Alison Brackenbury, the NORTH 44, 2009
If you are on course for a long train trip, do not put Lorna Thorpe's poems into your bag. You may never leave the platform. I have rarely read work with such a compelling emotional rush.
Thorpe's first poem, 'Lower Market Street, 1973', is characteristic: a breathless litany of drinks, drugs (legal and otherwise), men 'naked as eels', and the rueful revisiting of misjudgement: 'Sadie [...] who'll steal my green platform boots'.
But 'A Ghost in my House' is not an unremitting saga of drink and sex. One of Thorpe's ghosts is literature. The woman meeting her online date Vronski ('In the flesh / he's twice as wide') has read Anna Karenina, and does 'briefly / consider hurling myself under a train'.
Thorpe's poems are compelling as a shocking story overheard in a café ('third husband'?), with flashy riffs of bravado: 'what the hell, it was time to move on'. But they slip into the key of other voices. A woman imagines her baby, dead before birth: 'her heart as small as a poppy seed'. In 'Stage fright'. The speaker knows she has nor revealed herself to her new lover. Alone, 'I sing as I should like to have sung / for you'.
Thorpe's ghosts can turn savage. An Elizabeth David recipe ends with her desire to eat her faithless lover's heart...... Thorpe's endings also haunt, as when a poem speaks, like Mariner's, with the power of a lover's past, 'the frozen words / on her ashen lips forever turning him down'.
The book's central section reverberates with the speaker's childhood, immediate as Mariner's. 'Free school dinners' lapses into a child's grammar: 'ritual humiliation — / me and Cheryl in front of the class'. But the memory of a violent father leads not just to outrageous sex, but compassion for a bullied child, with 'terrors that crouch like cats behind closed doors'. Thorpe is at her most impressive here, as poet and person, generous even to a brutal father: 'wasn't that his passion, quashed / by life?'
Poetry is not mere sound. It can tune a reader to understanding. Thorpe reveals serial sex not as teenage kicks but as a way to harmonise — briefly — with the world:
the infinite promise of each first kiss,
that soft tumble into the lost place
A later poem, acknowledging the speaker is haunted by men 'who may [...] resemble my father', steps beyond the ghosts: 'this night, this man, this music'. Even the book's title is snatched from a lyric. The ghost in the machine, in all these fine books, is song.
Lorna Thorpe's song has a story, and I will not reveal the shocks of its close. She speaks finally as the reader's ghost, with a lyrical sense of 'how my body felt, when it was warm.' It seems to me almost impossible not to warm to these poems. But the poem's voice is the siren's: listen too long at your peril. Have you missed your stop?