From Fun to Ruined: the poetry of Brock Turner


The poet, in custodiam.

Too often, we men (and women! It can no longer be doubted that the female mind is, under certain circumstances, able to subvert its whimsical nature and contribute substantively to the catalogue of intellectual endeavor) of letters perform our criticism with a chisel, rather than a flower (with the obvious exception of the great Brazilian critic Manuel Oliveira, whose geranium-based critique of Pound is among the most elegant – and fragrant – in the field). We have reached, it seems, a downward turn in the Freitagian pyramid of scholarship in the humanities, in which upstart postmodernists and “historians” of Bolshevik character are content simply to deface the monuments of our most learned minds with so much electronic graffiti.

It is a pleasure I reserve for myself, then, to undertake a first serious analysis of the poetry of former Stanford University student Brock Turner, whose debut long-form work of free verse appeared in public yesterday, to the delight of poetry lovers everywhere. Keats once said of Byron: “He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine.” Turner has struck a kind of miraculous fusion of the two, in which what he imagines and what is actually the case become indistinguishable from one another. Whatever my failings as a literary critic, I consider myself grateful that, in future years, I will be able to recall that I, alone among scholars, was the first to plumb the inner reaches of this budding genius’s surreal and abstracted universe.

Turner dedicates his 11-page, untitled work to Aaron Persky, the Californian judge whose mercy has since spared Turner from several decades in state prison. The poet has endured a profoundly traumatic past year-and-half; on January 17th of 2015, he fell victim to a bout of alcoholism, upon which he accidentally had sex with an unconscious female. No doubt shaken by the experience, he turned his pain into verse, and has produced the magnificence to which we turn our attention now.

The poem beings gently but with weariness, echoing Blake at his most Janus-faced:

The day of January 17th, 2015 started out like most of my days at school were spent, by getting up and going to swim practice. Having spent the past four months on campus living around my friends who were essentially all on the swim team, I had plans to spend time with them later that day.

This is as complex and assured a metaphor as we might expect from a poet many years Turner’s senior: the day beginning as if the majority of his school days had been “spent,” frittered away like so many lost coins. Note the repetition of the word and it’s variations: spent/spend – we cannot ignore the possible sexual entendre intended here! Time is indeed “spent” – who would say else? The use of a comma where a lesser poet might predictably employ a colon reveals a writer eager to play with our expectations, who is, as with Whitman, always waiting for us to catch up.

Turner follows this sublime beginning with a brief but haunting reminiscence of temperate Ohio, a childhood bereft of alcohol’s harmful effects. Turner positions himself as a kind of antidote to John Berryman; while the author of Dream Songs is all too much in love with alcohol, Turner’s trauma at its hand allows him to look it dead in the face. After attending a football game, beer in hand, Turner writes,

However, the day ended by having been charged with a minor in possession for drinking alcohol. This should of opened myself to the dangers of drinking.

Here, again, the day is personified, an entity abstract from Turner himself. The day is ended when, in Turner’s devious metaphor, it is “charged with a minor in possession for drinking alcohol.” Who is the minor in the day’s possession? Why, it is Turner himself of course, enslaved to the Day. “[I]n possession for drinking alcohol” appears, on its surface, to be gibberish, but close reading reveals the poet to be fully in command  – all sense of order having been shattered by this enslavement, Turner himself shatters the rules of grammatical English, even throwing a preposition in place of the usual verb. This is a motif he elaborates further:

Even though I had been charged with a crime, it didn’t deter me from still drinking because I carelessly thought that it was at the core essentials of being a college student and I shouldn’t let one incident change my idea of what being in college meant.

This stanza is a tempest, in which the constraints of punctuation come wholly undone. Redundancies like “core essentials” become commonplace in a world gone mad. But the world has not yet become mad enough.

Turner is not above peppering his verse with little stylistic flourishes which would easily be at home in an E.E. Cummings poem. Consider:

It felt as though my behavior with consuming alcohol was completely ordinary and what was accepted within my newfound family.

