‘To the virus, we are landscape’ by CJ Thorpe-Tracey; a review

When CJ Thorpe-Tracey’s first poetry pamphlet slipped coolly into my Facebook Newsfeed I knew I had to have it. My dealings with Thorpe-Tracey to date have been that I met him at a gig he played a few years ago and that I read his Facebook posts with interest. He seems to say it as it is, and isn’t, or so I thought when I read one of his reviews once, much of a people-pleaser. I think of him as a bit of a left-wing Leonardo (or so I decided as I was making notes for this review), one of those people who can turn their hand to many things and do them well, and (more importantly to a self-obsessed poet with a short attention span) as a person who is unlikely to waste my time.

It has been a tradition over recent centuries for a new poet to introduce their work to the world by means of the production of a pamphlet, or chapbook, a slim volume of verse.

The book, with its subtle seascape cover, looks like a bit of class – ‘Tranquil, clear, and calm’, says my mate T as she feels it between her palms (I’ll explain about T later) – and like something I want to own, something important.

So I order it and it arrives and I decide that when I read it it will be a proper moment and it sits on the sideboard for a while.

My qualification for reviewing a book of free verse consists of a B in A level English achieved in my late teens when I was off my head, and five years of teaching my middle-aged self, mostly, to write poetry in traditional forms. I avoid free verse like the plague (not the best analogy in this day and age) as it seems to me that most of it is lazy tosh written because someone couldn’t be bothered to break their brain on a proper poem. I do know some damn good poets though, and every now and again I stumble across a free verse poem that causes me to catch my breath, so I’m open to educating myself and moderating my view.

Free verse may contain structure but is not bound by it, likewise there may be rhyme or there may not be.

It’s misty on the morning that I decide to open ‘To the virus, we are landscape’, and as I read the first poem ‘No pharmaceuticals’, the mist lifts and the sun streams into my living room and I catch my breath and my eyes fill with tears.

This is a poet who knows about words.

This is a poet who knows about sickness and shadow.

There are other poems in the book that do this to me; ‘Second Pillar’, in which the poet contrasts church bells with the Call to Prayer; ‘Visiting Hours’, a hospital conversation about racism and remaining; ‘Catholic Primary’, a brutal story of bullying and revenge; ‘Dementor’, in which the poet makes his views on JK Rowling known and no bones about it; and, my favourite I think, ‘Second Spike’, a poignant account of the evolution of a relationship during the months of coronavirus.

It’s a book about Britain in 2020, and the material in it is both personal and political. There’s a poem called ‘First six weeks of lockdown’; one called ‘Eat Out To Help Out’; an acerbic and gloriously vulgar set of lines called ‘A Dick Pic Triptych’ on the subject of Hancock, Johnson, and Cummings; and of course ‘To the virus, we are landscape’, which is the last of the twenty-one poems.

Thorpe-Tracey breaks the book up with a couple of pictures of tweets and three small poems on the theme of ‘wet’, and in the Acknowledgements says that he has been inspired by the work of Suzannah Evans and John McCullough.

What do I love about the lines in this book? The alliteration – ‘hung on high and hammer smashed’; the similes – ‘a goose-like honk through silence / as lime into cream’; the visceral (and often food-related) physicality – ‘Cold-burnt my teeth on a cumulus chunk’, ‘a lady snapped / a chicken bone above her plate’, ‘Crushed into the nuts and salt’.

What do I not like? Not much. Although I will say, and this is more about my grounding in traditional verse forms than Thorpe-Tracey’s ability, that sometimes the nearly but not quite form thing is a little frustrating. I’m not sure whether the fact that I like that he often ends a verse with a rhyme is about pure appreciation or relief, and I find myself counting syllables with some of the pieces. In ‘Grandma’s Funeral’, he’s gone for the 5-7-5 used in haiku/senryu/tanka and stuck to it, whereas in his ‘wet’ poems he wavers.

I rarely read other peoples’ work but I’ve read this book more than once and I love it. I love it because it takes me to places I know and don’t know at the same time; I love it because the words are complex and beautiful and I relish them; and I love it because it’s realistic and philosophical and it moves me.

And that’s where my friend T comes in. Because this book moves me a lot and I need to check that out. So, as we’re sat on the edge of the fountain in the Market Place in town with our coffees, and after T, who works in the NHS, has held the book between her palms and said that it is ‘Tranquil, calm, and clear’, I read ‘Visiting Hours’ to her.

