The Magic Door, by Chris Torrance: A Review

The Magic Door, Chris Torrance, Test Centre, 2017, ISBN: 978-0-9935693-4-0, £30.00

Chris-Torrance_Magic-Door_frontBy way of setting the scene, The Magic Door is an ongoing long poem-cycle centring around Torrance’s life in rural isolation in the Neath valley since the early 1970s and published in more or less impossible to find small press booklets over the period 1975 to 1996. Under the editorship of Will Shutes and with an introduction by poet and long-time friend of Torrance Phil Maillard, Test Centre have done poetry a considerable service by gathering them together in a substantial (400+ pages) and handsome paperback edition. The book contains six ‘canonical’ parts of the series, The Magic Door (TMD, as distinct from the full title used to refer to the cycle as a whole or this complete edition), Citrinas (Cit), The Diary of Palug’s Cat (Palug), The Book of Brychan (BoB), The Slim Book/Wet Pulp (SB/WP) and Southerly Vector (SV). Torrance’s 1973 volume of Neath poems, Acrospirical Meanderings In A Tongue Of The Time (AM), as a ‘portal’ and inserts the unnumbered interlude Cylinder Fragments of the Twentieth Century (CF) chronologically placed between BoB and SB/WP. but not The Book of Heat, originally published together with SV as ‘two further books’ of the cycle. The omission is, presumably, a result of Maillard’s stated editorial decision to exclude work originally written for performance.

It is impossible to do full justice to what is, in my view, probably the most important ‘poem of some length’ by any British poet since Bunting’s Briggflatts, so what follows is an indication of some ‘ways in’ to the cycle that have occurred to me over several decades of familiarity with The Magic Door as it appeared in print.


One of the crucial questions facing Torrance’s readers is ‘just what is the magic door?’ It’s not a question with a single answer; the door is many-faceted, but perhaps one answer is that the magic door is a point of entry into a ‘purer’ life, a means of discovering the ‘true’ self. It’s interesting to compare Torrance’s move with the better-known case of William Wordsworth. To begin with, for Wordsworth moving to the Lakes was not a retreat from the city, where he never really lived, it was much more a homecoming and his quest was really for a return to a personal, rather than a general, state of innocence, his own childhood. It was also a move towards creating a literary community in the surrounding area.

Torrance, Edinburgh born and London bred, was actually travelling the classic pastoral route from city to country (together with Val Torrance, who illustrated much of the early work in this book) and in the process was potentially leaving behind a fairly extensive literary community; his movement was towards a future self-discovery, not a recovery of a personal past. He sought ‘a life of no more deception, of no more lies!’

Of course, as Maillard points out in his introduction, things are rarely that simple. Indeed, in an interview with Peter Hodgkiss in Poetry Information 18 published in 1978, Torrance is at pains to reject the notion of Arcadia, explain that as a writer he depended on the company of other writers, especially poet visitors to his Neath home, as input into his work, a fact that is evident in the earlier volumes of the cycle where individual pieces are frequently dedicated to fellow writers. This new, transient community took on greater stability when he started teaching extra-mural creative writing evening classes in Cardiff and then performing as part of the music and poetry group Poetheat.

The great, deflating realisation that besets the true Arcadian dreamer who sets out to live the dream is that the life of the country entails a considerable amount of hard work. It’s a realisation that comes early to Torrance, and that is central to his realistic appreciation of his new life. It’s also an understanding that unfolds and develops across time, and comes to encompass an understanding of politics and economics that some readers may find surprising:


and quite another kind of work:


and finally reaches a kind of provisional resolution in a passage that reads both as a statement of absorption into the process and an expression of futility.



Meanwhile, Torrance’s friend and publisher Iain Sinclair had made the opposite journey, fleeing Wild Wales to explore the dark glamour of the capital. At the same time that Torrance was writing the early volumes of the cycle, Sinclair wrote Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge, a pair of books that delineated a kind of mythic geography of London and its environs, drawing largely on Alfred Watkins’ theory of leys as reimagined by John Michell.

