Ian Davidson: Tripping

(for Rob Stoddard, who I thought about as I wrote this essay, and who told me in Wivenhoe in 1981 that I need to believe in the possibility of truth).

Poetry sometimes reminds me of the walls of Risley remand centre in Liverpool, England, when I visited a friend there in the 1990s. They were tall and bulbous and made out of concrete without any apparent imperfection. I could neither scale those walls nor speak back to them. Even words didn’t stick. Perhaps the shiny surfaces of poetry serve the same purpose, to imprison the deviant and the dangerous, and to keep the uncontrollable out of circulation. Words become the captives of the poem, unable to run free and form new and potentially fertile associations. Some academic papers make me feel the same. The speaker is so adept with the knife and filler of footnote and citation that no moss grows on the ledges but everything slips off. Teflon intellectualism. All one can do is stand back and admire, silent before the artifice. The construction and performance of such work is, without fail, a form of asserting authority.

So when I come across poetry constructed and delivered without a trace of anxiety or tremor in the voice, that is regular in tone where it wants to be, whose form and content seem to work together in harmony, I understand how it should make me feel. I should feel a deep sense of satisfaction at the performed artwork and its rhetoric, a thrill at being in the presence of something so perfectly put together, or some self-regard, pleased with myself that I can understand and appreciate it. The hard shiny surfaces of poetry can often serve to reflect back to us our own advanced facility. But really I am repelled, struck dumb, too anxious to speak, made to feel as if the clumsiness of my response might scar its perfect surface and that anything I might say would seem stumbling by comparison. It’s as if I’m presented with something so smooth that I’m given no grip.

Such qualities of poetry are accorded high social and economic value. They cause no embarrassment or shame unless they mean to. An audience can engage with them confident they are giving their time to something of worth, that they have not been conned by the artifice of art. Creative writing teaching often aspires to this quality of ‘evenness’ and ‘control’. Students will be asked to re-write sections where the mask slips, and where some clumsiness comes in, or the language doesn’t quite match the emotion, or the complexity of feeling can’t find an appropriate syntax.

I want to make a claim for uneven poetry. Its performance, whether on paper or live, provides many ways in, places to cling on for a while, to break the fall, and even ascend, or just places to sit and think. And those ways in can be equally uneven, hesitant or fumbling. The perfectly formed work demands a perfectly formed response on its own terms. The stumbling uneven work can accommodate all sorts of diverse inarticulacy.

I’m going to make a greater claim, that loose structures, language that is not entirely under control and uneven linguistic surfaces, produce truths that a finished piece conceals. Such notions of truth, control and unevenness can be examined through the work of the philosopher and writer Alain Badiou, who uses mathematics to explore social and other structures. Things are, he says, organised into sets (think back to school mathematics) which contain them. When an object or thing, or a word if you like, cannot, be contained (controlled) by the set then the steady state is threatened. This thing destabilises the set, makes its boundaries porous, and produces a truth that might be true in other sets. It is a truth that, while not universal, can travel from the context in which it originates to other contexts through the engagement of readers. I’m suggesting an analogy, a little imperfectly, that the poem is the set. The loose words or flapping form are the things that cannot be contained by syntax or diction or the form of the poem. They might seem to belong to other poems. It is these things that produce truths, that we, readers, might understand in other contexts and bring about change that is more than the normal quality or quantity of change.

Badiou is not a fool, and does not believe all readers will get the same truths from all poetries. Every reading context, every individual or group performance of a poem, is different. So discovering the truth in a poem is not like peeling back to the core or opening a nut to reveal the kernel or any other biological metaphor. Rather it is encountering a surface of uneven depths, of different frictions and apparently arbitrary meanings. But he does believe in the possibility of poetry to produce truths that can bring about change.

Chris Torrance’s The Magic Door (London: Test Centre Publications, 2017) might, through his amateur scholarship and the whiff of shamanism, appear to seek to provide a solid framework in the myths, legends and histories of a place for his enquiries into everyday life, but the door of its title is never firmly closed. Nor is it a door that we ‘step through’, as we’re encouraged to at the end of the introduction. (Maillard in Torrance 2017, 20). Rather the experience is more one of liminality, where we hover on a number of possible thresholds, glimpse possibilities, where things are half uncovered or made fuzzy by hallucinogenic drugs, or alcohol or the mania of obsessive love. Maillard is astute enough to recognise this and acknowledge the unevenness of the work in The Magic Door. The writing, he says, has ‘sabi’, is imperfect or unfinished. I want to develop that idea to suggest that Torrance’s work is more powerful because it is unfinished, more honest and more true because it does not always conceal itself behind a poetic facility that Torrance clearly exhibits.

