Chris Torrance: Alchemist of The Magic Door
“The continental cold air spills out / towards these islands in time of quiet,” Chris Torrance says in the second page of his endless long-form poem sequence, The Magic Door: a lyrical establishing shot for a career as hot-to-the-touch and as full of ruptures in the cultural continuum as it is quiet and given to Thoreau-like servitude to its natural environment.Chris Torrance’s Magic Door acts as a shibboleth to the understanding of a Britain that’s as post-Druidic as it is post-hippie; quite literally a door into a British poetic life that spurns all manner of “success” in favor of the quiet continuity of the poetic act.
For almost as long as I’ve lived, Chris Torrance has written The Magic Door, momentarily erupting like tiny tors of the South Wales Basal Grit in long-awaited published chapters – 1975, 1977, 1980, ’82, ’86, 2008 (nearly). Paper-bound chapbooks done in runs of 300 as long as 35 years ago, as soon as I began to read of Torrance, I began the process of trying to read Torrance, knowing it might long be a futile search.
So it was with great excitement that I unbundled my packet from Cotswold Books recently, containing The Magic Door and Citrinas: The Magic Door Book II to see the standing stone of Citrinas’ cover imagery, like a refugee from Stenness, uncovered by some “continental cold air” after centuries of laying in wait.
Which is how Torrance’s poems read, too: like keys for as-yet-unknown locks. That can be sometimes confusing with their chaotic composition; sometimes eye-rolling with their dips through hippie-dom; sometimes beautiful with their attention to the details of his rural countryside in the Vale of Neath in South Wales, the adopted home Torrance has kept since moving from London in 1970.
“The continental cold air spills out
Towards these islands in time of quiet
That new moon saw the end
Of the early winter storms
The gem-like pieces are
Frozen on the ice, growing monumental
In the drifting snow
Of this idyll
Of afternoon prescience
Fixed powder spicules
Draping out of white air
Always so confident we can retain
Of the moment
& the year really did
seem to turn in January, & we went remarkably fast
into the light from the solstice”
:: Chris Torrance – “The House of Stone” (part 2), from The Magic Door::
What perhaps is the most striking about Torrance’s writing – at least to my susceptible mind, always seeking the ‘old’ and the ‘weird’ in my contemporary ‘Albion’ – is his ability to seamlessly intermingle the cyclical life of pre-modern Britain with the Beatnik-poet and hippie-cred sensibilities that Torrance so boldly declares to be his worldview. To Torrance, tales that seem like Neil wrote them on The Young Ones – like his dream about meeting Jimi Hendrix in a small Welsh village – and pieces that might well have aged centuries sit side by side.
In a section called, “Out of the Dark,” Torrance flips and flops between the two with barely an interstitial flicker – from a darkened party of jugs of wine and late-night trips to Bristol, to: “Just after sheep-shearing, & just before haymaking, Midsummer achieves perfect balance, & there seems to be a natural state of rest among all the creatures of nature, man included; the latter having spent the last four months of fast & speedy spring & early summer putting it all out, now takes a natural brief rest before beginning to gather it all in again …”
Something Chris Torrance seems to think we can learn from our forerunners with their standing stones, ley lines, and circles, is to free ourselves – at least sometimes; at least for a few moments of need – from the corrupting influence of 24-hour clocks and appointment schedules that lock into 15-minute intervals. His is an alchemical time, that begins with the first book’s near-ending:
“Moon occults Saturn
during the nigredo period
passion subsumes countenance
The Sun rushes up on the Moon
& mounts, the curse lies within her
&, mounting, he dives
beneath the brassy rim
transept of the disc
across albedo earthlight.”
…and continues on with Citrinas, in which time is marked by solstices and sheep-shearing; the hill-making of ants and the quick wetness of spring. In a “Letter to Barry MacSweeney,” his poetic contemporary and compatriot, Torrance conjures up the cave at Craig Y Dinas where King Arthur’s men lay, waiting to save the Britons from whatever enemy in their most fearful moments. It’s Britain’s most potent myth, that of Merlin and Arthur merely sleeping until their might is once again called upon, partially because of the concept of time it imagines: the same cyclical time that Torrance uses to such effect, positing the idea that time is far from calculable, and far from mappable.
Not quite simple books of “poetry,” Torrance’s Magic Door is sometimes a journal, sometimes a notebook, sometimes a sketchpad – like in his visit to Glan Yr Afon, and Torrance’s notes on the standing stones at a house there. And it’s in these moments that The Magic Door comes closest to imparting to the reader Torrance’s obvious bursting passion for the landscape and the culture he wanders in and out of. In his poem-sketches of Glan Yr Afon’s sights and sounds; his visit to the Maen Ddu Well, “over a thousand year old, never dries up, clear as a bell”; his prose-poem cries for the “Terrain” of the Neath valley, buckling under the weight of roads and bypasses; most interesting, his questioning of his own obsessions:
“Going through the motions. Machine-like. Taking a sort of desperate last interest in everything. Distrustful of this Celtic/Arhurian/ley-line/gothic obsession. After all this isn’t how I brought myself to poetry.
Re-reading some Spicer, those Lorca routines, that great wailing homosexual poem to Whitman – so genuine it hurts. With that avuncular, not-too-joking style of his.
Very well, I wanted to get back to the roots, & now it seems I’m sort of getting there, but it’s weird, man. Everything’s weird, everything’s freaky here, down on Earth in 1975. The scraps of old leys, their power gone, or vanquished, back alleys stinking of dog pee. Everything crawls. & its dust & confusion & manic screams & entrails all over the place, the Gothic horror comic/movie syndrome, mindless toads belching into the night…”
Maybe it’s because of this kind of questioning – because of this mistrust of allowing his self to slide into one side or another of his personality – that I trust Torrance so much. His is a poetry that ebbs in and out of themes, rather than attempting and completing them. It’s hard to think back now just a few weeks, to when I’d read nothing but his contributions to Children of Albion, etc., and a few lines and pages about the poet, but I do believe that the discovery and acquisition of these books – of The Magic Door and Citrinas – would mean checking Torrance off some kind of list.
But the truth, as anyone might’ve guessed, is that it’s the start of a process that has somehow, also, always been churning. Torrance’s poetry lacks punctuation, often lacks titles, and sometimes lacks any distinction whatsoever between the end of a poem and the beginning of the next. And that seems to be how he wishes it to be read and imagined: as a cyclical ‘lump sum,’ ever-expanding, and always twisting around itself, less a double helix than an alchemist’s squared circle.