Michell’s The Flying Saucer Vision: the Holy Grail Restored and The View Over Atlantis reimagined were part of the zeitgeist of late 1960s and 1970s British counterculture, serving something of the same role as Native American earth wisdom did in the American equivalent. Michell reconfigured Watkins’ system of ‘old straight tracks’ used as a network of trade routes, into a grid of mystical ‘energy’ aligning with the supposed flight paths of flying saucers which, in common with other Ufologists, he thought of as being, in the words of Erich von Däniken, ‘the chariots of the gods’. His ideas were as influential as they were fanciful, particularly in the revival of leys in contemporary British land art, especially Richard Long and Hamish Fulton who both studied Watkins’ writings and, via Sinclair, on much British place writing and psychogeography since Lud Heat.

In the Poetry Information interview, Torrance discusses the role of leys in The Magic Door:

‘In looking at ley lines I’ve discovered I’m looking at a decayed system, but one with still some latent energy in it, which could be tapped, which I perhaps try to tap, but which is perhaps also perverted in some ways…The Ley lines are helping and hindering: they’re sometimes shining with white light and telling me to go on, and they’re sometimes corrupt and discharging foul and noxious forces.’

In fact, there are actually remarkably few overt references to leys in the poem, but there is one fairly evident allusion to Michell:


As I read it, leys serve as lines of enquiry, some fruitful, others less so, that Torrance pursues as ways in to the Neath landscape, and one such line leads him to a literal ‘magic door, when he stumbles across the stone entranceway at Glan Yr Afon in Cit.


And almost immediately, Torrance’s suspicion is evident:


And ultimately he comes to see Glan Yr Afon in a very negative light:



And Bendigeid Vran commanded them that they should cut off his head. “And take you my head,” said he, “and bear it even unto the White Mount, in London, and bury it there, with the face towards France. And a long time will you be upon the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, the birds of Rhiannon singing unto you the while. And all that time the head will be to you as pleasant company as it ever was when on my body. And at Gwales in Penvro you will be fourscore years, and you may remain there, and the head with you uncorrupted, until you open the door that looks towards Aber Henvelen, and towards Cornwall. And after you have opened that door, there you may longer tarry, set forth then to London to bury the head, and go straight forward.”

One day said Heilyn the son of Gwynn, “Evil betide me, if I do not open the door to know if that is true which is said concerning it.” So he opened the door and looked towards Cornwall and Aber Henvelen. And when they had looked, they were as conscious of all the evils they had ever sustained, and of all the friends and companions they had lost, and of all the misery that had befallen them, as if all had happened in that very spot; and especially of the fate of their lord. And because of their perturbation they could not rest, but journeyed forth with the head towards London. And they buried the head in the White Mount, and when it was buried, this was the third goodly concealment; and it was the third ill-fated disclosure when it was disinterred, inasmuch as no invasion from across the sea came to this island while the head was in that concealment.

The Mabinogion, specifically in the translation by Lady Charlotte Guest, was yet another strand in that zeitgeist, and it is hard to imagine that Torrance wouldn’t have known of this most striking instance of a magic door in Welsh literature. The taboo nature of the door, the fact that it opens on to a sad restlessness, and, of course, the pull Torrance must have felt from time to time (a number of early pieces in AM and TMD refer to visits back to the city) make it relevant to many sections of the cycle, given Torrance’s scrupulous honesty about the difficulties of his chosen life and occasional bouts of depression. The most extended treatment of this is the narrative that flows across the final section of Cit and all of Palug.

This chronicles the end of Torrance’s marriage to Val and his failed attempt to build a relationship with a much younger and deeply troubled woman called Sue, followed by a brief, but happy, third relationship. There is much interest in the triptychal form that unfolds: forgetting how to love; failing to be loved, finding a mutual love.