Poetry does produce truths or gesture towards them. It must or there is no point to it. But the greater its authority the less capable it is. In so much of The Magic Door Torrance is in control of the landscape around him, or at least seeking to gain mastery through gathering information and constructing formally arranged poems. It is, however, in the central book to the ‘cycle’, ‘The Diary of Palug’s Cat’ that we most clearly see the struggle and tension in a world that is slipping away from him. Even the landscape and its histories and geographies let him down, no longer providing the comfort of, as Lee Harwood (an early influence on Torrance) would put it, of thinking outside yourself. (And as an aside Harwood would reductively say there were two kinds of poem, those that said ‘look at that’ and those that said ‘look at me’, with the former the preferred option. ‘The Diary of Palug’s Cat’ might be the volume in The Magic Door that most clearly says look at me and my pain, despite the struggles of the writer to keep it out.)

Published as a stand-alone volume in 1980 by Galloping Dog Press, the context and narrative of ‘The Diary of Palug’s Cat’ is a love affair, at least on Torrance’s part, with Sue, a 22 year old student. Torrance had recently separated from his wife Val, and would have been 37 when Sue took her own life in 1978. My inclusion of the ages is not gratuitous, Sue’s presentation in the poem is often linked to her age and her looks. She is ‘one of those | round bottomed dolls | rocking in the arms of | your new man’ (209), as well as ‘dazzlingly beautiful’ (210) and an aid to focus and perception while observing nature around them (210). As the poem continues her presence grows, but not her stature, and she is, clumsily, a ‘slight insubstantial figure’ and an ‘exquisite honey-blonde friend.’ (212)

Her presence in the poem requires a different diction; nothing in the poem cycle so far has prepared you for the word ‘exquisite’ or for a conversation on hair colour. It’s as if Torrance has to reach back and out into other vocabularies and ways of thinking to make sense of his experience. A few lines later when Sue is smoking her Benson and Hedges the ready-made cigarettes in their gold box would be another intrusion into the roll-up world of Torrance’s cottage, and in the act of smoking we see her “her little mouth | sometimes curled & hard. But sometimes the softest butterfly invitation.’ (212) She is ‘winsome & lost & intense, the | makeup removed, pupils huge without the contact | lenses; almost dizzy looking, ephemeral, like a | helpless little film starlet out of the thirties.’ (212) The language is prosaic and anti-poetic, the descriptions of Sue draw on an established, clichéd, vocabulary to describe young women, as if two sets of diction have overlapped. I want to compare this writing to some from the same book that just precedes the entry of Sue. It is a description of finding an:

ink bottle (207)

As the poem progresses, Torrance appears in control of his subject matter. Using a three or four line stanza he is able to construct the life cycle of the bottle and the ways it emerges into the time of the 1970s on his ‘harsh spade’ (208). There is an early aside where the octagonal shape of the ink bottle reminds him of an octagonal chapel that had to be moved from the route of the new motorway. This is followed though, by an extraordinary surreal section in which:

Arthur Poppis
agent extraordinaire
rises from the huddle
of inert machine-gunned bodies
in the silent valley

& lights up a joint
an extraordinary smile
spreading across
his wry freckled face (207)

There are few clues as to where this has come from. It seems to have no place in the narrative of the ink bottle, unless Arthur Poppis is an archaeologist in the Indiana Jones mode. An internet search revealed no links to the name. Nor does the war-time noir style narrative have any place in the poem. It is as if the poet themselves has taken on another persona, that of agent, and risen from the poem to give voice in the silence. The only echo of the war time narrative is three pages on where the speaker of the poem is:

from side to side
in a blitz
of wounded wishes (210)

And perhaps this is the clue, or at least it is the only one we have. Love affairs, the poem is saying, are like a battle ground in which the doomed ‘male’ lovers are machine gunned by their unreciprocated desire. It is only by assuming another identity and then lighting up a joint that the speaker of the poem is able to avoid the fate of so many others and rise above attack. The forms of the poem, and the voice of the poet, are liable to sudden and unexpected violence, and in this case the poem about the ink bottle is invaded by the persona created to protect himself from his lover.

