m going to put
the car away and turn the coat
right side out. The beads will have
to be restrung; I’ll put them in a can.
If the tinker comes, tell him
the scissors are sharp enough.
—Beginning with And: New and Selected Poems (Huron, Ohio: Bottom Dog Press, 1994)