There is what I take to be a reference to The Mabinogion in the final section:


The echo is from the following passage, again in the Guest translation

At that time, Math the son of Mathonwy could not exist unless his feet were in the lap of a maiden, except only when he was prevented by the tumult of war. Now the maiden who was with him was Goewin, the daughter of Pebin of Dôl Pebin, in Arvon, and she was the fairest maiden of her time who was known there.

In The White Goddess, Robert Graves discusses this passage in the context of his notion of the lame god, a solar deity who dies annually. Math is, it is worth remembering, the magician who creates the flower-woman Blodeuwedd in defiance of a taboo against love. Interestingly, Torrance reverses the genders of lord and lap holder, promoting the woman to the position of power. Nevertheless, on the whole I think that Palug is the least satisfying section of the work to date, largely because Torrance’s attempt to get inside the head of another person is hindered by his tendency to revert to a bitch/goddess view of her role in their relationship.


The door at Glan Yr Afon is described in terms that reveal Torrance’s autodidactic knowledge of geology, and Cit as a whole is saturated in scientific terminology from that field, just as the earlier books are laden with Latin nomenclature from botany, and especially mycology. The confluence of scientific and mythological ways in to the landscape are integral to Torrance’s position as a poet of the ecosphere and of the long view:


This is the earliest use of the word ecosystem in British poetry that I’m aware of and it announces a thread that runs through entire weave of The Magic Door.




and again:


I has been said, including by me in a piece on Torrance I wrote for The Guardian a few years back, that Torrance is a British Beat, but that bald statement is in need of some qualification. The Beat figure he is closest to is Gary Snyder, whose concern with how to be in the world and insistence on taking the long view, to think in terms of geological and/or mythical rather than human time, are close to Torrance’s concerns.


Torrance’s close attention to the minutiae of the world around him, both human and ‘natural’ and his integration of scientific language into his writing practice mark him out as one of the key figures in British ecopoetic writing, and I suspect that his influence in this area far exceeds his wider reputation. An instance to illustrate this aspect of the cycle is the way it is saturated in weather, and that these observations are not decorative, but are folded into the wider socio-political strands already mentioned.



In both the interview and a note at the end of this book, Torrance explains that his great theme is transformation, and in the early sections this is evident in his use of terminology from of alchemy. However, the single most important act of transformation in any poem is the act of turning language into poetry, the alchemy that actually works, and it is Torrance’s ability as a poet that is the true basis of the importance of The Magic Door.

In his conversation with Hodgkiss, Torrance discussed his poetic influences at some length, and these include the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, especially Olson, and some of his British contemporaries, notably Lee Harwood. He also cites the example of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson as a model of how an extended poem about place might be structured. It is clear that Williams integration of prose into his poetic structure and his willingness to discuss the difficulty of writing the poem within the poem, the work of the poet taking its place in the broader spectrum of work that Torrance acknowledges, are reflected in The Magic Door:


(Make a song out of that: concretely)

By whom?

(Paterson, Book Two)


Torrance also retracts an interjection in TMD in which he expresses a preference for David Jones over the ‘elite uptightness’ of Ezra Pound, telling Hodgkiss ‘I think differently now. I’ve had some tremendous experiences with The Cantos since then, and if you ask me now what I think about that comment, I’d say yes it’s wrong, but the excuse is that it’s true evidence of a state of mind.’

This change of heart is evident from early in BoB:


The reference is to the preface to Nennius’s Historia Brittonum: ‘Ego autem coacervavi omne quod inveni’, generally translated as ‘I have made a heap of all I could find’. The phrase was something of a motto for Jones, but could equally serve to describe The Cantos. This passage is almost immediately followed by an aptly misremembered quote from Pound:


The versification from here right through to the end of SV shows Torrance to be one of very few British (or any) poets to really get what Pound achieved in the late Cantos:


Right from the beginning of the cycle, Torrance’s interest in Egyptian myth is evident, especially through his identification of Neath with the goddess Neith, the first and prime creator and Opener of Paths for the souls of the dead. In the later books, the figure of Ma’at gains equal prominence.


