Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Friends from my Bookshelf ~ 4

Book: Dylan Thomas. (1977) Collected Poems 1934-1952. London: Everyman's Library. JM Dent & Sons.

Bought in Paton Books (an independent bookseller now, unfortunately, no longer in business) in the late 1970s.

  • Cherry red and inviting
  • Smooth, cartridge-paper thick pages
  • Its smell has almost disappeared, but there remains the faint memory of stationery office and ink
  • Part of a uniform collection carrying a picture of a Churchillian Thomas, pen in hand, smoking what I take to be a cigar, and touting Thomas' spidery signature in black ink.
  • Beautifully weighted so that it fills the hand and feels satisfyingly heavy
  • The volume is "An Everyman Paperback" with a picture of a pilgrim leaning on a staff and the words, "EVERYMAN, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, In thy most need to go by thy side." Which lends it the feel of portability (I sometimes took it on walks, snug in my pocket).

Stopping off on my way home from work - bicycle teetering against the large plate glass window - I re-found Dylan Thomas in Paton Books on the precipitous Holywell Hill. The poetry section was in the corner. It was a dark, liminal space where I could crouch and hold in my hands such wonderful new worlds. 

Ever since sitting down with my family, as a lad, to listen to Under Milk Wood on the radio I had been mesmerised by Dylan Thomas' use of words. .... ah those words! 

"To begin at the beginning: 
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black..." 

To be honest, I understood very little of it. I knew that it was funny because Mum and Dad laughed, but was not sure why (not that it mattered, I liked it when Dad laughed; it was a good, round sort of laugh with no sharp edges to it).

I loved Adventures in the Skin Trade and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, but it was Thomas' poems that lured and yet taunted me in equal measure. Their words drew me in and set my heart beating even though their sense evaded me (and often still does).

"Altarwise by owl-light in the half way house
The gentleman lay graveward with his furies..."

I had no idea what it meant and yet it filled me too with fury and I too walked among ancient altars in primaeval nightfall.

I read (and still read) poetry atrociously. I am a poet's nightmare. There are times when I've read poems completely back to front. I quite often start in the middle if my eye catches a word or a line. My eyes seem incapable of linear movement, sliding over words, lines, whole verses, even pages and then they will be captivated by a line, phrase, or word. I will read it over over and over and over again, letting the image and sounds roll around my mouth and mind. Too often I find myself staring into the sky (or at the ceiling) having read just a few lines...

As I grew into adulthood, Thomas' words rang in my head. I never tried to learn them, they just seemed to migrate organically into my being. However, I knew one thing, I wanted to stand tall and let the words that roared in the belly of my soul loose upon the world. I ached to find a voice for my spirit that so ill-fitted my adolescent body. His writing somehow emboldened me. The world was so large and so frightening, but reading Thomas' poetry filled my heart with fire and I felt that I could throw myself into the howling waves of life and live. Here were words to woo angels and shame devils.

Reciting poetry while I walked was an obsession for me. I walked and walked as if driven by demons. I remember one snowy day, taking the dog for walk. The cruel wind flayed the small copses scattered across the fields. We walked and walked and walked until my legs turned to lead. I can remember turning my face to the heavens and hurling at the top of my voice Thomas' bold, audacious words up to a sky as white and as hard as the flints that splintered the chalky fields upon which I strode. Lament, I particularly loved.

"When I was a windy boy and a bit
And the black spit of the chapel fold
(Sighed the old ram rod, dying of women),
I tiptoed shy in the gooseberry wood,"

Of course I couldn't understand it, for I WAS still that 'windy boy and a bit' and for whom I had yet to grieve. And my blood churned with hormones as I stood on the brink of my own gooseberry woods that made me ache so much and filled me with such sweet and desperate sadness. Strange fire was kindled upon my altar and cast a dangerous and unholy glow upon my world, but it would be many years before I felt its flame touch my body. Understanding would come later as would the grieving - but, perhaps, not quite for the same things that Thomas grieved.

The skies remained silent as the snow continued to fall and down in the dell was the sound of a pigeon weeping.

Over the years I have fallen in and out of love with Dylan Thomas many times - but his use of words always remain to captivate me. Even though I now recoil from the sentiments expressed in some of his poems, I am entranced by his passion and playfulness and the roar of his heart.

Saturday, 2 November 2013



            Today I stopped the parish clock
            and while the village slept,
            at the point where summer time
            falls back into winter,
            with one hand, I held back time      
            and let seconds fly
            directionless and  haphazard
            around the steepled tower,          
            like gnats dancing over a summer pond.
            The iron hands stood frozen
            to each moonish clock-face
            at five minutes-to the mute and silent hour.


Instead of rounded golden chimes
rolling out over field and rooftop
there was silence
and the pigeons in the bell chamber
slept on undisturbed.
And all I heard was the beating of the wind against the tower
as I rubbed shoulders with God and angels in this place beyond time.

                   For a while I watched the village slumber
                   from the unlatched door high up
                   on the side of the old stone tower.
                   A guardian of this time of no time.
                   The ticking watch on my wrist counted out the untrod
                   minutes upon which no one had yet walked...
                                ... or loved
                                          .... or danced.

                             In that silence,
                             I tasted each moment;
                             Those seconds,
                                      those minutes
                                               and precious quarter hours
                             that those below had yet to live.

Is this what it feels like to be God?
To be standing in the dark outside time?

Is this the eternity of which my soul dreams?
Where seconds are born 
 then slew back upon themselves
to be reborn later? 

Or is this just the world of the wilder things;
the fox, hare and badger?
Those that run as wild as wind
Unaware of the clock not ticking
Or the hands not moving.

                      For an hour, with one hand
                      I held back time
                      and set eternity loose
                      among the streets and alleyways.
                      And the village below me
                       slept on, unknowing.

And my eye travelled up
to the smudge of woodland
on a high brow of hill
Where eternity always breaks in.

* Background music composed, performed and recorded by Helen Ingram