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John Torrance’s Waterwheel

John Torrance’s Waterwheel

I admire the ingenuity of the water mill having spent much of my boyhood at Fiddleford Mill. John Torrance whose previous books include Karl Marx’s Theory of Ideas (Cambridge University Press, 1991) prefaces his new collection, Waterwheel (Oversteps Books, 2013) with this rhythmic poem, ‘Getting The Old Mill Going Again’:


     When the sluice in the leat is opened

     the first bucket fills, and spills

     down into the second, which fills

     and spills out into a third, and then


     the great wheel creaks and stirs

     and slowly begins to move, and when

     the fourth bucket overflows, it

     starts to turn, and now the water


     tumbles out as the wheel comes round

     falling and filling, rumbling and spilling,

     faster and up again, over and down

     and round and round, until at last

     it turns and turns and turns and turns and turns …


The poem serves to remind the reader that there is always the possibility of starting a new life.


Divided into three parts, Waterwheel, is a measured sequence of poems that deal with lives on the cusp of death and the emergence of new life and love. The ‘Touchstone’ section features poems written for his friend from school days, the poet and writer, Jan Farquharson, who was dying of cancer, and concerns finding ways between life and death, coldness and warmth and those other binaries that occur as a close friend nears death. Torrance, a former Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford, allows the reader to sense the struggles without recourse to any hint of sentimentality or compromise. The second part, ‘Still Life’ contains poems written about his wife, Charity, whose progressive dementia was cut short by a fatal stroke, movingly evokes the ‘wild-eyed, pleading, creased with tears’, the ‘blather and burning’ of gradual losses. The third part, ‘Honeycomb’ has poems written about or for John’s new partner, Barbara, Jan’s widow, and the waterfall and steadying qualities that she brought post-bereavement.


As Sarah Hopkins writes on the back cover blurb, Torrance achieves a gentleness of tone and style, moving from crises to repair that make this one of the most loving of texts. It is both compassionate and elegant.


David Caddy January 13 2014

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