The concept here is Poundian, but gains extra specificity when you learn that Ma’at uses her feathers to weigh the souls of the dead to decide if they would be successful in their journey to the afterlife, and still more by the knowledge that in her role as guardian of morality she is responsible for ensuring proper treatment of the environment. The convergence between Ma’at and Neith is completed in the great ‘Praise Poem to Neith’ that ends SV and, thus, the cycle as it stands.


There are, of course, any number of other ‘ways in that, if I were writing a book, I would discuss: drugs, including alcohol, as ‘doors of perception’, important in the earlier books, but diminishing as we go on; Torrance’s Jungian interest in recording his dreams; the vital importance of the gathering and consumption of firewood.

For now, suffice it to say that this is a vital poem, and that Test Centre have served it, Torrance and readers of poetry hugely by the care and attention they have put into bringing it together for the first time in this handsome, hefty volume. In his Afterword, Torrance refers to ‘at least 3 more books, taking The Magic Door into the 21st century’. I can only urge you to buy the current volume so that they might publish these outstanding volumes with the same diligence.

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective: A Review

From Hill To Sea by the Fife Psychogeographical Collective (Murdo Eason), Bread and Circuses 2015, ISBN-13: 978-1625178879, £11.99


There can be a tendency to think of hill to seapsychogeography as an essentially urban activity, the province of Baudelairean flâneurs and Situationist revolutionaries wandering the streets of Paris and London ley-line hunters, while non-urban walking is thought of as being more focused, more directed at a specific end, its politics associated with claiming rights of way rather than rites of passage. On his Fife Psychogeographical Collective blog, From Hill To Sea, Murdo Eason has been steadily expanding the range of the dérive to take in the ‘Kingdom of Fife and beyond’ in an astute blend of text and photographs. The ‘beyond’ does include cities; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Amsterdam, Berlin, Newcastle, Huddersfield and, yes, even Paris are explored, but the heart of the blog is in the towns, villages, fields and coasts of the old kingdom. The writing is as varied as the locations, and the range of genres wide: poem essays, photo essays, walking notes, essay poems, photo poems, travelogue are all here, in any kind of combination you care to think of.

And now there’s a book that brings much of the best of the blog together in a large, nicely readable format. It’s an exceptionally happy transfer from digital to print; apart from a couple of stray ‘click heres’ and a visual presentation that perhaps too closely imitates the online incarnation, From Hill To Sea works remarkably coherently as a book. This is, perhaps, due to the unifying central preoccupations that run through Eason’s work, which might be summarised as a concern with what places can tell us if we observe them with sufficient patience and an understanding that ‘a landscape view is never neutral’, an insight that holds true for the urban as much as the rural environment.

One of the more fascinating aspects of Eason’s explorations is the connections he unearths. Take the case of William Gear, the Fife-born miner’s son turned painter whose abstract works regularly reflect the skeletal pithead architecture of his family background. Gear was one of only two British members of the CoBrA art movement, an number of whose members were founders of Situationism. This link, naturally, takes us to Amsterdam in search of the CoBrA museum and to the Haute-Loire (on paper, at least) in search of Guy Debord’s rural other life. There’s a passage in the CoBrA manifesto that could equally be applied to Eason’s approach to writing: ‘A living art makes no distinction between beautiful and ugly because it sets no aesthetic norms. The ugly which in the art of past centuries has come to supplement the beautiful is a permanent complaint against the unnatural class society and its aesthetic of virtuosity; it is a demonstration of the retarding and limiting influence of this aesthetic on the natural urge to create.’ This refusal of the conventionally ‘aesthetic’ allows Eason to bring motorway bridges and graffiti into his work on the same terms as woodland and art installations.