And there it is. A sharp intake of breath and a silent ‘Ooo’. ‘How’ says T, ‘can so much be said with so few words?’

Not just me, then.

I’m delighted to have CJ Thorpe-Tracey’s pocket-sized piece of poetic excellence and bittersweet bite of history on my shelves. Reading ‘To the virus, we are landscape’ has been a great use of my time and whilst I am not yet a convert to free verse I do feel that I understand it better.

Methinks the gentleman has played a blinder, and I look forward to more.

Review © Gail Foster 10th December 2020

Q&A (thanks to CJ Thorpe-Tracey for the answers)

1. Any reason that you are not going to do a reprint? Might it appear in other ways in future?

I misjudged the timing of poetry publishing – how far ahead everything is scheduled. So I had to decide either to hold off till May/June 2021 (to try to get it into magazines etc) or to just not worry about that and go for it now. This pamphlet is so rooted in 2020 and Covid upheaval, I wanted it out, while it’s still all around us.

So now, it’s selling well, but to my own audience outside of poetry, rather than a ‘real’ poetry readership; I’m not making in-roads into that world. Plus obviously I’m just starting out, with a lot still to learn.

My plan is to move on – get on with writing more, submit to magazines as I go, until the next time I’ve got enough done for a pamphlet, however long that takes.

If I ever have enough work to publish a full book collection, I’ll include these.

2) Is the Dick Pic Triptych based on an old form?

It’s not sadly, it’s just built off the rhythm of the first two lines, which I got from hip hop rather than poems.

3) (Forgive me!) How do you Feel about the book and the work inside it?

I like it as a whole and I think it’s strong as a debut effort. I enjoyed the processes, it’s very new to me (and profoundly different from song lyric writing). There are poems in there I’m very proud of.

However I do think I leapt into publishing a pamphlet too early (but did so for good reasons, i.e. what I mention above, about corona times). So serious poetry people may find my work quite ‘beginner level’/naive and simple.

At the same time, it’s not really about that, right? The words pleased me!

Fwiw your own kind of tautly constructed rhyming poetry inspires me just as much – often more – than free verse and that “oh how clever am I, disguising archaic formalism within something that appears to be free verse” stuff that seems to be prevalent, as if poems are maths problems.  

And finally –

4) Will there be another one?

Definitely. Not until I’m certain it’s ready though, I’m not setting a deadline.

For further information about ‘To the virus, we are landscape’ by CJ Thorpe-Tracey, published by Border Crossing Press 2020, email chris@christt.com, or find him on Twitter @christt

Carrie Symonds and the Fish

Carrie Symonds sniffed the air
And wondered what the smell
That came from Cummings’ office was
Now he had gone to hell

How odious the man had been
And oh how he did hate her
So much that he had left a fish
Behind the radiator

Carrie Symonds got the fish
And threw it in the bin
How very nice the office looked
Without the Cummings in

But all the same there did remain
A funny sort of smell
And so she had it swept and cleaned
By MI5 as well

© Gail Foster 14th November 2020

The Last Thing That She Said To Me

– a poem for World Mental Health Day

‘I’m sorry that I didn’t come to tea
It’s just I’ve not been feeling very well’
‘You’ll soon be better, mate, you wait and see
You’ve got what I had last week, I can tell’
‘I don’t know, I’ve been feeling really bad
And sometimes even…’ ‘I know what you need
What I do when I feel a little sad
Is run myself a bubble bath and read
You try it, and you’ll soon be right as rain’
‘And sometimes even…’ ‘Sometimes even what?’
‘I feel like ending everything’ ‘Again?
You say that every time you lose the plot
And you’re still here’ ‘I’m sorry about tea’
That was the last thing that she said to me

© Gail Foster 10th October 2020

https://www.samaritans.org/

Hard Work It Seems Is Not Enough

Work hard, they said, and so I did

Till midnight sometimes and beyond

I read and did as I was bid

Work hard, they said and so I did

I always was that sort of kid

There never was a magic wand

Work hard, they said and so I did

Till midnight sometimes and beyond

 

