Laying It On the Line for Turner Cassity (1929-2009)
Laying It On the Line for Turner Cassity (1929-2009)
What I miss most about Turner Cassity is sitting next to him, listening to the mesmerizing cadence of his aristocratic, southern Mississippian accent. Whether he was narrating his latest travel adventure, critically appraising the work of another poet, or wittily skewering any pompous, dishonest person, his words fell soft and delicious. In addition to being a master of the art of conversation, Turner was also always a gentleman—polite, gracious, precisely barbered, and well-dressed. Frankly, he was the best date I ever had. Ever. One Decatur evening in 1989 stands out in particular, or, I should say, parts of it, because some parts are a wee bit blurry.
Whenever we planned a night on the town, Turner would tempt me with, “Come on, Suzanne, let’s be wicked together.” A good part of being “wicked” included gin and the effervescent tonic of gossip. (See “Page from a Bar Guide” for his paean to gin.) But that night in Decatur began differently. It started with a walk to a bar that was simply a clean, well-lighted place. A room filled with tables. It might have been a VFW hall. There was nothing memorable about it. It was there, however, that Turner introduced me to a cocktail I’ll never forget: the French 77.
By the book, the French 77 consists of a shot of elderberry liqueur and lemon juice in a flute, with the flute then filled with champagne. But the way the bartender made this drink for Turner, whom he had surely served before, was to present him with what I remember as being a beaker of champagne and a shot of cognac. Turner sank the shot in the champers. I have a clear memory of the shot slowly rocking its way to the bottom, like the depth-charge it surely was. If I’d even tasted that drink, I’m sure the rest of the evening would be a complete blank. Turner had two. (I’ve tried and tried to edit that chemistry beaker from memory, but it just won’t go away. So I’ve concluded it must have been there.)
From Decatur we drove to the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, where we had dinner in The Dining Room. The Dining Room’s decor was plush upholstered banquettes, flocked wallpaper, sconces, reproductions of paintings of blood-lined horses, heavy drapes—Tara redecorated by Scarlet on Prozac. Turner may have said something about forgetting his riding crop. Or maybe it was the 25-year difference in our ages that prompted the maitre de to seat us in a dark booth at a far corner of the room. He was wise. What ensued was Rabelaisian. A 1982 Chateau Talbot was involved, as were quail served in more than one way. I distinctly remember the crunching of tiny bird bones, a fact confirmed two weeks later when the mail delivered Turner’s recipe for Quail Roasted in Vermouth. It was a photocopied page from a cookbook, with the instructions annotated in his unmistakable, precise, left-slanting block print, assuring me of his recipe’s superiority.
After the quail, the game continued: venison and rabbit. That’s right, Bambi and Thumper down the hatch without remorse. For dessert we were to share a chocolate soufflé ordered at the start of the meal. By the time it arrived, I was stuffed. But there was nothing small about Turner’s appetite. Magically, the souffle disappeared. Surely a digestif was called for. During which the conversation turned to: why not have a child together? We picked a name. That was fun! And the last thing ever said on the subject. I wish I could tell you the name we settled on, but even I am not that irreverent.
The evening was still young. Turner promised me a piano bar and piloted us back to Decatur in what was a riverboat of a car, no, a Riverboat Queen of a car. I don’t think either one of us could actually see past the hood, it was so long and sleek, so heavily encrusted with chrome, so very V8. Earlier in the evening he had pointed out with glee: no seat belts! Having inherited the car from a cousin, he was surprised to find it even fit in his garage.
We parked at a juke joint next to the railroad tracks. It was a shack really. The walls were rough board, no paint. There was no bar per se, just a table set with bottles and glasses. But in the center of the room, as promised: a piano. It was not grand but upright. The piano player, unfortunately, was not. He lay blacked-out over a table in the corner. Even we could tell the party was over. I tottered back to the car in high heels across what felt like a bed of cinders, leaning heavily on Turner’s arm for support. The next day when I called him before leaving for the airport Turner provided perfect closure by saying, “Suzanne, that was a Pearl Harbor of the mind.”
I don’t know anyone who would disagree with Helen Trimpi in Stanford Magazine when she said, “He is the most witty man in conversation I’ve ever known.” It’s a fact that is documented repeatedly, for instance by anecdotes in the Emory Wheel article covering the memorial service held at Emory University’s Woodruff Library, and in Memye Curtis Tucker’s memoir below. At poetry readings, for example, he often announced variants on the line: “I write about the wickedness of the world — that way I’ll never run out of material.” I wish there were dozens more reminiscences to commemorate Turner’s life in conversation, and hope the future will bring forth many. Of course, his ferocious wit and gentle wisdom are immortalized in the thousands of letters sent to friends and family, but he expressly prohibited their publication. Fortunately, because he was such a prolific poet, we can turn to his work for more of the man we loved and admired as friend, teacher, and poet. And, despite his protestation at readings that he never wrote about his own emotions, the poems often prove otherwise, as he pens in “He Whom Ye Seek:”
. . . “He is not here?”
He is, however. He is every single share,
Knife, fork, and spoon. I am the blood the portraits were,
Those carats, iambs, trips. All of my life is here.
According to Bob Barth, Turner’s literary executor, there was, in fact, a fat envelope of poems in a safe deposit box in Jackson, Mississippi (and silver cutlery in another). Specifically, that envelope contained all the new poems Turner published in The Destructive Element: New and Selected Poems.1 Bob also discovered on Turner’s personal computer more than a gigabyte (that is an enormous number of text files!) of unpublished work. He is currently in the process of reading and organizing that work into books and chapbooks.
