Poems and Songs


by Devin King

Songs and Ballads,
by Lindsay Turner,
Prelude Books, 74 pp.

If you open Lindsay Turner’s new book of poems, Songs and Ballads, at random, you’re going to be looking at a poem that’s meant to be sung, and it’s more than likely on a topic you would never think to sing about (well, maybe one or two). Here’s all the names of the poems in the book with song in their title:

Risk Management Song
Corrosion Song
Song of the Towns
Song of Visual Difficulty
Song of the Pressures
Song of Formal Questions
Love Song
Semi-Rural Song
Song of the Men
Museum Song
October Song
November Song
There Wasn’t a Song
System Song
Song of the Offices
Storm Song
Insurance Song
Love Song
Ocean Song
Capital Song
April Song

Why so many songs? And why, for goodness sake, sing about formal questions? In answer to a favorite poem question in an interview on Verse of April, Turner gives this answer:

Here are a couple of stanzas from Edmund Spenser’s long elegy, Daphnaida, written in 1591. I know not everyone has this problem, but sometimes I catch myself thinking that poetry has to have some kind of intellectual interest, or at least interesting emotion. And then there’s this: poetry about stupid, repetitive, non-cathartic, boring, useless anger and grief. It doesn’t offer anything false. It just comes up out of the centuries and is right there:

The poem really is just Spenser telling you a bunch of stuff he hates. Here’s the fourth stanza Turner quotes, when Señor Laureate gets rolling:

I hate to speake, my voyce is spent with crying:

I hate to heare, lowd plaints have duld mine eares:

I hate to tast, for food withholds my dying:

I hate to see, mine eyes are dimd with teares:

I hate to smell, no sweet on earth is left:

I hate to feele, my flesh is numbd with feares:

So all my senses from me are bereft.

Who among us hasn’t hated smell once or twice? The only other song about smell I can think of is one of my favorite songs of all time. It is by The Dead Milkmen and is called “My Many Smells”. Here is the first verse and chorus:

Sometimes I smell like a barrel of rotting fruit
Stinking up the jungle under the hot tropical sun
Other times I smell like thick black swamp-water
Backed into your toilet on a warm summer day

These are a few of my many smells
Won’t you come and smell me?
Won’t you share my stench?
Won’t you come and smell me?
Won’t you share my stench?

I heard this song for the first time in middle school, probably seventh grade, when Josh got the album with “Punk Rock Girl” on it from Columbia House. We were in a band called Napkin, and wrote songs about our stupid computer science teacher and how blue shoelaces were cooler than red ones. I don’t want to get all misty-eyed about the past or anything, but I’m betting the average avant poet used to have that much fun writing about stuff, uh, before the fall. How might that sort of poetic energy—the energy of a dumb kid—change if the kid stayed kind of dumb about certain kinds of stuff, but also got kind of smart?

Well first, they’d stop calling things dumb, and start calling things small. You’re probably guessing where this is going. Back to Turner. Here’s “Corrosion Song” in full:

the present’s bridge to the museum
hung with metal, hung with rust
fanning pink hands toward the museum
my fair lady

the everyday enchanted with
material degradation, conceived as a garden
attack reaction, rusty flower
form of degradation

the small things have a name like love—
hanging half-submerged in water
the weight of solids turning particular
my fair lady

Instead of dumb Turner says small: “the small things have a name like love.” They are “the everyday enchanted with / material degradation.” The fact that this poem 1) is (maybe) about an art installation; 2) lightly references critical theory (material degradation); and 3) isn’t turgid, is a small miracle. Instead, Turner chooses the joyous proprioception of simply walking through an art installation and twists it into a refrain, “my fair lady.”

But “Corrosion Song” is only maybe about an installation. Other poems in the book reference flooding towns—is the installation in fact just a flooded museum? Or, is Turner looking at a flooded town as a museum? What is the present in “the present’s bridge to the museum?” The Objectivist in me is annoyed that I can’t quite grok the poem’s setting, the balladeer is happy for the refrain.

