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





The final days: residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse

25 10 2016

The Boathouse crowds eddied in the bright light all week.  As the weather calmed and the sun visited more generously, tourists to Laugharne sat by the wide bay for longer and longer.  On one welcoming day, a pair of dog-walkers and their muddy corgi,  arrived when the River Taf was heavy in the estuary and left when it was barely visible; we’d spent much of the afternoon in the Thomas’ yard together.

Commonly, visitors would arrive like the garden’s resident robin, flying down in fleeting sortees and disappearing just as anonymously.  Some came in passing flocks, such as the affable murmuration from University of Wales Trinity St Davids, staying to pick at Welsh teas, to share scones, to warm their wings.  They spoke in a vibrant rabble of Mandarin, French, Canadian and the yard seemed hushed and dusky when they’d flown away.  And others were regular migrants, visiting the Writing Shed and the Boathouse on an annual, or more frequent pilgrimage.  

The writer and poet John Bilsborough came to collect some books from his residency the week before.  He showed me the stunning collection of writers’ names and messages he’d gathered in his career journal: R.S. Thomas; Victoria Wood; John Betjemen.  Another artist to visit was the seascape painter Gareth Hugh Davies, who brought his family of illustrators for lunch.  All indulged the drawing challenge with their unique styles, Gareth’s daughter indulged me with her sketchbook which was flawlessly assembled and carefully beautiful.  

While other guests were noteworthy for their energy and vigour, such as a rare pair of articulate children from Penrith who produced the most-savage of sea imagery.

And memorable for their charisma, as a poetess and her husband who drew and drew and drew and shared their literature passions as though we were long friends. 

 

After work one day, I visited Newport and read at The Lonely Crowd launch evening.  Heavy roadworks choked the journey there, and the M4 on the drive home felt as long as a continent.  Though the few hours spent in the Murenger were more stimulating and satisfying that I could have gleefully anticipated.  Hosted by John Lavin, readings from Tony Curtis, Carla Manfredino, Alix Nathan, John Freeman, Craig Austin, Rebecca Lawn formed a collage illustrating just how intriguing the literature scene is in South Wales currently.  Chris Cornwell read his ‘Last Night Down Whetstone Road’ in a voice glossy with Dylan’s aesthetic verve for phonetics, Gary Raymond read a story about immigration and fear and stereotype, and veiled pertinent satire around wonderful, characters such as the tale’s ubiquitous Ellis.       

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Ordinarily, on a Friday afternoon, I’d be stood in Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn’s assembly hall, watching certificates be awarded to inspired learners.  On this occasion, they were watching the boathouse and writing shed through my eyes.  Or, more precisely, through a FaceTime connection.  The Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Raynor, was in attendance at the school, together with a local MP, and they observed the whole school attempt a modern twist on a Dylan Thomas poem:  ‘Have you Ever Seen Half Term

On the weekend, my wife arrived with my son and we took the work from the week along Dylan’s route about Sir John’s Hill.  While retreading ‘The Birthday Walk’, she helped me film a video compilation of illustrations, my son made atmospheric leaf rustling effects and lingered precariously on steep images.

On one afternoon, when Dylan’s door was leaned shut, two ladies from the boathouse improvised a reading from my poem ‘Caitlin’, in response to Dylan’s ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ and I filmed it to store for when my debut collection, ‘Conversations’, is published next year.  Or for when Judith or Elen achieve fame in their respective fields of ceramics and translation.  Back at ‘The Pelican’, housing and feeding me until I began to bloat and sprout tight curls of hair, I was given lessons on sculpture and whisky by the artist David Gunther.

And yesterday, I drove my family home.  Home.  Up the serpentine Aberystywth Road.  My son was poorly as we passed Dolgellau, poorly as we approached Machynlleth, as though he was already enduring withdrawal symptoms from his brief time in Laugharne.  Reflecting back today, I too feel a stab homesick for a place that had become so welcoming to me.  

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JackdawQuarterly writers’ group: Summer meeting

30 04 2016

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Feel welcome to read a poem or an extract of prose, or to simply listen along to others on the theme ‘panic’.

 





Hedgehog

31 10 2014

Autumn is O shaped,
the narrow O of an echoing birdhouse,
the O below a naked flowerpot,
the O and broken O and O of rusty screw heads
in sodden patio chairs,
the O exploding from roman candles,
spinning spokes in Catherine wheels,
showy signatures by gloved sparklers,
it is the charred O left by the slow black bonfire.

Autumn is orbited
by the waxy O of the harvest moon,
the lost O when time forgets its face,
the yawning O of a tired nature retreating
past puddling paw prints
into brittle windy piles of leaves,
and furling up like the O of a hedgehog’s sunken sleep,
the whorled up O of a mercury bulb-heart beating,
the annular O, autumn cheating winter.





Poet in Residence – Dylan Thomas’ Writing Shed – Chester Literature Festival

13 10 2014

The one way system to the city’s traffic had tide changed. There was a new estate in the street I had expected to park my car in.  Chester had been building in the six years since I’d left it and my walk to Dylan’s writing shed was diverted by streets newly formed and structures newly thriving.

In the centre, however, the city remained similar: same pubs, The Red Lion (where I will forever remember watching Liverpool’s fortnightly Champions League melodrama simmer as surprisingly as any Dickens’ potboiler), same squares of grass (the Cathedral cricket strip that I watched fallen catches break like birds’ eggs, then clutched a fizzing ball on the boundary in the gloom), the slightly squalid Town Hall square (that my girlfriend of a decade, in the middle of Christmas Markets, let me leave our lonely love behind).

