Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door is a collection of poetry spanning almost five decades and comprising eight original chapbooks of Torrance’s poems. Torrance began work on The Magic Door in June 1970, and continues to work on this lifelong poetry project into the twenty-first century. His most obvious influences for this work are the Beats and the open-field poetics of Charles Olson in the US, as well as the many contemporary British poets to whom these poems are dedicated: Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, Iain Sinclair and Allen Fisher, among others.
The collection begins, in typically Beat-fashion, with a road trip – from Bristol to ‘The New Territory’ of Wales, marking Torrance’s move from suburban England into rural Wales and his parallel decision to live the life of the semi-hermit-poet among the landscape, geology and mythology of the area surrounding the Brecon Beacons. These poems are lyrical, spontaneous grapplings with mystery and landscape that Phil Maillard suggests in the Introduction could genuinely be called ‘Psychogeology’. They are also musings on the nature of poetry itself. In a later poem, Torrance includes the quoted phrase ‘all poetry / begins in mysticism / & ends in linguistics’, which echoes somewhat the trajectory of this collection, although the explorations into language never really threaten to fully supplant the mysticism of the poet’s preoccupation with myth and landscape. Language and landscape coexist in Torrance’s poetry.
The nature of poetry, the nature of language, the nature of self, and the nature of ‘nature’ are the predominant themes in The Magic Door; the poetic forms shaping themselves around the collage of mystic and earthy lived experiences that shape the poems. The later poems take on a greater visual and sonic quality, fracturing and fragmenting on the page with mini sound-structures forming internally, such as, in Cylinder Fragments from the Twentieth Century:
The visual fragmentation here is complemented by the sonic structures. The percussive rhythm of the two hyphenated collocations lend their beat to the alliterative ‘gas giant’ in the following line and to the final two syllables, ‘the deep’. This opens out into the sibilance of ‘Saturn / space whale sounding’, which in turn pulls the earlier ‘broadcasts’, ‘ice-cold’, ‘mustard-coloured’ and ‘gas’ into its sonic orbit. Torrance also invents some luscious neologisms that satisfy not only their context but are also satisfyingly pleasing to hear and to say: ‘solstistic’ ‘sludging’, ‘whifflings / & screekings & screelings’. The title of the first book, Acrospirical Meanderings in a Tongue of the Time hints towards this delight in the sounds of words and their play, and is something I would have liked to have seen carried even further throughout the poems in this collection.
Openness is key to this collection, both in terms of poetic form and in the spirit of incompletion and enquiry that drives it. In this sense, The Magic Door carries the sense of a door that stands open, welcoming in all those who enter. One form of this openness is the poet’s desire for true self-expression, the Kerouacian desire for a transparent language to communicate the self directly and openly from within: ‘opening up the hopefully uncensored self to the present / the fallible, living trace that is us in the world’. Or in ‘Gemini – for Iain Sinclair’:
Yet the door can stand closed, too, veiling these mysteries from view. There is longing in Torrance’s recognition that language, poetry, is not transparent and open, however much he might desire it to be. He asks, ‘& how do words / manage to lie so, this time / & as always?’ Suggesting, perhaps, that ‘This accounts for / a feeling of alienation within us’. Yet this alienation is also paradoxically what gives the poetry its openness, its resistance to the closure of mono-semantic, transparent and incorruptible meaning.
It is this alienation, the not-knowing of language’s obscurity, that drives the poetic enquiry within The Magic Door, leaving it to stand forever ajar in the half-openness of an incomplete process; the question of the living poet answered-and-unanswered through the continual act of creating the poetic work. These moments of uncertainty about the nature of poetry itself resonate throughout the collection, beginning in the first book, in a poem written in April 1971, setting the agenda for all that is to follow. Recognising that ‘the failed purpose is made part of the poem’ from the outset, there is nothing for the poet to do but to go on making poetry.
About the Publisher:
Test Centre is an independent publishing house and record label with an interest in the spoken and written word. Based in Hackney, East London, it was established in 2011 by Will Shutes and Jess Chandler.
Review by Sally-Shakti Willow