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

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.





Residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse, Laugharne

19 10 2016

Day One, Two and Three

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Arriving at the house each morning has been scintillating.

Because of the Boathouse’s autumnal, late-breakfast starts, I have been allowed and extra hour to walk Sir John’s Hill before doors officially open, and have been refreshed and challenged by the unique way of starting a day.  So, on the broad hill opposite Dylan Thomas’ riverside home, instead of the morning commute and the breakfast routine, I have been counting wrens, identifying distant mountains, trying not to appear alarmed at advancing dairy cows.  In place of registering a class of effervescing pupils, I have had an entire bay of calm space to indulge in.

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Every day has had involved meeting with visitors to the Boathouse and encouraging them to share in Dylan Thomas’ imagery, particularly in regard to ‘Poem in October’ and ‘Vision and Prayer’.  And each day will remain memorable for intriguing exchanges or unique encounters: the passing visit to the house by Wales’ Young Person’s Laureate, Sophie Mckeand, and by the Irish author, Andrew Phillip Smith; a visit from Noel James, the ubiquitous driver of the touring ‘writing shed’ around Britain during the Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations; having Scottish poetry recited effortlessly by a lady from Shetland while her son and I watched in amazement, meeting the kindest of folk and shared in their kindest of tales, their poetry recommendations, their thoughts on Dylan.

The most common sensation I’ve experienced though is a blend of euphoria and sadness, for most people who have shared their ideas with me have continued to comment, ‘I haven’t spoken about books in a long time,’ while others have modestly footnoted that their artistic achievements took place, ‘a long, long time ago’.  That a simple sketch, such as this one,  can be the first drawing a qualified illustrator has completed in over a decade, is giving the collective poem a value I had not anticipated.

The rediscovered experiences are paired with utterly fresh ones: yesterday, I read aloud some poetry in Dutch, was asked to ‘be quiet’ while the documentary on Dylan played, was beaten at ‘paper, scissors, stone’ by a four year old (who may have actually been three), stroked a dozen dogs and, finally, did not see the estuary mist up on sudden and heavy rain.

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I even managed to scribble to quick poem, based on a wonderful line Joyce fed to me earlier in the week, and that I had almost forgotten:

‘The weather arrives on the tide, leaves on the tide’

The weather arrives with the tide,

Leaving a grey-windowed sky,

Stilling the house in Sunday parlour silence.

So families wring their wet afternoon

Strung out like a dripping queue

Of clothes, heavy on a washing line,

Blown about the autumnal house:

The apple-red mantelpiece,

red-currant skirting, alder-red cushion,

and Dylan’s windy voice gusts upstairs,

ruddy-cheeked visions and prayers.

The weather leaves with the tide,

And leaves the bay shining,

Glowing, as thick and full,

As a charged glass of red wine.

Each Boathouse day, I have been made to feel entirely welcome by the staff: Toby answers my questions without showing frustration, and gives me enough of his knowledge so that I may, in turn, appear knowledgeable while misinforming visitors; Joyce and Lindsay introduced me to the local gull population, Paul showed me pictures of his stunning portraits, Carol her poetry, Judith her sculpture.  They are blessed with enough craft to inhabit a gallery, but instead have been modestly introducing me as the ‘resident artist’ – mostly before I’m asked for coffee and cake from an arriving tour party.

(Thanks warmly to Ysgol Pen-y-Bryn in Colwyn Bay for allowing me the time to be away, and to Nic and Arthur who are doing the same.)





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’.

 





Memories of Shakespeare – an article for Wales Arts Review

23 04 2016

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Crouched in the gloom at the side of the curtainless stage, the three bodies were silver-skinned and rag-wrapped; one woman was shaven-headed, one woman was, in fact, an elderly man, one woman was revealing more flesh than anyone in my pre-GCSE class (in their pre-internet schooling) had ever witnessed.  The three witches were immediately intimidating; to a group of boys who had never been to theatre before, they were formidable.

No pupil wanted to be shepherded by the stewards to the front of the theatre and none wanted to bookend the draughty first row. My first experience of Shakespeare was to sit directly under the glare of the three witches before Macbeth began at Mold’s Theatre Clwyd and, as the school bus had arrived thirty minutes early, my ordeal of eye-contact avoidance began early.

The witches lurked stage left throughout the play, haunting Macbeth from his periphery. They possessed during the interval and even remained to jinx the audience as we left; I am fairly sure that, while the rest of my class echoed bad Taggart impressions and sluggedNo-Frills Cola, one of the witches was stood in the aisle next to me on the coach, then followed me home in the rain.

My son repeats ‘shakes peer’ rhythmically in the café, like we have rehearsed it for the Americans who are noisily debating whether to stay and order. He colours the playwright’s face on a brochure, shading the pupils, rainbowing the lank hair. We tell him that Shakespeare spelled his name six different ways and try to show him, but he will not forsake the crayons and begins instead to write his own: the hooped ‘A’, a hangman’s ‘r’, a wide, flamboyant ‘t’, then, realising he is choked of space, doubles back, adds a ‘h’, ‘u’ turns and slots the ‘r’ between earlier letters.  ‘Shay kspere’, he says, ‘shhhhake speer’.

He sounds the name as we thread the narrow corridors of Shakespeare’s Birthplace.  The tiled floor of the living room is as cracked as the back of an old glove, the button-sized windows look out onto the courtyard where a seam of Chinese tourists are being led by an actor playing a lute. Over the empty beds, the empty fireplaces, the empty cribs, he says, ‘Shakesp ear’ and seems to inhabit the place.

In the garden, he is finally stilled. It is beginning to get cold and there is drizzle hiding in the late afternoon; the blossom cloaking the cherry trees is a reminder that it is still Easter. A lady in a cloaking, green dress covets his attention and earns it with her playful accents, ‘Double double, toil and trouble,’ she begins, casting her arms, stretching her fingers.

‘Double double,’ he mimics.

The actress plays all three parts and bewitches him. He is silent for so long on the winding walk back to the hotel that we know he is trying to make sense of it all, that he is trying to give voice to the changes happening to his thoughts, that he is rapt withal.

Memories of Shakespeare





Red Poets #21

5 10 2015

A slightly-mauled copy of Red Poets arrived today. Or, at least it arrived and was then mauled.
Always good to see yourself in heavily-chewed print.





Retiring After the Shipwreck (Deganwy home of Commander Harold G. Lowe, 5th Officer RMS Titanic)

13 08 2015

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i

Sometimes, when the last train brakes by the junction
it catches the track and sets off flares at the road crossing.
Lights search the sky then and I stir from my chair
by a cooled fire and go to hold the rattling window
to steady myself in the trembling room.

ii

When the train pulls away, I stay there, stranded
in the same sinking darkness there was that night
the ship went down. The blind screams and muffled panic
of the desperate, the incoherent, the knowing, the gone.
All frozen and silenced by the sea.

iii

Before the birds ring, I consort the pinkest horizon
and patrol the shore for survivors, mementos or something
that may anchor me to a fresh wreckage. But among
the chains that tie the boats to the beach
are balled-up bones of feathers and fish, burnt out campfires.

iv

The chill seeps into my knees, I huddle into my coats
and hurry across the shore like some sandpiper,
picking over branches, broken pallets, crab lines
and wearied wood that has washed up here, as I,
and will, each night, be buried again in these tides.