On Frederick Turner’s Epics
June 8, 2018
Jun 8, 2018
16 Min read time
On Frederick Turner’s epics.
The Cambridge fens are submerged, East Anglia evacuated, London’s Thames Barrier activated. Mostly, however, Great Britain is escaping the worst of the great North Sea hurricane of 2067. Instead, the storm shifts east, “Swollen with heat and with the melting bergs / Calved from the West Antarctica ice collapse.” When Holland’s giant dikes are breached, a forty-foot wave of mud and seawater crashes through central Amsterdam. A desperate curator in the flooding Rijksmuseum
hurries up into the gallery
And sprints for the great canvas at the end.
The wind has risen to a scream, but underneath
She hears a rumble far more terrible,
Almost too deep for sound, but shattering,
As if the eardrums had been blasted in. 
She cuts Rembrandt’s Night Watch from its frame and drags the massive canvas to an upper floor as the museum’s north wing collapses. This spectacular scene opens Frederick Turner’s third epic poem Apocalypse (2016), which appears three decades after his earlier epics, The New World (1985) and Genesis (1988). All three books send the epic imagination to an unfamiliar destination: to future time rather than the historical or mythical past.
Turner set The New World, his most American epic in locale and temper, four centuries hence in the former “Uess,” now fractured into several uneasily coexisting entities: the neo-pastoral Free Counties, the fundamentalist Mad Counties, the Riots of the old inner cities, and the Burbs, populated by the effete heirs of the leisured classes. Memories of the past survive in place names with broken-down orthography: Calyforny, Jorgia, Ahiah, Wesjiniah, Cumbus, Hattan. In abandoned subway tunnels beneath the ruined Grand Central Terminal, the superannuated last Uess president lives on as lord of the underworld. The next volume, Genesis, unfolds in a nearer future—largely, the twenty-first century. Alternating between Mars and Earth, it dramatizes the ethical debate between the “ecotheists” who would preserve Mars as wilderness and the “terraformers” who are re-engineering it to be fit for human habitation. The New World and Genesis were reissued in twenty-fifth anniversary editions in 2011, ahead of Turner’s newest epic. Ten thousand lines of blank verse, Apocalypse imagines a planet in environmental and cultural crisis in the later twenty-first century. Two potentially cataclysmic events loom. One is human-made and predictable—runaway climate change. The other, utterly unanticipated, is a runaway black hole threatening the Earth. Apocalypse’s heroes are a diverse coalition of scientists, artists, and technicians—a “techno-geek and eco-wonk brigade” —aided by an Artificial Intelligence named Kalodendron (eventually assassinated by Vatican reactionaries in cahoots with the CIA). Epic poetry is not in Kansas—or in Troy—anymore.
For all their inventiveness, Turner’s epics are conscious acts of recovery. “To do epic these days is very much like restoring a classic landscape, in the sense of restoration ecology,” he said in 1993. [O’Sullivan and Pletsch, Interview with Frederick Turner, The Humanist 53, Nov/Dec 1993, 17] The New World’s plot incorporates elements from a long narrative line including the Odyssey, the Grail legend, Iceland’s Njál’s Saga, folk and fairy tales, and the Mahabharata. The Mars of Genesis owes debts to the landscapes of the Aeneid, the Inferno, and Paradise Lost. Apocalypse further confirms Turner’s penchant for a vigorous mix of tradition and innovation. Nourished from a rich international menu of epic narratives, Apocalypse chronicles a rescue mission for a damaged future. The AI known as Kalodendron, who initiates a world-wide cultural renaissance in 2072, becomes an avatar of Joseph Campbell’s “hero with a thousand faces.” In an epic catalogue, the Apocalypse-poet likens Kalodendron to a host of redeemers—the titular hero of the Congolese Mwindo, Hunahpu and Xbalanque from the Mayan Popul Vuh, Xuanzang in the Chinese Journey to the West, the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, Tiamat the Babylonian water goddess of Enuma Elish, as well as the usual suspects in floodlore, including Noah, Deucalion, and Utnapishtim.