Turner uses this tension to turn songs against themselves. “Song of the Towns”one of the aforementioned songs of a flooding town—reveals Turner at work, failing to write a song. Here, in a longer song that intersperses essentially prose stanzas—still singable, btw—with shorter line stanzas, Turner makes clear what the songs are about, but how difficult it is to sing them:

sawdust, what dust from the paint, what dust on the lettered walls, red
lights flashed in the dust at night and a kitchen window dug into a wall so
old it shone, nevertheless the dust is new in this house


Utilities sliding into dust,
the water takes in the rust:
these forces don’t abandon space
after its been abandoned—


Water water everywhere

But thinking does not make it so

The grave officials say,
shore up the bottom line.

Clichéd ballad rhythms, even a quote from a children’s song. Next to these prose sections that detail disaster, her songs are stuck. In “Song of a Visual Difficulty”, Turner again alternates short and long lined stanzas, this time concretely turning the poem into an investigation of its voice:

but how to make them see the ballad in all this, like it’s me, like
a companion interlocutor or elderly relative, the four beats with all
our hands held around them like several people holding a small
heavy alarm clock, like the particles washed off into the lakes but
still cardinal, get in things, could damage, could produce


Who will hold and count those pieces?
What’s the ragged quatrain’s job?

The book answers this question. One of the better uses of quatrains in the book is “Risk Management Song”, part of the series about a flooded town. In it, Turner plays with refrains. She lightly shifts the words and syllables of each refrain in a poem about climate change and city planning. Her humble work accumulates. Let’s concentrate on the formal stuff first. Note the change in the last line of the first two stanzas (I’ll bold them):

so we commissioned a document
about sustenance and the city’s pores
metaphors of food and skin
for when the water rises

wired the desirable apartments
caves in units, strange hotels
possible domesticities
before the water rises

The repetition of the for and the vowel shift of the e from when to before doesn’t do too much here—I register the repetition more than the change—but look how much mileage Turner gets out of small changes like these. Here’s the refrains, in order, of all the stanzas in the poem:

for when the water rises
before the water rises
to where the anger rises
as if an angel, rising
angels’ recognition
for when the water rises
the agents recognize

I don’t know about you, but this is how I change the words to Bowie songs that I personalize for my baby or my cats—slowly, inconsequentially, but then all of a sudden the id takes over and we’re in the darker territory of angels. Turner’s realization is that this type of nonchalance is of the same stuff as shitty city planning. I’ll let you find the rest of the poem, but re-read the refrains above, and you begin to see the argument Turner’s making and how she’s making it: I’m changing the refrain, hey I’m doing a pretty good job, now I’m so deep in the weeds I’ve kind of lost the thread = We were all trying to do our best for when the water rises, then we had to pay attention to something else, and, huh, now the water’s rising. It’s like a David Simon show, but without all the telegraphed dick jokes.

Sociological situations permeate the book, but my favorite parts are, like the Spenser poem, dumb ones. Here’s “Convalescence”, capturing the endless boredom of post-graduate life perfectly, broken up as it is by stunning moments of lyric possibility unable to be deployed:

so I’m sleeping on the floor
in the living room

I saw a channel
a chain awkwardly rusting into knots I saw the god
of suspensions near the sea road    I saw?

I didn’t. “L is asleep.”
“L” is always asleep.


the walk to the library
is that a poem

across is the penthouse
all windows and sky

and the level of the gulls who can manipulate
the texture of the new substantial wind

Songs and Ballads makes good on Turner’s confusion. The walk to the library is a poem, and there is a god of suspensions near the sea road, and she has made them into songs. There is nothing false, and they are right there.

Image by Reva G

About the Author:

Devin King is the poetry editor for The Green Lantern Press and the co-director of Sector 2337. Books and chapbooks: CLOPS and The Resonant Space are out, The Grand Complication is forthcoming. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.