Finding One Of Colorado’s Lost Literary Treasures: The Poetry of Belle Turnbull

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<p>(Courtesy of The Belle Turnbull Papers, WH 414 Western History, The Denver Public Library)</p>
<p>Colorado poet Belle Turnbull in her Vassar College “senior frock” in 1903.</p>

"Mountains cast spells on me ... " Those words begin a poem by the late Belle Turnbull. Her work focused on Colorado, especially the mountains and mining. She and her partner lived as an out lesbian couple in Breckenridge during the 1940s, long before it became a ski town.

Photo: David Rothman vertical
David Rothman

Despite being well known during her time, Turnbull's work went out of print. Now it’s collected in a new book, "Belle Turnbull," co-edited by David Rothman, who is director of the graduate program in creative writing at Western State Colorado University, and CPR poet-in-residence.

Rothman spoke with Colorado Matters host Andrea Dukakis.

Read Three of Belle Turnbull's poems:


Mountains cast spells on me—
    Why, because of the way
Earth-heaps lie, should I be
Choked by joy mysteriously;
    Stilled or drunken-gay?

Why should a brown hill-trail
    Tug at my feet to go?
Why should a boggy swale
Tune my heart to a nameless tale
   Mountain marshes know?

Timberline, and the trees
    Wind-whipped, and the sand between—
Why am I mad for these?
What dim thirst do they appease?
    What filmed sense brush clean?

Time as a Well-Spring

I thought, said Mr. Probus, there was time,
Time by the dipperful, time lipping, flowing
Out of some plenteous spring where I’d be going
With my bright dipper, frosting it with rime,
Hoarding no more than God would hoard a dime,
Slipping time over my palate, careless blowing
Drops off my moustache, wasting it full knowing
There would be more, more always, soft and prime.

I’ve lived some years at Stringtown, Probus said,
Back in the mountain mining molybdenum,
Gassed and sent in again and lined with lead.
Seven years some few will last who stand the gaff.
Sometimes where the machines bore, springs will come.
I have to laugh, he said, I have to laugh.

These Who Shorn Return

Those years there was the wind, always the wind
raking our peaks whence help, it is said, cometh:
savaging the undersides of birds,
tearing at trees, chocking the cabin-breath
down again in our chimneys: Those were the years
everything that was fastened came unhinged:

Boys kept blowing away, do you remember?
Live hair stood in the wind, in the wind rushing,
young fingers made the V in a blur of trumpets—
These who shorn return, whose drifting eyes
lift to our peaks whence help (it is said) cometh
mark there the sign inverse, the edged reminder

Poems excerpted from Belle Turnbull: On the Life and Work of an American Master edited by David J. Rothman and Jeffrey R. Villines (Pleiades Press and Gulf Coast, 2017). Copyright © 2017 by David J. Rothman and Jeffrey R. Villines . Reprinted with permission from Pleiades Press and Gulf Coast.