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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.

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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:

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and quite another kind of work:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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And almost immediately, Torrance’s suspicion is evident:

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

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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and:

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and again:

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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.

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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.

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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:

Blocked.

(Make a song out of that: concretely)

By whom?

(Paterson, Book Two)

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.