‘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

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