Reading any psychogeographical work will bring the reader to a contemplation of certain words and concepts: edgelands, the interzone, dérive, and, above all else, liminality. The word liminal is in such common currency that it bears explicit teasing out every now and then just to clarify what it is we mean by it. Liminal derives from the Latin limen, meaning threshold, and was first introduced into English by psychologists towards the end of the 19th century. In 1906, the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep began to us it to describe the middle stage of rituals where the initiate is in the space between their old and new selves, a state in which they exist between two worlds, idir eatortha as we say in Irish.  In the 1960s, Gennep’s ideas were expanded by another anthropologist, Victor Turner. Turner initially focused on rites of passage, which, following Gennep, he saw as being guided liminality, where an expert/teacher/shaman moved the subject to the threshold of a socially approved new state. Later, he began to apply the term to more spontaneous threshold states (his favourite examples being the Beats and Hippies) where uncontrolled disruption of the social order with no agreed desirable outcomes emerge. Since Turner, this idea of liminality as an unpredictable disruption of social norms and behaviours has become perhaps the most widely recognised use of the word.

Eason explores this sense of outsider liminality in his meditations on physical and temporal threshold states: his bridges, beaches, graffiti art, coffin roads (the splendidly named Windylaw – am I alone in hearing a ‘ley’ there?) [I am, of course, wrong. Harry Gilonis informs me ‘The path passes over a tump, or law, from Anglo-Saxon law, low (from Welsh llaw: a mound). No immediate connection with ley (Anglo-Saxon, a clearing in a wood).’], ghosts (neither living nor dead) and so on are classic liminal exemplars, as are the repeated visits  to abandoned mineheads, which represent both the physical line between the upper and lower worlds and the disruption of an entire way of life as an industry was abandoned with no thought to where its displaced workers might end up. Again, when he writes about the condition of Dalgety Bay, an area of radioactive contamination caused by the dumping of materials by the UK Ministry of Defence, he is discussing what happens when an entire landscape is rendered liminal by a complete disregard for the environment and for all our futures. Equally, the temporal space between two concerts becomes an opportunity to stroll along the banks of a Huddersfield canal, another sign of a lost way of life.

Of course, no word exists in a vacuum. In Latin, limen is cognate with limes, the fortified boundaries of empire, like Hadrian’s Wall, part of which is buried under one of Eason’s sites of interest in Newcastle. In English, its cognates include: limit, eliminate, subliminal and, possible, oblique and sublime. It would need a book-length study to fully relate these words to liminal writing and art; another day’s work entirely.

Another member of the family is limen, or liminal point, the usage in psychology that originally predates the anthropological sense. The liminal point is the limit below which a stimulus is no longer perceptible, the minimum level of nerve response required to produce a reaction. In this sense, the liminal can be seen to relate to an aesthetics of penury, an art that favours a kind of poverty of means as its basis. This would imply an art of place that declines the grand Wordsworthian gesture in favour of the small, neglected, discarded and ignored features of the world we move through. Eason, building his meditations on some blades of grass growing through a pavement, the shadow of a leaf, tagging on a dull concrete wall, transforms the everyday through this kind of attention.

It is impossible to do justice to From Hill To Sea in twelve hundred words; it’s too rich in detail, too wide in range, to do anything other than indicate why it’s worth reading and how it might be read. It is a book that raises an interesting question; in instances of spontaneous liminality resulting in social disruption, can the artist play a role in reintegration? Turner wrote that “the subject of passage ritual is, in the liminal period, structurally, if not physically, ‘invisible’”. Perhaps the psychogeographer’s role is to render them visible again. It’s a role that Eason seems eminently qualified to fill. And the book really doesn’t end on the last page, but carries on as the blog continues to grow, possibly assembling materials for a second volume. What to say? Buy it, read it, ponder it. It’s a delight. Oh, and here’s a video taster to whet your appetite:

Memorious Earth by Autumn Richardson and Richard Skelton: A Review

me-edition-1Memorious Earth: A Longitudinal Study by Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton. Corbel Stone Press, 2015, ISBN 978-0-9572121-7-6, £15.00 (for the standard edition).