Newfound, reminiscent of wellbelovéd, as found in Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” Like Olaf, Turner also has a comrade that has become an enemy – here he personifies Consuming Alcohol into an organism distinct from himself. The proper way to “behave” with this uncertain friend (let us not forget John 6:70, in which Judas is called diabolos – or Christ’s Accuser…Turner layers allegory into metaphor) comprises the poem’s essential cathexis.

The deleterious influence of this false comrade reduces the poet to the diction of a mentally injured child:

…people would usually try and head to fraternity parties after being at a more smaller party as the night got later.

“More smaller” indeed. And, of course:

As I was travelling with this small group that originated from my friend’s dorm party he had just held, someone verbalized that the fraternity Kappa Alpha was holding a party that we could attend.

Note the use of verbalize – not “said,” “mentioned,” “declared,” or any of the other, more pedestrian verbs which lie at hand. Verbalize – as if a slumbering, pre-linguistic thing has been awoken and brought into being, the Enemy made word and the word made flesh.

Turner swings suddenly into the bathetic now, reporting from the frontlines of contemporary counterculture with all the raw ferocity of a young Bukowski.

Someone then decided to turn the lights off downstairs, which signaled for people to…start dancing on top of the tables that [games]  were being played upon.

Eventually myself and another girl that was dancing on the same table began dancing together. We grinded together which means that I was behind her and both our hips were touching in a side to side motion in accordance with the beat of the song.

This is difficult to read; one can imagine the levels of depravity to which the poet had to descend in order to bear so brazenly the disgusting details of this humiliating ritual. This opus must have cost him – but we the readers only benefit.

As the evening deteriorates, important words suddenly vanish from their usual places in Turner’s sentences. Past and present tense fuse in unholy unity:

During this time, we walk down a slope in the direction towards the path we were heading. The next thing I realize is that we were both on the ground…

If there is a portion of the work that belies Turner’s youth, it is the passage which follows. Too long to quote in full, Turner uses these lines to depict the tragic act which led to his current incarceration in a county jail in Milpitas, California. Turner, the victim of alcohol abuse, uses an uncanny and unsettling description of a rape as a metaphor for the inescapable misfortune that befell him. Though profoundly disturbing, the image confuses more than it clarifies; after all, what does alcohol use have to do with raping people?

Nevertheless, the poet redeems his verse in his closing stanzas. Themes of money and ownership reappear –

I am the sole proprietor of what happened on the night that these people’s lives were changed forever.

– a line in which a night becomes a property, and Turner becomes its owner. A bold, almost defiant remark; the events belong to him, and no one else. In a particularly profound crie-de-coeur:

I wish I never was good at swimming or had the opportunity to attend Stanford, so maybe the newspapers wouldn’t want to write stories about me.

I shall say it here first: the prejudices of the press towards Stanfordians and the aquatically inclined will be remembered in history as an attitude as primitive and ignorant as the worst hatreds of humanity’s past. In time, Ohio-born Brock Turner will be remembered as the Paul Laurence Dunbar of White Swim-Team Members from Stanford University.

A stream-of-conscious sets in; Turner’s trauma has reduced him to incoherence:

All I can do from these events moving forward is by proving to everyone who I really am as a person.

This, truly, is the power of poetry. A sentence of English, which under usual circumstances would fail on its own terms, here takes flight as an expression of one man’s inner angst, a struggle against adversity. Later, Turner transforms nouns in to verbs (“I know I can impact and change people’s attitudes…”), and splits compound nouns in twain (“decision making,” “risk taking”). Finally, with an apocalyptic construction that evokes very best of Milton, Turner concludes:

I want to let young people know, as I did not, that things can go from fun to ruined in just one evening.

“Fun to ruined.” The yin and yang of human experience. This is Turner’s gift to literature, and to the human spirit.

I do not promise to have here offered a full accounting of this remarkable poet’s incomparable gifts. If I have opened the field to future Turner scholars, my labours will be considered fruitful.

For now, poetry lovers everywhere can only wait in anticipation for Brock Turner’s forthcoming work, The Ballad of Elmwood County Correctional Facility.

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