Turner’s epics are vast echo chambers. In Genesis we keep encountering Keats’s Nightingale ode, the Galahad story, and The Wizard of Oz. Mentions of Odysseus among the Cyclops and Aeneas in Carthage reach back to ancient storytelling, and characters named Beatrice, Ganesh, and Tripitaka impart the flavors of the Divine Comedy, the Mahabharata, and the Journey to the West. The heroics of The New World are cross-stitched with reworked words and scenes from the Old and New Testaments, from the Anglo Saxon Battle of Maldon and King Lear and L’il Abner. Apocalypse, like Turner’s other epics, is saturated with Milton: whole lines are lifted from Paradise Lost and displaced to future events. It’s no surprise that the polymathic Turner’s greatest model is Milton, a disillusioned revolutionary living in, for him, the reactionary, dystopian world of the English Restoration, a multilingual poet whose imagination roamed the universe, folding the scientific questions and discoveries of his day into his epic.
Turner’s epics in future tense accomplish what science fiction has envisioned ever since H. G. Wells used an imagined future to illuminate our present choices: “There is no future / But that one which we make,” the prophetic Sibyl teaches in Genesis.  A poetics of the future, a poetics that binds ancient epic to modern science fiction, requires experiments in language. In an interview with Chinese scholar Wan Xuemei as he was finishing Apocalypse, Turner observes that there are times when vocabulary undergoes “radical enlargement,” as in the Renaissance when English bloomed with Latin and French imports. In our era, science and technology provide “a whole new palette” for poetry and, he advises, “it’s a poet’s duty to learn the science behind the new words” and acquire new conceptual and metaphorical tools. [Wan Xumei, “Poetry, Poetics, and Science Fiction,” Foreign Literature Studies 37, Dec. 2015, 2] Turner interweaves the lexicons of biology, chemistry, neuroscience, astronomy, and mathematics with the high style of heroic poetry and the slang of contemporary speech. His “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” to use Milton’s phrase for newness in Paradise Lost, include terraforming another planet in Genesis, a papal suicide in Apocalypse, and armies in The New World battling on horseback beneath silken banners while singing to their computerized swords and deploying remote-control lasers. The anachronisms, the register-switching in diction, and the hybridizing of epic and science fiction caused critics of his first two epics to accuse Turner of producing “camp” literature, vulgarized epics with heroes resembling plastic Star Wars merchandise. But skeptics missed the linguistic and formal energy Turner achieves by marrying past to future, by treating conventions unconventionally. He delights, for example, in metrical legerdemain, turning “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” into a pentameter line in Genesis  or, in Apocalypse, making perfect iambs from the chemistry of sulfur tossed into ocean water: “It doesn’t turn to H2SO4.” 
Newness in Turner’s epics is not just a matter of novelty in subject and language; he also refurbishes the oldest features of the genre. Similes are the poetic apparatus that first leap to many readers’ minds when they recall Homer. Turner’s are fresh and satisfying, especially when he slips demotic or technical language into this most formal of conventions. A ninety-ton freighter plows into a torpedo boat “and breaks its back / As one might snap a slightly stale baguette.” [Apocalypse 104] Portable rockets “spring like athletes from their tubes.” [New World 159] Doubt burrows into minds “like an ol’ crayfish / in de mud, like piss in de snow.” [New World 175] Some of Turner’s similes yoke heroics to science with the iconoclasm of a Donne sonnet. In The New World, barbaric soldiers “swarm in their millions like spores of a slime / mold.”  Others shock decorum: a predatory bat ray in the terraformed Martian ocean “pops from her hole as you / Might clear a toilet with a rubber plunger.” [Genesis 311] Apocalypse’s narrator likens a poem’s composition to the operations of advanced printing software:
So I spin out this thread and fold it back
Line after line, to make a sheet of verse,
As does a 3D printer in its scribble,
To fabricate something built on itself. 
Turner fulfills Wordsworth’s forecast, two centuries ago, about the poetry of the future: “The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and . . . shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings.” [Preface to Lyrical Ballads, ed. Brett and Jones, London:1963, 254]
If Turner has embraced a new nature prophesied by the pre-eminent “nature poet” of the nineteenth century, he has also amplified an innovation Milton brought to the epic genre. Ancient epicists were opaque, but Milton used invocations to reveal aspects of his biography at key moments in the poem: the challenges of his blindness, his ostracism after the monarchy’s Restoration, his procrastination in composing. In his first two epics, Turner follows Milton’s lead, creating authorial personae in dialogue with the reader, as when the Genesis-poet celebrates his creation of a world without a history: “The poets of Mars must make the myths from scratch, / Invent the tunes, the jokes, the references.”  In Apocalypse, he goes further and makes the poet crucial to the plot. The billionaire inventor Noah Blazo, who commissions the poetic record of the climate-cooling project, declares, “The poet is the linchpin of it all.”  Apocalypse’s poet-narrator goes by the pseudonym Nemo, Latin for nobody, a nod to the anonymous authors of epic who considered themselves mere instruments of a higher power. Though present as a character in the poem, Nemo is also, curiously, an invisible man. Early on we learn he is gay, but discreet about his love affairs: “that’s private, folks.”  Only near the poem’s end do we hear about the great love of his life—and learn the reason for his concealments. Nemo is preoccupied with artistic tact:
I’ve kept him from the tale for many reasons:
I didn’t want the epic to become
Just one more entertaining private novel. 
