Yes, I remember Adlestrop: Little Man Coffee Shop, Cardiff, 21.04

22 04 2017

An Evening Celebrating the Influence of Edward Thomas on Contemporary Poetry

The Saturday morning train slumbers out from Cardiff Central.  The light is fierce against the window.  I squint at the Thomas’ The Trumpet.  After days of reading about Edward Thomas, I feel I can see his influence everywhere.  The train announcer threads place names together, his tongue flicking and clicking as knitted needles do. 

Prior to this month’s celebrations – marking a century since his death, in 1917, at the Battle of Arras – Edward Thomas had been peripheral to me.  He was the gentle face on Dylan Thomas’ writing shed wall, a name that Ted Hughes annually migrated to in his letters, a reviewer who fashioned a famous friendship with Robert Frost.

A static caravan lies on its side in paddock like a dozing horse.  Newport’s potterywheel mudbank river. A line of race martials carry their road markers crucifix-fashion to some distant death. 

Before attending Friday night’s poetry evening, I endeavoured to discover as much as I could about Edward Thomas beyond that learnt by reading and re-reading his verse. The Wales Arts Review had an invaluable store of articles and audio: Jo Mazelis’ piece on the prose and Thomas’ In Pursuit of Spring: Gary Raymond’s Offscript  podcasts, compiling recordings of Thomas’ peers and family, and an interview with Katie Gramich and Alison Harvey of Cardiff University, links to a radio play of Nick Dear’s The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, to the documentary Elected Friends.

A wheel of men like a hunting party, armed with loaded dog-ball throwers, encircled by bored pets.  Factory chimneys a pair of train funnels.  A heron standing sentinel at the fork of two charging brooks.

Rachel Carney, the event organiser and compere, had assembled a busy coffee shop audience for a series of readings.  She had linked the evening to the National Poetry Writing Month with a series of daily challenges based on Thomas’ work, and workshops, had attained the support of Literature Wales and secured access on the evening to some fascinating archived material from Cardiff Special Collections. Her admiration for Edward Thomas caused her to bubble and giggle wonderfully, and her longstanding passion for the poet hummed in her voice like a bee’s each time she leaned into the microphone.
Lucy Newlyn, who read initially from her collection Ginnel, sharing poems enriched with the Yorkshire dialect of her youth, spoke about Edward Thomas’ colloquial tone and use of dialogue.  And as her poems began to assume a lexicon so similar to Thomas’ they could’ve have been once rubbed by his fingerprints, she reflected on how her work feels inhabited by him.  Her final poems were, she revealed, too close to Thomas’ voice for her to seek them published as hers.

 

Jonathan Edwards began with ‘Old Man’.  The poem, about the herb, that concludes with one of Thomas’ most celebrated lines, ‘only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.’ He shared poems from My Family and Other Superheroes, fastening them adroitly by their theme or their non-linear structure to Thomas’ verse or style.  He finished with an exciting new poem about an unexpected break from work and a walk in the autumn.  After his reading, he allowed me to study it alone and watched it, carefully, in my hands, like a parent whose child holds something alive, but stilled and fragile, something that waits to be placed back in the wild.  When I confided in him that it reminded me of Louis MacNeice’s poetry, he smiled at me earnestly and said, ‘I adore Louis MacNeice’.

I had intending to read the poem ‘Lob’ about finding truth in folklore, or indeed finding a way to be lost in its search, but didn’t quite trust in myself to deliver the six pages of rhyming couplets.  Instead, I read ‘Words’ and seized opportunity to link that ‘old cloak’ ‘worn new’ ‘fixed and free’ to the event in general, to all the readers, to Rachel, and to Edwards Thomas, whose verse attempted to make language and landscape ‘young as our streams after rain’.

Marc Hamer responded to a Thomas poem about chasing autumn leaves by examining his own position in the garden, his back ‘tattooed with clouds’. And Thomas Tyrell shared a memorable poem about the many different types of rain.  Other readers spoke about their imaginings of war abroad, of war at home, of indecision, of nostalgia, of owl encounters, of nature, of nature, of nature.

Furrows of a short crop, the earth tilled and bland.  Treetops hide the fields in lines of ash and larch, in brief suns of gorse, and then, unexpectedly, a window is illuminated by a crop of rape that charges off, surely all the way to the meridian.

