Book Review

In a time of environmental and civic toxicity, Lindsay Turner attends to our flailing integrity in her second collection, The Upstate, which opens with a screencast image of contemporary Eden and closes in contemplation of human need. Between, Turner introduces the effects of industrial pollution, seeks to weave protective spells in her community, and ultimately tackles a capitalism that takes from others, through its cycle of production and accumulation, more than it gives. Turner is interested in what roles we play as accomplices to our destruction and challenges us to contend with these intractable problems.

Broken into four sections, The Upstate is rooted in displacement, with loss being felt physically, spiritually, and mentally. The collection’s prologue poem, “Planning,” sets up this underlying motif. Turner opens as if in a fairytale, “Once there was an image of a garden . . .” and structurally repeats “once” at the beginning of eight of the poem’s twenty-five lines to set the collection in its Virginia, South Carolina, and New England pasts. Turner’s frequent use of repetition here, and throughout The Upstate, also grounds her rhetorical questing—”Why doesn’t anyone here speak for their own life”—and her inability to grant easy answers. If human history is a straight line, Turner sees it less on battlefronts or in buildings of power than in her past:

Runs out in the depopulated suburbs where the wires run aboveground

Runs out in strip malls, parking lots of trailers selling pills and armchairs

Runs out in a wealth of places of supplies for everything mechanical or animal

In “Planning,” Turner sees her errors accumulating behind her, and in The Upstate, she creates a space where “Soon you will be able to read them like a poem.”

One concern in The Upstate is the environmental and human degradation that results from production. The first half of Turner’s collection is replete with industry’s harms: air pollution from a papermill, acres burning, and bloodstreams filled with chemical toxins. In this conflicted space, people live in poverty or choose to purchase desirable property. Health and safety are as much for sale as the land itself, which Turner expresses in “Forms of Displeasure,” a poem where hawks lose their nesting grounds to clear-cutting and the air carries the scent of plastic:

what you need to understand is

it’s big things not people

the bright formal nothings

go rising up the hill

it’s things and not people

it’s braided with pleasure

phthalates and parabens

circling like drones

Empty lots have a need to be filled, whether near a mud-banked creek in “Tennessee Quatrains” or a shoreline with “pretty seaward-facing houses with their / painted-spindle porches” in “It Imagines the Destruction It Wants.” And in “Song of Accumulation,” Turner reminds us that constant construction is also a loss: “you think ‘pristine’ but it just means not yet accumulated // you think ‘pristine’ but it just means uncluttered.” For Turner, the correlation between changing an environment and savagery is closer than we would like to think.

Against these degradations, Turner would like to offer charms to remove some of the overwhelming red—blood, fire, hatred, heat—from the world. But while The Upstate clears itself from the stain of dawns and dusks, animal deaths, and clay ground as it moves into the second half of the collection, a hint of threat remains in the smallest items, the smallest actions. The poem “Tender Publics” opens with daily storms that must be driven through, which prompts reflections on middle age. Strip malls are forgettable, and male hitchhikers remain roadside. Closets and cabinets are important for what they can hold. And while “No one in this life wants a china set,” Turner closes having found several promising houses for “us” that reconnect her to the buying world. In The Upstate, Turner struggles with a human tendency toward accumulation alongside the guilt of accumulation, where each acquisition makes us complicit in the worst effects of capitalism.

The final two poems in The Upstate—”The Capitals” and “Accomplice”—most clearly express this tension. Turner does not shy away from her own unease in “The Capitals.” Having visited those cities of wealth and power, she asks:

The question is who does your money come from

The question is whose loss

The question is whose loves are torn like wet paper for your money

The capital gardens, with their trees and roses and night birds, are “a cycle of toxic violence” that don’t provide sustenance, even while “the roses / The rubble the stores and everything is brimming full.” Turner’s ultimate question, in her final “Accomplice” poem, is how to “wake up / wake up from your dream worlds” when so much seems rotten or at a remove. However, the question is unanswerable:

Is it a theory of aesthetics will it hold water

Will it hold in the morning

while the birds fly over and find what they need

Will they find what then need or won’t they

The Upstate identifies and explores a deeply felt guilt built on one’s ability to purchase, to have property and access to the things that fill strip mall shelves, and to be able to travel and appreciate clean pillowcases in someone else’s room, all the while knowing that these signs of contemporary success are built largely on keeping others from having the same. For her many avenues of exploration, Turner can only plead for “money without death without the deaths of anyone,” as she seems to recognize the near impossibility of such a dream. Perhaps the only true conclusion to be found comes in the collection’s first “The Upstate” poem—“Whatever kills us will be slow and from the inside.”

About the Reviewer

Lisa Higgs is the recipient of a 2022 Minnesota State Arts Board grant providing creative support for Minnesota artists. Her third chapbook, Earthen Bound, was published by Red Bird Chapbooks in February 2019. Her poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA, Folio, Rhino, Sugar House Review, and WaterStone Review, among others, and her poem “Wild Honey Has the Scent of Freedom” was awarded 2nd Prize in the 2017 Basil Bunting International Poetry Prize. Her reviews and interviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation, Kenyon Review Online, and the Adroit Journal.