This is not a matter of personal reserve on Nemo’s part. Turner is committed in all his epics to the principle of subordinating character to argument and of poet to poem. The Genesis-poet catches himself in the process of describing his appearance and his medical condition, and he beats a hasty retreat: “It’s not my purpose to discuss myself— / An epic poet ought to be a drudge / In service of his brilliant agonists.” 
One of the truisms about the history of the epic poem is that it was ambushed by the novel in the eighteenth century and left for dead. But in resurrecting the genre in his three epic poems, Turner is determined not to turn them into verse novels. Hence Nemo’s refusal to emulate the psychological novel. Turner peoples his poem with interesting personalities, but as in earlier epics, the individual player is subsumed to story and, emphatically, to subject. As Milton put it, epic requires a “great argument.” Nemo follows a long passage on twenty-first-century weapons technology with an equally lengthy parenthetical justification of his poetics:
Why, you might ask, do I insist so much
On the technology, the nuts and bolts?
It wasn’t I, but Noah, who insisted,
But I see why now, or I think I do.
This story’s not just of the people in it,
But also of the planet’s personae.
And we are jacked into the Earth, and jacked
Into each animal or plant we eat
And each one that eats us when we are clay. 
One of the tasks of epic is to imagine a world and define a culture. The future world being envisioned in Apocalypse cannot be grasped without understanding both its technological hardware and its ecological framework. Focusing on the psychological relationships among its characters would distract from, and undermine, its larger aims.
In The New World, the quest for identity, the ideal of beauty, the moral imperative of sacrifice, and the mission to heal a sick society are ideas illustrated by, but larger than, the poem’s hero and heroine. In Genesis, debates over the natural versus the artificial and the birth of a biologically fertile world matter more than the fate of the debaters or the terraformers’ personal successes. And in Apocalypse the dispersion of the individual hero into a community of scientific and artistic rescuers guarantees that no one character (except, maybe, the poet Nemo) outshines the high-stakes subject of the planet’s future. Underscoring the subordination of character to argument, Turner names his heroes and antiheroes to suggest types and symbols, not individuals—Kingfish (the Fisher King) in The New World, Gaea the ecotheist zealot in Genesis, Benicio Menendez the liberal South American Jesuit who names himself Pope Francis III in Apocalypse. In The New World, the sacrificial death of the broken hero James George Quincy revives a culture freshened in “the wind that blows from the edge of time.”  The heroes of Genesis pass almost silently from the page, “woven,” as the poet says in a headnote, “into the future construction of the planet Mars.”  In Apocalypse, this issue of the human and the transhuman is treated with even greater elegance. The poem, built on the potential double catastrophe of a metastasizing climate and cosmic annihilation, dramatizes what is and is not within human mastery. While scientific ingenuity prevents Earth from being swallowed by the black hole, the mystery of how black holes work to collapse past and present, and a stunning series of resurrections, dominate the final sections of Apocalypse.
Apocalypse concludes with nothing concluded. Nemo thought he had ended his epic tragically with Book VIII in the year 2100, when a desperate, Hail-Mary space launch towards the onrushing black hole prompted the Good Friday sermon of Pope Francis III, an elegy for our species and “the manner of our passing.”  But the world doesn’t come to an end after all and Apocalypse continues to a ninth and tenth book, composed, Nemo tells us at the opening of Book IX, a decade after the first eight. A twelve-year mission to save Earth arrests the deadly black hole’s movement with a giant mirror-sail reflecting energy back to the singularity. The situation is inherently unstable, “always / Requiring constant micromanagement,”  but the scientific collective achieves a provisional, fragile resolution of the existential threat. Here too Apocalypse might have ended, with a shift away from Good Friday gloom.