Work hard, they said, and so I read

And didn’t go to bed till noon

Believing every word they said

Worked hard until my fingers bled

And all the world was in my head

There never was a silver spoon

Work hard, they said, and so I read

And didn’t go to bed till noon

 

Work hard, they said, and so I did

And you’ll be what you want to be

No path in life will be forbid

Work hard, they said, and so I did

I always was that sort of kid

But never went to Eton, see

Work hard, they said, and so I did

And you’ll be what you want to be

 

Work hard, they said. For kids like me

Hard work it seems is not enough

The Bs I need were not to be

Work hard, they said. For kids like me

There is no university

Hey, it’s a hard knock life, kid. Tough

Work hard, they said. For kids like me

Hard work it seems is not enough

 

© Gail Foster 15th August 2020

Blossom

May Day Blossom by Gail Foster

~ A poem for the first of May ~

The first of May today. The maypoles stand
In silence. Ribbons flutter in the breeze
There are no dancing feet but only bees
On empty village greens across the land

I wonder if the old gods understand
That we cannot in ancient ways appease
The lusts of earth, or lie beneath the trees
Or even hold an absent lover’s hand

How beautiful the blossom is. It falls
In showers on the garlic flowers, blows
In snowy clouds across our garden walls
And gathers in the potholes. No-one knows

What happens now. The first of May today
The blossom falls, the blossom flies away

© Gail Foster 1st May 2020

 

So Many More Coffins Than You

There once was a President who
Didn’t give one fuck or two
‘It’s tremendous!’ he said
‘We’ve got so many dead!
And so many more coffins than you!’

There once was a President who
Said that science was simply not true
‘All this talk of a spread
Is all fake news!’ he said
‘What’s that smell?’ he said. ‘That’s the dead.’ ‘Ew.’

There once was a President who
Killed his country. ‘The size of the queue
Of our glorious dead
Is enormous!’ he said
And it was. And it grew. And it grew.

© Gail Foster 28th March 2020

 

We Call The People That We Love Inside

The shops are shut.  Our hearts are open wide
Before we put the Closed sign on the door
We call the people that we love inside

‘Last orders at the bar!’ the barman cried
Our days of wine and roses are no more
The pubs are shut.  Our hearts are open wide

The schools are shut.  How hard the children tried
For what, they sigh, was all our striving for
We call the people that we love inside

No space made out of stone for God to hide
At home alone we face a higher law
The church is shut. Our hearts are open wide

Our doors are shut.  In darkness we abide
We tear our hair and wash our fingers raw
With all the people that we love inside

The price we pay for freedom is our pride
What price our freedom if we win the war
The shops are shut.  Our hearts are open wide
We call the people that we love inside

© Gail Foster 23rd March 2020

RENT at the Arc Theatre, Trowbridge

Rent at the Arc Theatre - montage by Gail Foster

This week ArcProductions present RENT at the Arc Theatre, Trowbridge, directed by Cherie Demmery.

For those not in the know, Rent is a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning rock musical, loosely based on Puccini’s La Bohème and first performed in 1996, exactly one hundred years after the opening night of the opera.  Its creator Jonathan Larson died the night before the premiere and never got to see what an enduring success his musical became.

Rent is set in East Village in Lower Manhattan in the late 80s/early 90s, at a time when the community there was being ravaged by HIV/Aids.  The main characters are Roger (Rob Finlay), a musician desperate to write one good song before he dies, Mark (Karl Montgomery-Williams), a film maker who records the story, Mimi (Cherry Fox) an exotic dancer, Collins (Matt Dauncey), a professor and gay rights activist, Angel (Thomas Montgomery-Williams), a drummer and drag queen, Maureen (Emma Victoria Webb), a promiscuous performance artist, Joanne (Becky Lawrence), a lawyer, and Benny (Naomi Marie), a former roommate turned landlord.  Other characters are parents, junkies, homeless persons, a dealer, a waiter, a window cleaner, a producer, and the police; and some cast members take on several roles. The action takes place in and around Mark and Roger’s flat as they and the wider community struggle to define themselves and come to terms with death whilst keeping their homes and relationships together in uncertain and challenging times.

Scaffolding sets are the usual choice for Rent, and the stage and balconies at the Arc Theatre were divided into various performance areas and decorated with graffiti, wire mesh, coloured mobiles, and mannikins, giving the impression of an arty scrapyard.  The music was provided by a small but harmoniously formed band comprised of Musical Director Liam Howlett on keyboards, one guitarist, one bass guitarist, and a percussionist, from behind a transparent screen of coloured squares stage left that echoed the traditional design of Rent’s publicity posters.