Cumbria has a long association with writers and poets, from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Arthur Ransome, Beatrix Potter and Norman Nicholson. Some were born there, others, attracted by the remoteness of the landscape, spent much of their lives in the lakes and mountains. Their writings about the area range from the uppercase Romantic pantheism of the ‘Lake Poets’ to Nicholson’s intimate observations of a society and landscape in the throes of a dying industrialisation.

Richardson and Skelton (or AR, as they are collectively called) are among the most recent additions to this line of Cumbrian writing and the texts and images in this book represent the fruits of a decade and a half’s engagement with the landscape, history and mythology of the Lake District. As the title implies, the core idea that runs through this work is the concept of the earth as a storehouse of memory. Memorious Earth is both a celebration of the beauty of the Lake District environment and a mourning of what has been lost, what continues to be lost, as a result of exploitative human intervention.

The images are photographs from an exhibition of the same name which was held in Lakeland Arts in January of this year and include Cumbrian landscapes and plant specimens displayed in corked glass bottles, like particularly aesthetically pleasing scientific samples. The third aspect of the project is a set of musical compositions, about three hours total play time, that circle around the concerns of the writing. The music seems to sit in the European tradition of Minimalism, with echoes of Gavin Bryars and Arvo Pärt being evident, to my ears at least, and serves as an illuminating soundtrack to a reading of the texts.

These, for the most part, play out variants on the list poem. In the first section, ‘Wolf Notes’ and a later reworking of the same materials, ‘Wolfhou’, these take the form of simple lists of variant spellings of local place names, with the dates of their first recording interspersed with more lyrical passages, which are often collage-like in their use of source texts. In ‘A List of Probable Fauna’, the list hinges on a central spine or stem, a vertical line down the centre of the page with plant names on either side. ‘Relics’ is a compilation of current or past Cumbrian tree species, each page a set of concentric word circles, a dendrochronological chart of the etymology of the tree names, from a Proto-Indo-European core to a Modern English outer ring.

In ‘Of the Elm Decline’, the lists morph into charts and graphs, the whole resembling the figures appended to a scientific paper. Indeed, the carefully documented source materials that AR draw upon tend towards the scientific. These include, amongst others, standard works on the flora of the district, glossaries and word lists, and academic papers on pollen records. These interests are reflected in the book’s subtitle; it is, in a sense, a kind of work of science-based creation, albeit one that also ranges across myth, local history and aspects of comparative linguistics.

And yet there is a kind of tension at play, a wariness of the Victorian mania for classification that went hand-in-hand with a wanton destruction of the ecosphere. This tension is at the heart of much of what one might call ecopoetic practice across the arts. In some respects, it recalls Wordsworth’s admiration of Newton and his parallel rejection of Newtonian science as reductive and mechanical. There is however, a qualitative difference between the careful observation of natural processes in Memorious Earth in lines like:

The rowan seed, cased
in cold soil, stirs; a tiny
fist unfurls – muscles
upwards – piercing crust.
A translucent filament seeks
the sun. Sips from melting drifts.

and, say, Wordsworth’s infamous daffodils. AR see the seedling as an objective reality, examining its development with the eyes of the scientifically informed artist, whereas Wordsworth ultimately sees only himself, an Idealist solipsism at work. For any art that wishes to engage on the level of ecological imperatives, its’s a crucial distinction

There is no question that the abuse of science is at the heart of the current ecological crisis. And yet it is important to remember that science is a tool to be used for good or ill, not an independent force in and of itself. Indeed, it is the only tool that can lead us to that fuller understanding of the nature of nature that is vital if we are to begin to reverse our destructive relationship with our planet home.

