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Review: Sweet Torture of Breathing, by Lorna Thorpe

On reading that Lorna Thorpe's Sweet Torture of Breathing deals with her close brush with death following a cardiac arrest, and the psychic death that preceded it, I prepared myself for a harrowing read. However, this refreshingly good-humoured collection takes a philosophical and thoughtful look at the experience and celebrates the fact that she survived.

The collection is organized into three pans - her own 'death,' the untimely deaths of others, and a type of rebirth, where she once again embraces life. Despite the poet's joy at having survived, she acknowledges that the realities of existence are still there: Even for those of us given a second chance, she writes, with dry humour, life isn't all cupcakes and drinking iced Earl Grey / laced with gin from bone china teacups. Instead of living with inordinate caution, though, I'd rather splurge, fritter my remaining heartbeats / on grape suede shoes and a plum crepe dress...

Refreshing too, is her pithy analysis of her experience of psychotherapy. Live in the Moment contrasts her memory of an earlier Christmas - baptised / in the past evoking food, cold, wine, the scent of wood smoke and a shiver of something ancient / in the mistletoe hanging in the doorway - with chewing a raisin, mindfully in a white room full of strangers. Why, she asks, are the 'moments' in books and manuals always red wheel barrows, soft rain on windows, freshly baked cookies... ? Where are the moments of pinched fury and why is the literature full of mystic healers but no Eeyore, Scarlett O'Hara / or Don Draper?

The poems are written in down to earth conversational language, in forms so free that at times they could be described as poetic prose. Some are monologues without line breaks or paragraphs - for example the breathlessly satirical Forgive Yourself, which questions the hectoring and self-justifying self-help and forgiveness industry of certain weekend Buddhists. Eclipse, another monologue, uses pseudo-biblical language to make gentle fun of opportunistic New-Age profiteering on a natural phenomenon. Her satire is not solely concerned with mockery, however: we are made aware of the real pain behind the quest for forgiveness, and are reminded that people have a genuine desire to experience the age-old sense of wonder and mystery that has itself been eclipsed by modern technology. The tone remains humane and sympathetic even when questioning or critical.

The descriptions are physical, sensual, often earthy, to convey the richness of life. Highly original imagery is used: she imagines what it is like to be a fallen angel, a fallen tree, and in I Could Eat a House,

I'd make sure all the lamps were lit
before swallowing them, so the winter
of my interior might be as welcoming
as a lone house on a moor, lights blazing
on a cold December afternoon.

The poems which deal with those who died young occasionally require some explanation, as do certain psychotherapeutic terms, and notes are provided. However the poems have universal resonance and may be appreciated without the notes - a sign of good poetry, in my opinion!