It was exhilarating to step in the Writing shed again, to sit in the sagging wicker chair and look up at the portraits of Brooke, Lawrence and Dylan himself.  It was a relief to be away from my nostalgia and enter somebody else’s.

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The first gentleman who asked for a poem declared, ‘I’m not a great lover of poetry, music is the new verse’ and, thus, verbatim, I wrote down the opening lines of a piece which tracked the calm cadence of his voice and compared him, albeit kindly, to sheepdog and candle smoke.  He took his poem like a medicine, wincing, then swallowing the concept whole.

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The next couple, watch checking restlessly, requested a poem for their forty-fourth anniversary.  They told me that, four years before, they had celebrated their Ruby Anniversary but this one was one for a dinner, calm, the afternoon, a walk on the walls.  I don’t think they came back to claim it.

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And the afternoon strode on and I was quickly left clutching a pad of bespoke poems that had nothing but titles.  I wrote one about a local charity, one about the journey on the A55, one about poetry, one about a woman’s wonderful neologism, one about pens, one about pain, one about, one about, one about.

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When it began raining the crowds huddled away and I held on to a stack of orders.  But instead of filling them out, I contrasted the swollen, pencil point-eyed poet from the Collected Stories I was using to lean on, with the one in the Augustus John painting above the shed window.  I wrote for a minute and cursed him his infinite flaws.

The final poem I hung to the washing line was for the festival organiser, who asked for something to remind her of a Bucket List success in Moorish Spain and the watercolours it had stirred in her.  The poems I have still to produce are for a creative writing student from the local university, for a kind fellow of the festival who gave me the compelling catalyst ‘hedgehogs’ and for the two people who have rolled the Writing Shed both around their imaginations and the country for the past year.

So, when I left and followed my footsteps back to the car, I tried to think of how I write something that would do more than acknowledge the efforts of the last pair, something instead that could crown their commitments.  Something that will aptly say thank you to them for taking Dylan Thomas to schools and imaginations, something that will thank them for bringing him back to me.

Somewhere damp, burrowed under the crimsoned leaves of Aumtum, I’ll find the right words searching for worms and tease them out into the weak winter sun.

In a fortnight, when we will fill the space again at the Touch and Go: Dylan Thomas in Montgomery event in Mid-Wales, I will begin by pinning up these poems.





O Captain! My Captain!

27 07 2014

He claps lined hands together,
rubs one through the palm of the other
as if he is testing its grain.
His tongue is swung over
the gate of his grin like a leg
that kicks in time to the clock hands.
Not daring to turn, we all check the hour
through his face, see how his eyelids pull
tautly and tremble when the lunch bell comes.
And then he staggers forward for the chase
to clear a solar system of balls from the yard. But,

today he stops, his frame ducks
in the doorway, and turns.
‘No one late this afternoon. No excuses.’
His foot draws a slice out of the ox blood
carpet tile; it guillotines literature in two,
announces lunch.
Usually, we run up the hill
to my house in time for Neighbours, Home and Away,
fry the bacon black, throw it down the hatch,
then back, back, back,
in time for the fifth period bell. But,

today we refuse to rush the plan
we’ve rehearsed. Hudd’s bag heaves
with goods nabbed: chorizo, quail eggs, cigars,
sangria. He strategises on stealing
the absurd from Iceland – theming
thefts to evade suspicion. He taps his nose,
‘No one inspects the Spanish exhibition.’
We watch Dead Poets’ Society in confessional quiet
until he purges himself of his mum’s worries:
all the missed lessons; the Advocaat bottles;
pornos wrapped up in university prospectusus. Prospectusi. Prospectuses. ‘But,

today we’ll call the school and pretend to be God’, I say
we’ll reassure his mum to seize her own days.
He won’t look at me though,
he wants to sew the introductions
back in the books. And so we return,
too late to escape punishment, two heads
for the axe. We expect him sullenly staring
out the at the car park, brooding
at the bumpers backed up against the window,
dwelling on our transgression,
a hand rested on a telephone. But

Instead he’s standing on a desk, helicoptering
his arms, vibrating the room, stamping
on Jones’ book, screaming, face blooded
by belief. The boys are in triumph,
applauding as one congregation. Their chorus
carries him aloft. And I understand too late,
that we are outside, silent and holding nothing.

O captain! my captain,
you didn’t make our seconds slow
you didn’t crave to see us gone,
you ached for us not to go.





Red Dog

30 06 2014

fox

There was fire in him somewhere

that she had never seen lit before.

 

He would find them now in streetlight flickerings

and in the warmness of half-closed bins. He

would hear them crow behind fastened, tired houses.

He was committed to the thought of the fox.

 

In the summer she’d have to keep bacon fat

to one side and freeze fishheads. Order books,

frame pictures. For him, leave warmed milk, bread.

Perhaps.

 

She hoped she wouldn’t have to tell him

it might not have been a fox

that flared out from behind the shed yesterday

and erupted into the photonia.

 

She watched him from the window watching spaces

leaned in closer to his mittened paws and hungry gaze.

He shivered, wrenched his hat down,

slumped again upon his elbows. Tried to stifle his yawn.

 

Her breath made a faint figure on the glass. It was

past bedtime when she carried him indoors.