There’s a lot going on in this musical; visually, emotionally, musically, simultaneously; almost to the point of sensory overload.  Why sing one song when you can sing eight at a time, why just have the one scene when you can have three going on in the same space?  There’s not a moment for a breath in Rent, and certainly not a moment to be bored.  That’s why people love it and go to see it time and time (thirteen times in the case of one cast member) again.

The cast of ArcProductions have been in rehearsal since September, and it showed.  I went to the dress rehearsal expecting to have to excuse various mistakes on the grounds that the show would be alright on the night but found little to criticise and much to wildly praise.  The high level of energy and competence exhibited by the players, some of whom clearly had professional experience and most of whom appeared to have had training of some sort, was consistent with a show at the end of a week’s run rather than a dress.

The standard was so high and the cast worked so well together that it is hard to pick out any one performance for particular remark.  The minor roles were played with as much gusto as the leads, and everyone availed themselves of the opportunity to shine.  The things that worked especially well for me were; the chemistry between Roger and his doomed love Mimi, and Collins and the flighty Angel; the spotlights at the sides and the phone scenes; the colourful costumes and complex choreography; the way multiple harmonies were woven together in songs like ‘Another Day’ and ‘Christmas Bells’; Rob Finlay’s performance of ‘One Song Glory’ and his character’s broad emotional range; Cherry Fox’s flirty junky; Emma Victoria Webb’s mesmerising and witty performance of ‘Over The Moon’; Thomas Montgomery-Williams’ sass and sensitivity; Karl Montgomery-Williams’ American boy; Naomi Marie’s magnetic stage presence; Maureen and Joanne’s (Becky Lawrence) ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’ duet; the joy and vigour of the table dance in ‘La Vie Bohème’; the strong voices of the chorus and triumphant cadences of the score: and the sheer gut wrenching mournful magnificence of Matt Dauncey’s rendition of ‘I’ll Cover You (Reprise)’.

Rent is a musical about how a disease devastates a community and how that community comes to terms and comes together in the face of adversity.  It’s a musical about creativity, diversity, equality, and social justice.   It’s a brave and life-affirming musical about love, that picks you up and dances with you and then drops you from a great height into a pool of tears.

It’s a musical about dying, and hope.

Me and the bloke sat next to me cried at the end.

Thanks, ArcProductions!

That was amazing.

Images and text © Gail Foster 21st February 2020

Cummingsland

What land is this where we allow
The likes of Cummings to be king
All England bow and kiss his ring
For this is Cummings’ country now

What land is this where we allow
One man to say if birds can sing
Or bells be rung, or bees can sting
Must this be Cummings’ country now?

What land is this where we allow
The likes of Cummings to dictate
Are we the masters of our fate
Or is this Cummings’ country now?

What trick of light, what sleight of hand
Turned England into Cummingsland?
Good men of England, take a bow
For this is Cummings’ country now

© Gail Foster 14th February 2020

The Caretaker at The Wharf Theatre, Devizes; a review

 

On Friday night I had the pleasure of seeing Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, directed by Lewis Cowen and dedicated by him to the memory of the late and lovely Rosemary Shaw, at our wonderful Wharf Theatre.

Much has been written about the Nobel prize winning Pinter’s plays that he seems to have rejected as being irrelevant, including the term ‘comedy of menace’ and comments about ‘Pinteresque pauses’. The Caretaker is said to have been inspired by the playwright’s own experiences of living in relative poverty and his observations of the comings and goings of acquaintances in Chiswick in the 50s and was first performed in 1960.

It’s a play about three blokes in a room with a bucket waiting for something to happen.  The absurdist influence of Beckett, with whom Pinter had a mutually beneficial creative relationship, is strong in this one.

The production began and ended with, according to my fellow back row enthusiasts (it’s a leg room thing), the sound of Charmaine by Mantovani, with rain noises and the occasional timely knell of a drip in a bucket punctuating the uncomfortable silences.  The shabby and well designed set consisted of two old beds, a window with a tattered net and a light bulb without a shade, odd planks of wood leaned up against flaky-painted walls, a toaster with a broken plug, a pristine Buddha on an empty stove, and numerous other pieces of scrap that only a hoarder might consider to have any kind of potential.