One whole book, entitled simply New Book by Turner, had already been assembled, including a table of contents. The trove of unpublished work also includes book-length poems. Those who are familiar with Turner’s work, such as his Silver Out of Shanghai, will recognize these as a specialty of his. We are lucky enough to offer here several of the unpublished poems, courtesy of Bob. They remind me again of how brilliant Turner was at dramatic monologue. I was also reminded of how brilliant he was at blank verse dramatic dialogue when reading his posthumously published chapbook from Scienter Press: Under Two Flags: Echoes of the Foreign Legion. From the ribald reminiscences of two geriatric legionnaires in Rhodesia, to a bizarre confrontation of strangers in midland Texas over a cooler containing cottonmouths and a wheel of brie, the two medium-length poems that make up this volume are Turner at his most arch.
But I digress. Back to the unpublished work. Of most interest to me are two chapbook-length collections of poems under the title of Poems for Isobel. These are poems that deal openly with the subject of being a gay man. They are to my mind among Turner’s best work. But why, you may wonder as I did, were they for Isobel?
I have to thank Bob Barth for solving the mystery. He remembered Turner’s poem “A Word from Isobel,” a dramatic monologue spoken by Isabel Burton, wife of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the 19th century explorer and poet responsible for bringing unexpurgated texts, including One Thousand and One Nights and the Kama Sutra, to the English speaking world. After his death, Burton’s wife Isabel destroyed his translation of The Perfumed Garden, the better part of which was a chapter, usually omitted in later translations, on pederasty. Burton had included extensive and comprehensive notes on the subject. Turner’s dedication of his gay poems to Isobel might be interpreted as thumbing his nose at her Catholic idea of saving her husband from eternal damnation by preventing others from being led into sin by his work. Or, Isobel may have been the vestigial Calvinist in Turner that kept the gay poems from publication and, perhaps, at times contemplated burning them. I think he raises and then answers the question himself in the following lines from “He Whom Ye Seek:”
. . . was it a stunting or a growth?
It was the risk of so much safety. It was both.
For years Turner and I had a running joke about the Isobel poems, although he never called them that. He simply referred to them as “The Porn.” After he retired he said, “If I live to be 75 I’m going to take up smoking and publish the porn.” For the next 10 years I’d beg, “I’m so bored without you. Send me the porn!” In August of 2000, shortly after one of his extended San Francisco visits, a plain manila envelope arrived addressed in Turner’s signature hand. There was no question in my mind what it contained. Imagine my surprise to find only eight poems whose content was distinctly un-pornographic. True they dealt with the life of gay bars and street hustlers, but there was nothing pornographic about them. Calling them “porn” had more to do with his southern Calvinistic upbringing and age than with their content.
What makes these poems stand out from much of Turner’s work—which is often lapidary in structure and loaded with literary, historical, and geo-political allusions—is how accessible they are. When I shared this observation with him, he replied, with not a little irony, “I guess I’ve finally learned that it’s a gift to be simple.” Which is not to say Turner’s unmistakable voice does not come through loud and clear. Turner was always himself, even in gay bars, as illustrated below.
The Imp of the Perverse
The world is full of men whose dearest urge
Is sex with Quasimodo or the corpse
Of Alfred Douglas or with Eng and Chang,
Whose own dear urge may not have much to do
With hobbyists. (Well, Bosie’s might have.) Seek
And ye shall find; God help you if you do.
The only worse outcome is to suspect
That they find you; that you are some construct
Outside normality. Hunchback, be off.
Lord Alfred, put on boxing gloves and try
Kickboxing with the freestyle Siamese.
Do not, I pray you, zero in on me.
I, neither item or collector, march
Always to the same drummer. Not, I add,
The Little Drummer Boy. I do not stalk.
Normality is the erotic point;
In what I am attracted to, that is.
Variety may be the spice of life,
But spices, you remember, came to be
From urgent need to hide the taste of rot.
Most hunting is for game already high.2
There is no despair like the despair a gay man or lesbian feels when surveying the patrons of a gay bar (at least in the old days) and realizing “Oh my God, this is the dating pool.” And, if your ‘erotic point is normality,’ not only are the bars a desert of the heart, but you’re probably set up to fall for a “straight” person. Trust me, I know, and so did Turner. He tackles the subject with a vengeance.
The Isobel poems also shed light on the subtext of many of the more personal of Turner’s published poems, such as “Ways of Feeling,” “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Jekyll,” “Adding Rattles,” “One of the Boys, or, Nothing Sad about My Captains,” and “Open Wounds.” I hope a publisher can be found to add Turner’s take on gay life to the existing body of his published work. In particular, his perspective would stand in interesting contrast to Thom Gunn’s.
I want to thank all of the poets who submitted work for this tribute. Even in the submissions that didn’t make it into the tribute, there were many lines that evoked Turner’s enchanting personality and demonstrated deep appreciation of his work. I hope that as you read on you will enjoy the heroic march of Alicia Stallings couplets, the charming translations from the Persian by Dick Davis, Tim Steele’s meditation on Nijinsky’s tomb, Christophe Fricker’s German translation of Turner’s sizzling “Two are Four,” Bill Conelly’s elegy, Memye Tucker’s reminiscence, and Helen Trimpi’s video tribute. I believe Turner would have been touched by each and every one of these contributions. I know I was.
Turner’s cousin said to him as he lay in hospital, days before his death, “When you get home, you’ll have to write a poem about this.” The seizure he’d suffered had robbed him of his ability to speak, but he managed to say, “I already have.”3 We won’t ever get to hear that poem. But thanks to Kevin Durkin, who paid for production costs out of his own pocket, we can watch an excellent video of Turner reading at The Huntington Library in 2003. If you never met Turner, and even if you were lucky enough to have, this is a chance to see him at his best and hear his beautiful voice, that voice, buried forever in my heart.
The New Georgia Encyclopedia: Turner Cassity