Opening The Magic Door

The Magic Door, Chris Torrance: Test Centre, 2017

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:

Voyager

 

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.   

Chris-Torrance_Magic-Door_front

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’:

Gemini

 

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.

Deep Breathing

 

Click here to find Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door at Test Centre.

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

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster and is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press. @Spaewitch

 

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‘We bulwark our flesh from the effort’

Common Rest, Holly Pester: Test Centre Publications

By song we bulwark our flesh from the effort and flesh from our flesh from effort from them

– Care

Common Rest takes the form of the lullaby as a structural and thematic starting point for experimentation with poetry in its material manifestations.  A project in collaborative, improvisational sound-poetry accompanied by a book of written poems, both of which explore the languages of work and rest.  Holly Pester’s collaborative sound-work with accompanying book of poetry is available as a 10” vinyl LP in a gatefold sleeve from Test Centre in a limited edition of 250 copies. Pester is exceptionally talented in this field, and this collection features collaborations with Nat Raha and Verity Spott – both of whom are working experimentally with sound in innovative and exciting ways.  The record also features collaboration with poet Vahni Capildeo, as well as artists, musicians and sound artists: the result is a poetry project tangible and alive with shapes and shades and weathers.

tonight you might feel your feet multiply / you might lick or suck or clean ‘em / cos you’ve got a nighttime job 

– Burn

Common Rest

The juxtaposition between the poetry on the page and the sound poetry generates tangential layering and a satisfyingly physical sensation to roll around one’s tongue and cradle in one’s limbs. It’s tangible, tasty and textured.  The materiality of language in its verbal and visual forms is central to Common Rest’s project: the soundscapes feature improvised repetition based on sounds, words and phrases lifted out of sequence from the poetry; ad libs; riffs; vocal and instrumental atmospheric sounds; shifts in volume and pace; haunting, dream-like lullabies both sung and spoken… What the LP is NOT is a spoken word recitation of the poems in the book. There are counterpoints and variations, fissures and reimaginings, teasing and testing the limits of the poetry on the page. The book of poetry itself is equally aware of its material qualities: printed in teal-blue lettering on spacious, soft-white pages, the colour and layout create the sense of tranquility that each poem desires and yet which eludes the vocabulary of most.

These are objects that have been designed with materiality in mind. The poetry’s physical effect/affect on the listener’s body is central to its extended materiality: ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) artist Claire Tolan works with Pester on the track Brush to engender a soundscape that will soothe (and haunt) the listener physically as well as mentally and emotionally, perhaps as a lullaby traditionally might.

I am asleep


but my organs work on some image my heart

likes to look at in the rest space

– Glamour hallucinated love

Playing with the structural conventions of the lullaby and the vocabularies of work and rest, these poetic works explore the impacts of work and rest on human bodies and psychologies.  The two Untitled Lullabys highlight  both the song’s ability to ‘bulwark [the] flesh [against] effort’ and the exhaustive toll of that effort on the physical body. Pester suggests that, ‘While a lullaby sounds out the material labour of care, makes its flesh and breath felt, it also sounds out the radical obscuring of work. Therefore a lullaby might be a chorus for all bodies, affectively performing a different worksong, a kind of common rest.’  Physical Capabilities seems to take its vocabulary from a standard government document to assess a disabled person’s fitness for work.  Pester compounds the words ‘tell us how’, so that the verbal telling is conflated with the visual showing, highlighting the burden of proof as it increasingly falls on the vulnerable, as well as foregrounding the formal strategies employed within Common Rest as a project.

Tellus if you use


a stick tellushow it affects It varies Can you go up tellus more about steps Reaching

– Physical Capabilities

This poetry project locates the effects of the political within the physical bodies of the individual and collective workers and their rhythms of song and sound.  It is one of the most innovative and exciting new poetry projects currently available and it’s a perfect showcase for the publishing work of Test Centre.  Test Centre has an impressive back-catalogue of spoken-word vinyl LPs, books and pamphlets published since 2011, a regular magazine of poetry and fiction, and a forthcoming list of new works.  The combined sound-and-book production of Common Rest re-energises the publication and performance of poetry and demonstrates why Test Centre was nominated ‘Most Innovative Publisher’ at the 2015 Saboteur Awards.

In my opinion, ALL poetry should be presented like this, but I suspect that it just wouldn’t always work.  What Holly Pester and her collaborators have created, however, has found its most fitting expression in the publishing expertise at Test Centre.  This is a collection you should own.

Click here to find Holly Pester’s Common Rest at Test Centre.

Common Rest contributors:
Holly Pester is a poet, writer and cross-disciplinary researcher. hollypester.com
Emma Bennett is performance artist and stand-up comedy scholar. emmabennettperformance.wordpress.com
Vahni Capildeo is an award-winning poet, multi-disciplinary writer and Old Norse scholar. carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=1167
Jenny Moore is an artist, musician and drummer in a band. jennymoore.co
Nat Raha is a poet, trans activist and researcher in queer Marxism. sociopatheticsemaphores.blogspot.co.uk
Vera Rodriguez is a photographer, dancer and a sex worker support telephone line operator. ethicalstripper.com/site/the-collective/vera-rodriguez/
Verity Spott is a poet, cellist and mental health care worker. twotornhalves.blogspot.co.uk
Claire Tolan is a sound and ASMR artist. cst.yt
Yasmin Kuymizakis (sound editor) is a sound artist, sound designer and singer/songwriter. soundcloud.com/yasmin-kuymizakis
Mariana Simnett (album cover artist) is an artist. frieze.com/article/focus-marianna-simnett

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

Sally-Shakti Willow researches and writes utopian poetics at the University of Westminster and is the research assistant for The Contemporary Small Press. @willowwriting