Tell the Turning will shortly ask for your help to become a real book—via Kickstarter, in about three weeks. Some folks have been asking me: what is Tell the Turning about? Plenty of others have not, and I want to be prepared when they do.
I’m presently deeply unprepared, because how does one say what a poem (let alone a whole book of them) is about? This feels to me like trying to pin down what a religious liturgy is about, or what human life is about—in a word: mu.
I learned this helpful term from listening to Pádraig Ó Tuama. It means “un-ask the question.”
But maybe I need to unbend a little from this. I dislike that phrase “elevator pitch,” but almost equally I hate stumbling and ummming whenever someone says politely, “So, what’s your book about?”
This is one of those essays where you don’t know what you think yet, and you’re trying to figure it out. Assaying.
When my publisher first read Tell the Turning, he told me it was “a cross between a hymnal and an almanac.” This feels as close as I instinctively want to get to “about.” The poems are concerned with attention to the natural world, to leaves and light and stars. They form a song of praise that winds through land and season, sometimes celebratory and sometimes longing, often both at once.
So Tell the Turning is an exploration of relationship with place—some specific places, all of which retain a significant component of the other-than-human: “natural” places. My relationship, and my places, of course; I cannot speak for yours.
There are three layers of place in the book. There are also three sections. The three layers do not quite map onto the three sections.
First is Owl-Light Chronicle, which grew directly from two years of daily walks in and conversations with quite a small patch of earth, which is probably unremarkable, unless you love it. Owls are involved—barn owls, great-horned owls, dream owls—but it’s the light in the title that’s the real main character, I think.
Low Tide Book loops in several other individual patches of land, but its constant place-layer is liquid, is the sea. Even the poems in it that were written far from the ocean—I composed a few, for example, in Tennessee—carry the depth and rhythm of waves inside them.
Mysteries of a Trinity is the third section. Our living planet—how it lives in us and we as part of it—is the third place. These are the section and the place that don’t quite map. Or they do? Mysteries of a Trinity is actually a single poem, with three sections of its own: In Difficulty, At Beltane, and A Long Way From Home. They make at least a start on human experience of place and hour and season.
Because Tell the Turning is also deeply concerned with seasons and hours, the turns of the year, and the the many non-linear clocks our world offers.
The hours are always with me—just not so much the 12- or 24-hour clock. So it’s often crucial to a given poem that the hour is dawn, or noon, or just before the last light fades, and that the season is one of sparrows at 4 a.m., or the moon tracking the center of the sky. There’s a line in Fenton Johnson’s excellent book At the Center of All Beauty that I cherish: “To live for the changing of the light must be adequate reward.”
It would be fair to say that line describes better than I have what Tell the Turning is about.
Tell the Turning, like its composer, has a tendency to solitude, seasoned with moments of close human connection. Its poems are often lonesome, rarely lonely. It’s a little dark sometimes, but it’s not a downer.
The section title Low Tide Book refers not just to the ocean, but to that low tide of the spirit that drags away the sand underfoot. Many of us have a low tide or two per day, like the sea on shore. And low tides come and go in larger loops too: seasons, of the earth or of the heart.
Originally, Low Tide Book was its own manuscript. But its spirit is shared by the rest of the poems that eventually came to join it. Tell the Turning is a book of poems to companion your low tides.
I do not say relieve, or advise, or celebrate. So much of what we humans seem to need is just to be companioned in our emotions and experience. Every poem in this book rose up in answer to my own desire for that companionship.
Finally (finally? who knows), Tell the Turning is concerned with walking.
Pretty rarely is walking directly referenced, but walking is what I was doing when I composed most of these poems. Walking is a throughline of my adult life. I walk daily, mostly alone, often for miles and hours at a time. When I travel, I take maps, and I walk. It’s clear to me that Tell the Turning would not exist without this habitual wandering and wayfinding. Content and rhythm derive from it directly.
I have been told that these poems are excellent walking companions in themselves. I invite you to investigate the truth of this: the book will be right-sized to carry in your small pack or large pocket.
Have I answered my own question? What is this book about?
If what I have thought out here is true, it’s about watching the light change through the hours and seasons, and the age, and your own heart.
About honoring that ever-turning, praising it where you can, offering companionship to its inevitable griefs and sorrows.
About movement—not in some imagined linear progress, but in seasonal spirals, in steps halting or heartening, in wayfinding expeditions pointed both outward and inward.
Anything else it’s about is for you to say. I have composed, and because I have shared, any meaning in my composition is now also for you to decide. I hope you will—and I hope someday you’ll tell me about it.