It is the attempt to work out this tension, to find an aesthetic that can incorporate science and myth, poetry and data, which, for this reader, lends real interest to this book. By focusing on a particular place, AR have created a body of work that serves to both invite and enable the reader to look at their own environment with new eyes. In the final, fugal section, ‘The Medicine Earth’, they move away from the list form to a more cohesive, lyrical meditation, a poem in which the strands of the work are integrated in a cautiously optimistic vision of a future in which ‘the patient will be whole/again’. For that to be the case, the work of recalling, understanding and reclaiming that Memorious Earth undertakes is a vital precondition.

The Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson A Review

bgmcoverThe Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson, Uniformbooks 2015, ISBN 978 1 910010 04 4, £9.50.

In the autumn of 1962, two American poets arrived in the UK to begin an extended visit. They spent that winter in the Lake District, in the footsteps of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their spring included a trip up the Wye valley, again retracing one made by the journal writer and her poet brother. Later they spent some considerable time in Blake’s London, getting to know many of the capital’s younger artists and writers in the process. They also met many of the country’s surviving Modernist writers, including Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Geoffrey Grigson, whose writings were to be a strong influence on Johnson. The visit also included trips to Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham and to Southwell Minster to view the Green Man carvings.

The poets were Ronald Johnson and Jonathan Williams, and The Book of the Green Man was the fruit of their travels. The poem, Johnson’s attempt ‘to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem’, follows the solar year, beginning in winter and ending in autumn, and circles around themes of fertility and renewal, both natural and cultural. Johnson balances tradition, as represented in a quote from Thoreau in his notes to the effect that ‘[d]ecayed literature makes the richest of all soils’ with a distinctly Poundian approach to making it new.

In an interesting Afterward to this edition, Ross Hair points up parallels with two other 20th century long poems, Eliot’s The Waste Land and Bunting’s Briggflatts. Like Eliot, Johnson is concerned with fertility, but his is a more optimistic vision than the older poet’s. Like Bunting, Johnson builds his poem around the yearly cycle, but where Bunting is concerned with an individual life, with the passing of the year representing his own youth and age, Johnson’s annual passage is less personal, more universal, an eternal recurrence.

The winter section opens to the song of the river Rothay, just as Briggflatts begins with that of the Rawthey, a remarkable if probably fortuitous echo. Johnson borrows William Wordsworth’s image of the hills around Grassmere as a wheel, seeding his poem in ‘this soil, once/Wordsworth’. And despite the season, the soil, but actual and literary, is not dead but latent with life, vivid words:

I entered the architecture of

bees – the gold of

their mossed bodies

linked in warmth.

I followed

the patterns of waters

within earth,

& saw the whorls of buried


I followed the mottled lizard into

scrolls of leaves

& traced the plover to its


Johnson talks of two ways of seeing, William’s visionary mode:

who could not see



And Dorothy’s particular eye for the detail of:

lichens & cushions of


who saw

these lakes

in all their weathers—

As the poem unfolds, it is clear that Johnson’s own eye is closer to Dorothy’s than her brother’s.

Spring opens with an evocation of the Green Man himself, with Johnson weaving fragments from or allusions to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s going a-Maying, Harlein MSS 5900 and various other texts in an exemplary instance of Johnson’s use of the Poundian ideographic method.

`Rise, and put on your foliage’.

Come, as the Green Knight to Gawain at the beginning
of the new year. . .

out of his oaken crevice:
lhude sing cuccu!

Move with a spring & vegetable swiftness,
seed-case & burr & tremulous grasses, a grove. . .vocal in the wind. . .

(`the rustling of the leaves and
the songs of birds denoting his presence there’)


(`at thes day we in ye
sign call them Green Men, covered with green bones’)


(`I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivy-tree,
I have listened to the note of the birds

in the crest of the rustling oak,
loud cuckoo’)


Rise as the sun: antlered. . .
bearded with greenery. . .the leaf-vein pulsing

in your throat. Budded all over with small flame, & motley
with birds in your hair & arms. Rise,

& put on your foliage!

