Lorna Thorpe’s Sweet Torture of Breathing

© Image by Andrew Hasson

Lorna Thorpe is the author of three poetry books. Her first publication, Dancing to Motown (Pighog Press) was a Poetry Book Society pamphlet choice. She followed that with her first full collection A Ghost in my House in 2008 and her latest collection, Sweet Torture of Breathing in November 2011. Both are published by Arc.
These poems are feisty, ecstatic, wry and allusive. The book might be a reflection on a near-death experience the author had in 2005 but the energy of the poems and Thorpe’s direct, plain-speaking voice makes sure that, as Linda France says, while the collection ‘toys with death and disappointment it is ultimately on the side of life, love and the perfect Martini.’
Thorpe holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where she studied fiction with WG Sebald and Andrew Motion. Poetry came later. Attending a poetry workshop to help her through a difficult patch in the novel she was writing, she was encouraged to keep writing poems. She recently moved to Cornwall where she works as a freelance business and feature writer. 

‘Don’t still, my beating heart’ Lorna Thorpe writes in her second collection, Sweet Torture of Breathing (Arc Publications, 2011). It’s a sentiment that reverberates throughout a book that deals with her close brush with death following a cardiac arrest, and the psychic death that preceded it. Here are poems that take a wry, feisty look at therapy, meditation, drug smuggling, acupuncture, angels, sex in hotel rooms and the platitudes of self-help books.
The central section is a series of poems about people who died before their time, among them Janis Joplin, Maria Callas, Virginia Woolf and Ethel Rosenberg. But Thorpe is still here to tell her tale and she concludes with a section that shows her feeling her way back to life in poems that celebrate the sensual pleasures and chaos of love and living.
As before, cultural references – from Cabaret and The Corpse Bride to Six Feet Under and Atonement – layer her work and extend its autobiographical reach. Plain-speaking and engaging, Thorpe’s distinctive voice is carved out of the defiance and vulnerability of a survivor who isn’t afraid to laugh at herself.
“Life keeps breaking into Lorna Thorpe’s poems, complete with shoplifting, therapy, gravestones, sex, and the ‘cool silver of heavenly ideals’ – all of it washed down with ‘a bottle of cheap red’. This is, quite simply, a roller-coaster of a book.” 
– Alison Brackenbury
“These are chameleon poems, restless poems, poems to read in the dark, ‘wild and self-contained all at the same time’.” 
– Linda France
“… a remarkable assembly of memories, invigorated by a style as apparently raw and colourful as many of the depicted encounters, conquests and crises … But her earthy sensuality is not the product of an uncrafted style. A resonant voice ensures that these poems are grounded by the integrity of lithe diction and figurative invention. … Here is a book that is propelled by an authenticity matched by skill, in the hands of a writer who judges instinctively how to emblazon the inextricable link between events and emotions.”
– Will Daunt on A Ghost in my House 
This is your life
Once my life was buying hot rolls from the Jewish baker
in Waterloo Street at three in the morning; waking
to find the bed on fire because the candles I’d lit
before crashing into a coma had toppled over; dancing
on the tables of the Café de Paris on Sunday afternoons;
bricking it en route to the Spanish-French border
after flushing Chillum Dave’s private stash down the loo,
the petrol tank of his Volvo packed with 25 kilos of hash.
There must have been dull moments, too, bill-paying,
phone calls to utility companies but I don’t remember
ring-fencing an oasis of time in which to read
or watch an episode of Six Feet Under, worrying
I should be doing something else. I don’t remember
worry at all and even guilt only showed up
at the appropriate times, when I copped off with a guy
my friend fancied or slipped a pair of hot pants
into my bag in the changing room of Peter Robinson’s.
These days I’m as good as bloody gold but I’m forever
glancing over my shoulder in the Nothing to Declare lane,
counting minutes like Silas Marner, hoping for more
moments like the night my lover slid his hand
beneath the silk of my dress, rolled my stockings
to my ankles, told me to raise my leg and place my foot