All of this seems to be standard fodder of sexual relations in hippy/post hippy sociology, and can be seen in the many badly made films from the 1960s about the counter-culture. There is, in some ways, little to interest us in the descriptions of Torrance’s relationship with ‘Sue’. She is, stereotypically, childlike and doll like. She is chaste, with him, but sexually powerful. Her role is as muse, in that she creates the material for the poems and the perception that allows them to be written, yet like the mythological Palug’s cat of the title, destroys the poet in the process. She is mobile while he is static, and the only time when he goes to her home in Bristol is an uncomfortable experience for both. The role of the speaker in the poems is to be home when needed. He is father, teacher and confessor/priest and needs to be in his place and ready. If the sexual politics seem depressingly familiar what is of interest is the effect of this narrative on the forms and diction of Torrance’s poetry.

Torrance is not unaware of this. Part Two of The Diary is called ‘polarised sentences’. Both subjects in the love relationship are ‘sentenced’ to remain apart and static, unable to make the right move. Simultaneously the sentences that make up the work are themselves polarised, and destined never to join up into a single narrative. Part Two is also mostly written in prose, or in prose like stanzas that function as paragraphs each with its own period, and construct a narrative of moments. Sometimes the form serves to split a moment in two, as if the writer is taking breath, and the period is delayed until the end of the next paragraph as the stanzas break into lyric. The prose continues as a form of self-reflection, of thinking through the relationship, of obsessing over the detail of each encounter, as if, like the poetry he can write, he can make it perfect. But he can’t, and the consequence itself is language that won’t go into form, and feelings of love combine with the anger that he has lost his ability to think outside himself. Just as Arthur Poppis appeared in the previous poem, then ‘P’ appears in this one in a ‘quick vision’, where ‘P’ might well be Poppis or Palug’s cat of the title. (214) His contribution breaks up the prose paragraphs into single word lines:




Maintain. (214)

The technique works and the slow breaths of the lines and the white space allow the poem to move away from uncontrolled obsessing with the detail of past encounters with ‘Sue’ to develop a prescient vision of the world around him destroyed by global warming. It begins with the dryness on the hills around him where a ‘single | spark would mean absolute destruction’ and from which the smoke and alarms and sirens show where the fires are burning. From there the poem is able to reflect on the future of a world now made up of a ‘grid of | man-burnt’ fire trails’ and one that can measure its own time towards death. The final image of the poem (and I say poem because although not marked out by its own title it does seem to have a complete sense of itself on a single page) is of the ‘Thames disappearing into fissures in its bed | thirsty caverns gulping new air.’ (215) It is the meditation by ‘P’ that has allowed him to move from being taken over by his own emotions, to being able to feel compassion for the earth itself during its time of climate crisis. Through a meditative process of gaining control, even if he has to reduce his lines to single words to do it, he has, to use Harwood’s distinction again, moved from ‘look at me’ to ‘look at that’.

I’m claiming that the ability to make form, however innovative or experimental that form might be, however much it might use a shifting left hand margin or work with the space of the page, is an attempt to control not just language but also experience. That ability conceals truths, not in a manipulative or calculated way, but as a method of taking everyday experience and making something aesthetic from it, something that reflects its own beauty. Torrance employs a further device to retain control, stepping outside the poem to adopt the persona of Arthur Poppis, reappearing a few pages on as ‘a man with a slow spade cutting | a square trench’ (218). For all these techniques however, Torrance keeps losing control, and Sue keeps reappearing, breaking down the attempts to establish form over experience.

There are other diverse poetic patterns that demonstrate shifts in emotional intensities and responses. Book 3 of ‘The Diary ..’ is far shorter than the previous books and ends with the death of Sue. It begins, however, with the by now familiar stanzaic form of three short lines with a descending left hand margin, echoing William Carlos Williams. The first is addressed to Sue although she is not expected to hear:

your little foot down
on that accelerator (240)

It is not clear if she is driving to him or away, but the diminutive ‘little’ and the overall tone is one that tries to diminish the driver and, by extension, aggrandise the speaker. It is not to last, however and a few lines later we find the speaker of the poem nervously smoking, and imagining that as he plays a bamboo whistle

linger in the barrel (240)


Breathing deeply & slowly
in an effort to contain
the strange tide (240)

Two stanzas further on the poem is reduced to two words, ‘love’ and ‘you’ arranged in a stanza that makes a jagged tear in the page:

you (241)

Yet even this anguished cry has a counterpoint in a short final line to the stanza, ‘all night long’. This boastful final line, a standard of many blues songs, echoes the tone of the opening stanza and the command to ‘put | your little foot down | on that accelerator.’