The Green Man is an image of fertility and the natural cycle of unknown origins, whose iconographic representation is typically a disembodied head from whose mouth flows foliage and verbiage. Johnson, correctly in my view, traces him back to the Gawain poem, and it is likely that he is older still, with roots in the myths that lie behind the head of Bran in the Mabinogion and the beheading ritual in the Irish Fled Bricrenn. On one level, The Book of the Green Man is an early example of the ecological British counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s rediscovery of ‘green’ folklore and myth. The Incredible String Band’s 1971 film and album Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending is one example. Another, later, instance is The Book of Herne by Eric Mottram, one of the younger British writers that Johnson got to know on his trip.

pgreenmanThe remainder of the spring section, describing the poets’ trip up the Wye, is rich in imagery of fertility, with even the river itself being predominantly green. As well as evoking William Wordsworth’s visit to Tintern, Johnson draws on a range of other writers: Kilvert, Whitman, Gerald of Wales and Edith Sitwell amongst others.With the summer section, the narrative thrust of the previous seasons gives way to a more meditative mode, a sequence of moments of attention to the green world in all its summer glory. At its heart are the Green Man carvings at Southwell:

a kind of greening speech comes from those mouths

all but winged – each leaf
cleft & articulate.

Autumn sees the poem move to Shoreham and the pictorial world of Samuel Palmer, with more than a passing nod to Blake and Kit Smart. Found text extracts on William Stukeley’s living ‘Stonehenge’ and Pope’s topiary become concrete poems, a reminder of Guy Davenport’s remark that ‘[i]f a poem has ever occurred to Mr. Johnson, he has never written it’. Johnson made poetry out of language wherever he found it, with no concern for the niceties of the lyric ‘I’.

Fittingly, the poem turns full circle. Palmer’s visionary paintings reflect William’s way of seeing, but his eye for detail, for moss on a cottage roof, for instance, is Dorothy’s. As the poem draws to a close, birdsong echoes the Rothay and Johnson’s extemporising on A WHITE CLOUD, a Palmer painting, recalls the winter daffodils and a poem that was, in effect, a collaboration between the Wordsworth siblings.

The Book of the Green Man is an important poem, a major long poem of the 1960s that has been out of print for far too long. Colin Sackett’s Uniformbooks are to be commended for bringing it back into circulation in a format that is both handsome and serviceable. It’s impossible to do justice to a work of such richness in a short review. Really, there’s only one thing to say. Read it.

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination research seminar – all welcome

LANDscape UL • Place, performance and imagination.

Place, performance and imagination

Wednesday, 28 January 2015, 4-5.30pm,

Tower Theatre, Irish World Academy of Music & Dance

LANDscape research seminar – all welcom


Dr. Niall Keegan, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance

‘Mapping the Linguistic Turn – language, space and place in Irish traditional music’

Billy Mills, poet and critic.

‘Words for Music; Music for Words’

Niall Keegan is a traditional Irish flute player and an ethnomusicologist. His PhD, The Art of Juncture – Transformations of Irish Traditional Music, focused on the language-based structures used by traditional musicians to account for and shape their performance practices. His research also engages the diasporic experience of traditional music, particularly in the UK. He has performed extensively throughout the world with musicians such as Sandra Joyce, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Clive Carroll.

Billy Mills is a poet, editor, literary journalist at Mills was born Dublin in 1954. After some years spent in Spain and the UK, he currently lives in Limerick. He is co-editor (with Catherine Walsh) of hardpressed Poetry. His Lares/Manes: Collected Poems was published by Shearsman in 2009, and Imaginary Gardens and Loop Walks by hardPressed poetry in 2012 and 2013 respectively.

Getting to the Academy: