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





Review: ‘From the Fortunate Isles’ by Tony Curtis

28 03 2017

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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

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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.





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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A dead boy on a beach

3 09 2015

The boy’s trousers have been taken down,
screwed low upon his pumps. A ragged t-shirt
has been tugged up over his nipples, over his head.
His stomach billows at the belly button,
It bloats as wet as a sail filled with waves,
like he has drunk seawater greedily.

Then the arch aches away
into gaunt hipbones, a gaping groin.
He is seven, eight perhaps; his underpants
have deflated footballs on them.
They have been sculpted back onto his dead frame,
mercifully. Though below this nappy,
his pinched knees seem brittle,
too insubstantial, almost, to have been born at all,

The wrinkled fist his hand had formed
is more fin than claw, he is barely there,
translucent, disappearing already,
laid out on the thinnest skin of tide,
quieter than the sand and wet with death,
waiting to be lulled back into the sea
and forgotten.





Ty Mawr Wybrant (William Morgan’s Birthplace)

12 04 2015

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You carry the emptied acorn cup like an offering,
one palm steadying the other,
keeping it raised, level with your nose;
studying it with giantwide eyes
as though the vacant chrysalis still cherished life
and you might witness its spell.

Your mother convinces you
to let it snuggle up in your pocket,
so you can think tiredfeet over the doorframe
and measure your path across the flagged floor.
Drovers once gathered in this dark room,
all bullish in their noise, butting up to the hearth.

The warden strokes your head like a halo,
tells you the tinybed consumed six sitting sleepers
and shows why the windows were thinned of glass.
He coaxes your mischief, chases you around the bibles,
plays hide and seek in all of William Morgan’s tongues
and lets you slide down sheer steps as we leave.

When you roar a smiling goodbye at him,
he rewards you with a chocolate egg –
undiscovered treasure from last Sunday’s hunt –
and you cup it in your hand,
this hollowshell, as you’d done the half acorn,
when the house was still so big to you.





Montgomery Christmas Lights

29 11 2014

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When the heads stopped surfacing at the window –
like skimmed stones – there jarred three blue-tit taps at the door.
A man, mittened by orchard shadow,
pointed and hurried –
his torch dimmed, his urgency thinned –

as he passed me in the passage.
I followed him to the garden’s velvet dark
and discerned there ten muffled men,
all bowed to the pit,
quarrying prayers from the coal lawn.

The sunken outhouse roof
became a brokenbacked hillside
and a figure nearby shone as a distant beacon –
a cigarette in the sea –
until another pyre ignited and burning bulbs

lit up the garden like a skipping rope.
Once they gathered their fireflies,
Waved, thanked me, locked the shed,
Urged me to indoor warmth,
I sat at the glass and saw as dullness settled again

a dew grew gold and recollective. When I slept
I dreamt the scene but flourished the loop of light
with the familiar – the church clock, flicked ferns,
a wheelbarrow reservoiring. And, as I woke to winter’s slim sun,
I discovered my garden still decorated in memory.

This poem was written following a request at the ‘Poetry Takeaway’ event at the Gregynog Festival. A ten minute poem based on the anecdote of a resident who recalled her recent discovery of the town centre’s decoration in her shed.





Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard

28 11 2014

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Tell me your tasks in order:
list them listlessly
in stuttering staccato,
the squared silence saturating
every cloistered chore.

Bleach the affection
from your midnight routines,
scrape a space each-
a grave scratching of a plot
beside my breaking coldness.

I will peninsula this dark
and you will be my coves, my sea,
beachcombing the lonely bays
of this marriage together.
Tell me your taks in order.

This poem was written following a request at the ‘Poetry Takeaway’ event at the Gregynog Festival. A ten minute poem based on the event organiser’s necklace bearing the quotation of the first and last lines.