v. The Tyring House, Lynn Thornton,
Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 99, January 2021
I offer a warm welcome to Lynn Thornton’s thoughtful and eminently readable debut collection - The Tyring House (Poet’s House Pamphlets, firstname.lastname@example.org. 25pp; £6.00) The title, and it’s spelling, immediately brought to mind a poem by Sir Walter Raleigh which begins;
What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the musicke of division,
Our mothers wombes the tyring houses be,
Heaven the Judicious sharpe spectator is,
That sits and markes still who doth act amisse….
The “tyring house” (short for “attiring house”) was the area in an Elizabeth playhouse in which actors prepared – and dressed - for their entrances. Raleigh’s poem is certainly worth bearing in mind when we read the poems in Lynn Thornton’s collection.
Most of the poems reference particular characters from Shakespeare’s plays – sometimes as monologues by the character, sometimes in third -person observation of them. The book opens with its title poem, in which the speakers (for it uses the first-person plural) are actors in preparation in the “tyring house” which, we are told, “smells of musk / sweat / tallow thick / air”, where actors “lurch / for a sword / a crown / a clown’s cap” before giving performances as “an off-key / Cleopatra / a fat Hamlet / sweating in / a graveyard” and whose best reassurance is that “on a good day / we get away / with / an exit jig”. The whole poem needs to be read with an awareness of the dominant analogy of Raleigh’s poem. Some of the poems in the book seem to ‘mean’ largely in terms of the character they are named after, while other clearly also reference the actor presenting that character. Given Raleigh’s interpretation of every human life as the playing of a role, with implication that some of choose the “role” of
an actor who takes on other roles, the distinctions are not always easy to make. So, when Thornton’s ‘Cordelia’ says
it shall be
or, from her ‘exile’ in France: “I remain here, corseted / in a foreign tongue”, there are clearly ways in which we might hear either Shakespeare’s character in King Lear / or an actress who might be speaking for herself. Perhaps it is not surprising, given the poems are concerned with these kinds of ambiguities, that Thornton is often (though not exclusively) at her best when she speaks through Shakespeare’s women, as in a superb poem in the voice of Ophelia;
I am distorted in moving water, stranded
on a stone or liberated
like a kite
swooping low, or a high-wire artiste stretching
every muscle tensed, for another’s hand
but not quite; always the reflection of upturned faces
flaring round a circus ring
waiting for me
to miss my mark
(I particularly admire the skill with which the line-breaks are used here).
But Thornton can also capture the imprisoned Malvolio’s character, angry at the way he has been fooled and mocked, but with his own self-regard undisturbed, no lessons learned:
The court giggled as I passed in my new motley,
at the aching smile I wore for her sake.
But I have ink and paper, a fine cheval mirror
The Tyring House is an outstanding debut, a book I recommend enthusiastically. I look forward to seeing more of Lynn Thornton’s work.