Trial by Scar by Deborah Turnbull

-Reviewed by Jade Cuttle-

Trial By Scar (Eyewear) turns poison into medicine. It’s a task that recalls the work of Thomas Hardy (‘If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst’), but with more urgency and unnerving precision.

The approach is apparent in the very first poem, ‘Right, that’s it’. A trenchant decisiveness sets out the determination to not be defeated by suffering. ‘I make the cut. / Those keratin messengers / of the universe distract. / Going streamlined, no more drag’. In fact, such moments of adversity are hailed as heaven-sent, (‘Samson’s loss is my gain, / head clear of the dead stuff’). Not only do they gift the opportunity to glance life at its most gloriously resilient, these moments also allow us to become better equipped against its ultimate attack.

The collection goes on to give instructions about confronting fear with unflinching resolve (‘cleaving open the hot air of my nightmares’). It implores us to ‘get into that confined space, the one you sidle away from’. However, since the space in question serves as the headquarters to fear itself, namely, the fear of death, such an agenda is rather ambitious. But these clever poems are persuasive (‘I saw something in the dark to retrieve’), luring us closer with the promise that comfort lurks in its darkest corners (‘trembling is a gift from the wild. There is a home here, and it is ours’).

The process of ‘turning poison into medicine’ begins at this very point; when the poet decides to embrace difficulties head-on and drink a toast to its discomfort. It plays out through endlessly different episodes, their focus varying from intense alcohol intoxication to abusive relationships, from intolerable pain to deteriorating physical health (‘eyes black pricks, / cheeks grey, their juice sucked to crêpe.’) The series even touches on the European Union on the brink of total collapse (‘It’s the hard exit you’ve got to watch; / the back of the head blown wide, its mash-for-brains chaos. The spatter.’) There’s a sinister taste of seduction to her morbid curiosity that strives to see us ‘enraptured with the flashes of gore, the mess’.

But like Paracelsus, the father of toxicology, who once wrote that ‘all things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison’, Turnbull shows there is the potential to become stronger with pain if mindset is attuned. ‘You may have mocked frailty, thought it weak, but only the brave are on their knees’, she writes in ‘Hardcore’, a poem that entreats us to embrace weakness. ‘Let outdoors in and suffer / from exposure – let air make / gooseflesh of you, so tender it just falls off the bone’. There’s a refreshing honesty where recovery is not heralded as heroic, but rather, is revealed its all its fragility, (‘Rising, nothing like a phoenix, more of a double helix, building myself up from the bare, basic code’), making it more attainable.

The transition between these two states is spotlighted in ‘Emergence’, where a butterfly is battling to burst free of its chrysalis. Initially, this fragile insect is paralysed and powerless, ‘Wallowing in the cave of its own making, shielded and secreted, turning against itself and into the smallest fragments’. But then, miraculously, cells divide to erect a delicate structure that can withstand the wind, ‘battling through the aperture, he delivers himself to his own dawn’. The harshest of realities are dissected with surgical accuracy; showcasing the poet’s talent to arrest in so few words, and revealing a reserve of hope that will shake you to the core.

Skim a stone across the surface of these poems and some might see the shallows, labelling the set as another series of self-help templates offering reassurance that recovery is real. However, they touch on something that treads much deeper. Turnbull’s poems demonstrate how to tame our deepest and darkest fears, offering readers, religious or not, the chance to cultivate faith in times of traumatic upheaval and to fathom a way out.

2 thoughts on “Trial by Scar by Deborah Turnbull

  • February 28, 2018 at 8:39 am

    A stunning achievement . Turnbull’s poems bleed from the page in all their brutal, beautiful-raging – but ultimately – acceptance of what it means to be human experiencing this thing we call life . Forget the sunshine and roses, the jewels are in the slings and arrows to the heart, as this work elucidates in its bold, brutal, warrior-like honesty.

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