This third and final section of The Diary of Palug’s Cat’ operates on this movement in and out of focus, where the speaker in the poems tries to retain clarity but finds their vision frequently blurred by tears and other distractions. The tone shifts from a somewhat whining dependency and loss to a lashing out and adoption of an uncharacteristic ‘masterly’ tone. By the end of the section however a tone of resignation creeps in, as he sinks ‘… ever deeper | into the well of my thoughts.’ (244) Memories of her remain, in the landscape as well as the flora and fauna, and even the ubiquitous bracken has become ‘bronze-blonde … teasing me everywhere I go’ (245) and the ‘blonde grasses’ are ‘flicking imperiously’ (246).

It is only after her death however that their relationship can be fulfilled and he dreams of them ‘making it as lovers’. This fulfilment coincides with his realisation that she had to die, that she was, in his words , ‘a beautiful, tortured self that could not quite come to terms with the real hustling world.’ (247) This realisation is a softening from the opening line where Sue is described cynically as ‘dazzling’, another word from sensationalist modern media that Torrance incorporates into the poem (like ‘exquisite’ earlier). Admiration is being expressed for Sue, but also an implicit criticism that she is not quite good enough for the world of The Magic Door, that she is somehow tainted by a more materialistic and less spiritual outside world than the one created within the poem. It is a material girl who deserves to be told to put her little foot down, and to be loved ‘all night long.’ Their union in his dreams however allows her to be released from her more worldly self and achieve a form of divinity, as she offers him her ‘ethereal’ body. Like the sun goddess, Neith, she becomes liberated from the world, arched over it and only in contact ‘with the tips of her fingers & her toes.’ (247) It is a postscript, written in highly prosaic language with no attempt to produce the kinds of formal structures in other parts of the book. It is as if, despite its highly poetic ending and flight of fancy, and for all her role as muse and ‘inspiration’, ‘Sue’ destroys the impetus to formal verse, forcing the poet to fall back on less structured language. Simultaneously through the re-construction of Sue as Neith, she becomes fully integrated into the poem. Those bits that won’t ever quite fit through the Magic Door get smoothed out and rounded off or simply fall away.

I’ve concentrated on this middle book of The Magic Door , and perhaps its centrality is symbolic, not because it contains the best poetry in technical terms but because it is a book in which Torrance is struggling to write work that can contain the figure of ‘Sue’ without disrupting the physical and metaphysical world he is producing in The Magic Door. Torrance is at his most technically proficient and perhaps most comfortable when constructing poems from a sense of history and place. This does not mean that those poems are simple or superficial, they are often quite wonderful combinations of the mythic and the sacred and the pragmatic banality of everyday life. But the poet is generally able to sustain an artifice that the figure of ‘Sue’ breaks down. The inspiration and muse ironically becomes the figure that stops him from writing poetry, and is as much Palug’s Cat, the figure of destruction, as it is the goddess Neith, but is also neither, and is an intrusion from a world of different values and practices. The consequence is poetry of historical layers and spatial coincidences that can sustain, within its content and its form, extraordinary diversities. If there is a truth to be taken from poetry, and that word itself is slippery, then it lies not deep within the heart of the work, but in this instance in the way that the story of Sue can never quite be contained or controlled, that it breaks out of the uneven surface of the language by the forms it refuses and the diction it imposes. It is in the hollows and crevices that lack of containment produce that we can live our lives. We understand the world beneath us not when we glide smoothly across it, but when we stumble and trip, and when we catch ourselves in the act of falling. In this uncontrolled condition our language take on an uneven quality that might make it appear unfinished or naïve or simply embarrassing. It might make a reader squirm from the reflected shame of the speaker. But through this process of breaking down language surfaces to reveal the highs and lows beneath, we become part of the world in ways that are almost too intense to bear and our forms of words, so painstakingly produced for our poems, come tumbling down around our eyes and our ears.



Ian Davidson’s most recent poetry publications are New and Selected Poems (Shearsman 2022) From a Council House in Connacht (Oystercatcher 2021) and By Tiny Twisting Ways (Aquifer 2021). Current work can also be found in Plumwood Mountain, Black Box Manifold, Tears in the Fence and The Long Poem Magazine. Critical work includes monographs and articles on ideas of space and mobility in modern and contemporary poetry with recent essays considering the work of Diane di Prima, Bill Griffiths, Tom Pickard, Lenore Kandel, Rhys Trimble and Leslie Harrison. Brought up in Wales, where he spent much of his life, he now lives on a small farm in Mayo, Ireland. He is Professor of Poetry in University College Dublin.


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