‘Elected Friends’ documentary

Jo Mazelis’ article

Offscript – Gary Raymond in interview with Cardiff University

Offscript – Gary Raymond presenting archived recordings with Thomas’ family members

Advertisements




Review: ‘From the Fortunate Isles’ by Tony Curtis

28 03 2017

tony c

 

This book gives accommodation to five decades of Curtis’ career in literature.  Selected poems from ten collections are housed adjacently, with forty new poems, building ‘From The Fortunate Isles’, Curtis’ latest project, abutted at the gable end.  Here is a terrace of verse, akin to a loop of sea-staring houses strung along a Pembrokeshire shore; multifarious in tone, diverse in size, unique in structure, this is a collection, ‘where the light and summer sings’.

Within clearer, more prevalent themes of Curtis’ verse – South West Wales, identity, war, his father – there are subtly similar features.  Two poems from the 1983 collection ‘Letting Go’, ‘The World’ and ‘Tortoise’, ponder the concept of legacy.  ‘Tortoise’, the sole narrative poem in the book, recounts the discovery of an errant hibernating pet in a neighbour’s loft:

Just that.  A shell, hard, perfect and whole.  Inside, a shrunk ball of jelly.

Curtis reflects on the grotesque image that begins to take residence, like the tortoise itself, ‘lodged in the back of the mind’ until he is prompted to question the bleakness of a predestination, where a body can be outlived and made redundant by its skeleton:

to travel and come to nothing

On the page parallel is ‘The World’, which announces its portentous subject in the opening line, ‘this is how it ends’ before almost listing the cataclysmic events that occur as humanity recedes: ‘Russian subs…acid air…fire…the Third World / eats itself and starves.’  The final stanza delivers mankind back to its origins and to a fearful inheritance:

And farther out floating

towards them on a floe

a man,  a woman and a child waving

spears

Half a lifetime ago, Tony Curtis was a lecturer of mine at university.  In one workshop, he spread images of John Digby over the wide table and encouraged his undergraduates to address the surreal collages.   ‘There are two ways of looking at a thing’, he implored.  Six of these artworks, ornately decorated Moorish doorways used as window frames looking out to terrain populated by Grecian figures, dinosaurs, lighthouses, Victorian bathers, are aligned with their respective poems from the 1998 collection ‘The Arches’.  ‘XXII’ concludes with a stanza on the duplicity of language:

            This was ever the way –

            from the high clarity    

            the waves of confusion

            turn into the words

            that lead us astray.   

A piece of advice I recall from Curtis’ teachings was the need ‘to always begin strongly and end strongly’; he prized the first and final lines of a poem more than any others.  Thumbing through the two hundred and fifty pages of this book, it is clear that Curtis’ adheres emphatically to his own precept.  The thirteen poems taken from ‘Preparations’ are particularly charmed with resolutions of momentous, pacing, funereal sadness.

We turn our backs on a sky that goes on forever.

(Return to the Headland)

…our dead friends and fathers,      

 on the road, at the desk, looking over our shoulders.

(Poem for John Tripp)

 

Under the sun, the prodigal sky,

there are no healing waters.

(My Father in Pembrokeshire)

Of the forty poems from the eponymous collection, ‘From the Fortunate Isles’, many are observational, many are elegiac.  The title poem is languid and ambling and warmly reveals an encounter with street vendors and performers in the Canary Islands.  Against a theatrical drop of a menacing and rough Atlantic sea, Curtis experiences a hiatus and a temptation to ‘let loose of it all’.  The title of the poem, an allusion to a classical myth about idyllic islands reserved for favoured or blessed mortals, is slightly ambiguous: it is a simple reference to geography; it is hyperbolic in Curtis’ appreciation of holiday paradise; it is an acknowledgement to the artists and writers that both the poet and the collection mourns.

Elegies to the landscape painters Peter Prendergast and John Knapp-Fisher, to the poets Dannie Abse and Dylan Thomas, to the memory of his father, to personal friends, usher in the reflective mood and, once more, the theme of legacy:

if my ashes were emptied out here.

(Wanting Choughs)

Start strongly and finish strongly; the final poem of the book, ‘Seamus on the Tube’, does exactly that.  Reading Heaney’s poem ‘The Railway Children’ amongst a train filled with commuters ‘looking away, not looking away’, the narrator of the poem becomes mesmorised by their own escaped nostalgia.  Although it is written in second person narrative, it seems safe to assume the poem is autobiographical and consequently, safe to assume, from the final words of the final poem, that Curtis is content with all that he has built; serene in his legacy.

Reaching Warren Street, you’ve read it

Four or five times, absorbed the innocent wisdom

And sense of the thing.  Those people opposite

See a crazy old man mouthing words, appearing to sing.