Mick (played by Stuart Mayling), a man with a van, and his brother Aston (Pete Wallis), a quiet and slow moving person with plans for a shed, appear to live in a semi-derelict house in West London where nothing much happens, until one night in winter when Aston rescues a tramp from a fight and brings him home to stay for a while in order to help him get back on his feet.  Davies (Lewis Cowen) proves to be a demanding, ungrateful, racist, and manipulative house guest who comes with a multitude of unlikely stories and particular paranoias, and the play deals with how these three very different but all seemingly broken in some way characters relate to each other in the claustrophobic environment of the room.

There is only one moment when all three appear to be truly on the same page in this play, and that is the moment when a drip drops noisily into the bucket and they all look up at the same time.  Otherwise their conversations and interactions are clipped and disconnected, their sentences short, their speeches broken and circular, and their eye contact infrequent.

‘You see’ said Lesley Mills enthusiastically in the interval, ‘they all have a plan, but nothing ever comes together.’  And indeed they do; the edgy and volatile Mick has dreams of turning the flat into a penthouse (‘Listen out for the afromosia teak veneer!’ said Lesley); Aston intends to build a shed in the garden if only given the right tools and circumstances; and Davies – Davies has all manner of good intentions if only the weather goes his way and he can procure the right pair of shoes to take him to Sidcup where he can pick up his papers and prove his identity.

It was around the time that Pinter wrote this play that Eric Berne was engaged in writing papers on transactional analysis, but it wasn’t until 1964 that he published ‘The Games People Play’, in which he describes the game of ‘Why Don’t You – Yes But’, which is a mind game in which a helpful person is constantly defeated in their efforts to assist an individual by various excuses which prevent that individual from ever getting a resolution to a particular problem.

Thus it is to some degree with all three characters but is most observable with Davies and his mythical journey to Sidcup.  It’s not about the shoes that the kindly Aston tries to provide him with being never quite right, or the bed he is offered being in the wrong place.  It’s about his fear of responsibility.  Every time he is taken at his boastful word and threatened with anything remotely like a job or a solution to a problem, he becomes visibly vulnerable and backs away.  We never get to find out what if any trauma made him like he is, or what the nightmares are that threaten Aston’s fragile sleep and peace, and he never becomes the caretaker.  Eventually he goes too far in his efforts to drive a wedge between the brothers and in Aston’s words makes ‘too much noise’, and the play ends with the brothers united against a common enemy and Davies protesting in vain about having to leave.

Pinter did consider killing Davies off, but instead chose to have Aston control his demons, Mick smash the pristine Buddha, and the tramp merely consigned to utter darkness.

One of the reasons I went to see this play was to watch Lewis Cowen in the role of Davies, and whilst during his undoubtedly impressive and sensitive performance of tricky stream of consciousness lines and twitchy movements there were many moments where he seemed to disappear and there was only Davies however hard I looked, I do have to say that I was slightly surprised at the amount of prompting he required so far in to the run.

Stuart Mayling did a great job as the imposing and possibly psychopathic Mick, bringing an air of uncertain threat to the room every time he entered and convincingly playing Davies at his own mind games and winning.

But Pete Wallis’s performance as Aston, damaged in the past by a brutal experience of electric shock treatment and taking refuge in a safe life of silence and simple domestic ritual, was a stunning piece of understated genius.  I couldn’t take my eyes off him for the entire time he was on the stage, except for the moment when I had to wipe away a tear during his monologue as he described the clear and quiet sight he had before they put the pincers on him, and I and the audience caught a glimpse of the livelier, albeit less stable, man he may have been before.

There are places in Pinter’s play where people laugh that are supposed to be comedy but aside from the bit of slapstick where the three characters wrestled with the bag and the bit with the drip, I didn’t laugh at all.

Because this is a world that still exists and that some of us recognise.  A timeless, hidden world where people with mental health problems live in rooms full of junk and never quite get anything together.  Either you know about that world or you don’t, and Pinter clearly did.

The Caretaker was without doubt one of the most thought provoking and well executed productions I have seen at The Wharf.

Well done Lewis Cowen, and well done all.

© Gail Foster 4th February 2020