Turner had closed his first epic, The New World, on Easter Sunday, a festival of resurrection, and its final lines celebrate spring, pregnancy, fresh starts in “a world free of the stains of the past.”  That precedent might lead readers to anticipate a similarly cheery resolution for Apocalypse. But we would be as mistaken as Nemo was in thinking that the probable end of the world in Book VIII was the authentic conclusion. Apocalypse’s coda is Turner’s most sophisticated epic ending. Nemo takes full measure of the consequences of imagining the future and explicates a poetics appropriate to future-tense epics. The final four hundred lines articulate a sly new understanding of his form:
And now, as epic, it’s incumbent that
It gather all its trails of consequence,
Tie them together so the future’s set,
And make an end that also is a purpose,
Make for the single point that is its point;
And everything is never or forever,
Happily ever or forever lost. 
That was the old way of doing epic: the fairy-tale finale, or the melancholy farewell to a lost paradise. “But this neat ending isn’t going to happen,” Nemo announces. 
Turner had been thinking about the philosophical implications of a futurist poem’s ending ever since Genesis, where his Sibyl ponders the branching tree of life and its “fixed past and open futures.”  Nemo’s deeper insight alters the protocols for epic. Exploding the ideal of pat resolutions, Nemo applies an old Zen aphorism: “Do not believe in any happy ending. / We go on cutting wood and drawing water.”  Because the future is open-ended, contingent on multiple choices whose upshots are innumerable, the epic must be inconclusive: “A future in which nothing different / Can happen than does happen is unreal.”  The disruptive event enforcing open-endedness in Apocalypse occurs when the revived AI Kalodendron, assisting human researchers data-mining the black hole, abolishes boundaries between past and present, between life and death. Suddenly the old myth of resurrection morphs into actuality, and a new technology opens disorienting possibilities:
For we could clone the bodies of the dead
Out of the mass of data we had found,
And print the engram of a former mind
Into the house where once it fitly dwelt. 
Resurrection? It’s complicated. What can be done is more obvious than what should be done—a scientific dilemma as old as Shelley’s Frankenstein. The brave new world of resurrection requires an exquisite sense of etiquette. Nemo would like to resurrect his lover Teddy, but knowing Teddy‘s objection to artificially extended life, he refrains. “Do not resuscitate” and “afterlife” acquire new resonance in a future in which reincarnation is an option. Laws are enacted forbidding “there to be two copies at a time.”  Some resurrectees return to life with unalloyed eagerness. Others materializing into a second life grieve the “dreadful bar” that time’s passage has imposed on reunions with loved ones.  Conjuring journeys to Hades by Homer, Virgil, and Dante, Nemo spends his final lines recording returns from the underworld—pasts restored and revisited, lives rebuilt from the data and memories sucked into the black hole. Apocalypse recalls the wonder—and chaos—of Shakespeare’s late romances when present and past collide and the quick and the dead are hard to distinguish. “So let me end this now with anecdotes,” Nemo writes,  preferring a valedictory miscellany to any definitive ending that would compromise the sheer messiness of the new reality.
The last of his anecdotal endings is brutal: a woman raised from the dead finds her widowed husband newly married and rages hysterically over his disloyalty. She begs for a copy of the husband she once had, but gets the inevitable reply, “And that’s the one thing, darling, we can’t do.”  Despairing, she asks to die again. “What can I say?” Nemo asks.  Did she take her life or not? Nemo will not answer. Future outcomes can’t be pinned down: “Each answer, for us humans, makes more questions, / Each resolution deepens more the stress.” 
In the years between Genesis and Apocalypse—titles suggesting alpha and omega, origin and destiny—Turner pondered the trajectory of our species. Humanity, he wrote, “is falling, and always has been falling, outward into the future from the initial experience of the Big Bang, onward into more and more conscious, beautiful, tragic, complex and conflicted forms of existence.” [Turner, “The Invented Landscape” in Beyond Preservation, ed. Baldwin, Minneapolis: 1993, 44] His epics, with increasing power and nuance, embrace that trajectory. Traditional epics depict a future already determined because it is part of readers’ past. Whatever forking paths might have existed long ago are foreclosed. Hector will die. The serpent will tempt successfully. Choices were made, and the poet can interpret but not alter them. Apocalypse is not like that; its future is still in the future. History, as Genesis defines it, is the “fertile uterus of future time.” The past still matters in epic, but as Turner reflected in 2012, “sometimes epic must also seek prophetically forwards in time to find a higher vantage point from which that history can be better seen. This is, in retrospect, what I must have been trying to do in setting those poems in the future.” [Turner, Epic: Form, Content, History, New Brunswick: 2012, 320]
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June 08, 2018
16 Min read time