on the chair, a moment that was so Cabaret I swear I heard
Joel Gray whispering: Here even the orchestra is beautiful.
Distressing a mirror
They must see it all, those mute confidantes:
the junior assistant flicking ash from his chest
while his boss pulls on her trousers, failing
to disguise her haste; the middle-aged woman
on her second honeymoon, tetchily removing
basque, stockings, Russian Red lipstick
while her husband snores; the naked couple
admiring the action as he takes her from behind;
the salesman jerking off to Greased and Oiled
on pay-per-view; suitcases snapped open to reveal
stacks of notes, packs of heroin, hash, cocaine;
and now and then, a knife, a smoking gun,
a body bleeding into the mattress that last night
hosted a drunken threesome from Bulgaria.
Naturally, they all get their fair share of nose-picking,
nasal hair trimming, blackhead squeezing;
rehearsed speeches declaring love, confessing betrayal;
splatterings of water, toothpaste, cum.
I no longer have the mirror in front of which I died
and was resurrected but it must have been a treat,
a respite from the routine, that daytime soap opera
fading out into a scene from ER, complete
with defib paddles and a hot paramedic in Aviator shades.
Mind, body and spirit
In the literature of self-help
there are no empty whiskey bottles,
no cigarettes rolled from fag ends
salvaged from 3 a.m. ashtrays, no fools
in love. There are relaxing bubble baths
and scented candles, of course,
there are people turning cartwheels
in the sand, women in white
boosting their immune system,
drinking Celestial Seasonings Wellness Tea
but no chipped green nail polish,
no one sitting at the dining table
with their boyfriend’s daughter,
three bottles of Chardonnay down,
chair-dancing to The Supremes.
There are quests by the dozen,
heart warming tales of triumph
over tragedy but no biting satires,
no comedies of error.
There are angels, spirit guides,
and mystic healers to help you navigate
the path to peace and harmony
but no Eeyore, Scarlet O’Hara
or Don Draper. As for Madam Bovary,
she’s signed up for a twelve step programme
with Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous,
where she’s sharing how she gets her kicks
from romantic highs, learning that she uses
them as a way to sidestep intimacy.
Crime of the century
Burning up inside, Ethel Rosenberg gets dressed
as if she’s going to a gala. For one bright moment
everything forgotten: her brother’s lies, evidence –
typewriter, console table, notes burning in a frying pan –
as flimsy as her nylons. She remembers only Julie’s touch,
his pencilled love letters, the arias she sung him
from an adjoining cell. And then he’s there, her husband,
and the room has no screen and they charge and grasp,
mouths, hands, flesh. Prised apart by guards. Julie’s face
so smeared with lipstick he looks as if he’s bleeding.
That last hot evening, their fourteenth anniversary,
they finger kiss through wire mesh, blood trickling
down the screen. At 8.06, just before the setting sun
heralds the Jewish Sabbath over Sing-Sing, Julius is dead.
Minutes later, Ethel, in a green print dress, settles
tight lips into a Mona Lisa smile. Says nothing,
winces as the electrode cap makes contact with her skull.
It takes five shocks to kill her, the oak chair made
for a man, Ethel so petite the helmet doesn’t fit, so fried
witnesses see coils of smoke rising from her head.
She dreamed of being an opera singer but who was she
to have such dreams, product of the Jewish Bronx,
a mother who belittled her, said she brought it on herself?
Anyway, her mouth would never open wide enough,
except to kiss him, her beloved Julius. His crime?
Handing over minor secrets. Hers was finding love
one New Year’s Eve, just before she went onstage to sing.
He cooled her flaming nerves. Never having known such caring
she hurled herself into her role – loyal wife, so insignificant
to the KGB, she didn’t even have a code name.
from Sweet Torture of Breathing (Arc Publications, 2011).
Order Sweet Torture of Breathing.
Visit Lorna’s website.
Launch details 
Date:  Friday, 25th November 2011
Time:  19h30 for 20h00 
Venue:  Red Roaster Café, St James St, Brighton
Entrance fee:  £5/3 
With Charlotte Gann.
Music from Simon Beavis and friends.
A Pigbaby festival event.
Date:  Wednesday, 7th December 2011
Time:  19h30
Venue:  Crown Inn, Lanlivery
Free entrance.

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