In the mustardseed sun,
By full tilt river and switchback sea
Where the cormorants scud,
In his house on stilts high among beaks
And palavers of birds
This sandgrain day in the bent bay's grave
He celebrates and spurns
His driftwood thirty-fifth wind turned age;
Herons spire and spear.
- Dylan Thomas, ‘Poem on His Birthday’
My 40th birthday, like Dylan Thomas’s 35th, begins with the weather. Every few seconds rain rattles the window, shaking loose the papery remains of a wasp nest that has clung between the two panes of glass since summer. It’s a whipping rain that sounds too solid to be water, like maybe my daughters are outside throwing fistfuls of gravel. But the girls are in our bed with Mary, and there is nothing out back but their swing-set swaying and dripping. Most mornings and evenings there are deer in the yard, a doe and two yearlings that come down from Buffalo Mountain. This morning, wisely, they are elsewhere. Why don’t I know where deer go when it rains?
The power was out for most of last night. It happens fairly often in our neighborhood, and almost always at night. I was awake and reading when the lights went, and the shutdown shocked me. Without the ceiling fan’s rhythmic clicking, the computer’s constant hum, the white noise of the child monitor or the refrigerator’s low drone, the house—with its hardwood floors and linoleum—instantly became a hollow drum, the roof a snare-skin for every rap and rim-shot of rain. A few hours later, when our daughters wound up in our bed (as they inevitably do), the room seemed too quiet. Their breathing was loud, almost brassy and, strangely, all the more fragile for its intensity. Or was I, I now wonder, projecting that fragility? I’ve shrugged off turning 40, denied its significance. But the voices are here anyway, offering their litany of failure: You have poems sitting in a drawer and two unfinished manuscripts. You spend your time grading papers when you should be writing poems. Your MFA classmate is the writer for True Detective. And, today, for good measure: Dylan Thomas died at 39.
This is all rather self-indulgent, I know. When I agreed to begin 2015 as the guest writer at the Best American Poetry, it didn’t dawn on me that I’d be starting on my birthday, and I certainly didn’t have it in mind to write about Dylan Thomas. But it’s partly the self-indulgence of birthdays that has me thinking about Dylan, who wrote several birthday poems and who, within the cult of literary personality, has become the poster boy for self-indulgence. And partly it's my office wall clock, an insistent metronome broken only by keyboard clicks and the rain’s syncopation. Write, write, write, 60 times every minute. If our street loses power again, I won’t get this posted by the deadline. It is possible that I am going to run out of time.
Somehow this all fits together, but I’m finding it hard to articulate. ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind / How time has ticked…’ Dylan Thomas is one of the great poetic voices for ticking time—both for singing the song in flight and for learning too late that we grieved it on its way. His poems nearly explode with sensual detail, but that same power is also, always, a death-drive. The speaker’s voracious now-ness is ever consumed by an awareness of his own temporality.
Many of my friends and colleagues in Wales are weary of Dylan Thomas just now, or rather weary of Dylan Thomas as a cultural icon and tourist draw. For some, 2014 was nearly intolerable because it was dominated by events surrounding the centenary of his birth, events which often seemed to celebrate, well, celebrity more than art. I lost count of the Dylan Thomas-themed readings, round tables, pub crawls, choral performances and television programs. There was even a replica of his writing shed moving from town to town like a traveling medicine show. So I can see why many had Dylan fatigue. And having lived in Wales for three years and written about its literature for many more, I can see that, culturally, there is in Wales an unhealthy preoccupation with Dylan Thomas that skews the national literary consciousness at the expense of other, equally important writers. But he is one of very few Welsh writers with an international reputation, and he brings in tourist dollars, so Wales, long forced into the role of England’s little brother, plays its legitimizing Dylan card as often as it can. But is that the best thing for the arts in Wales? As Dylan’s namesake R. S. Thomas was at pains to remind us, being good for Welsh tourism is not the same thing as being good for Wales. In truth, the image of Dylan Thomas served up to the world hardly does service to his genius.
And he was a genius. His work—as opposed to the mythology of his life—is absolutely worth celebrating. There is not another poet of his age who can match his inventiveness with language or his explosive lyricism. How many poets can really be said to have created a new poetic style? Dylan Thomas did that. He is not overrated as a writer. He is over-marketed as a national icon, and the problem with this is that the iconography is not faithful to the work. As just one example, consider his late play for voices, Under Milk Wood. I’ve seen it performed twice, and both times it was treated as a faithful (if darkly comic) portrait of Welsh village life. But the play is satirical. The town name, Llareggub, which is ‘bugger all’ spelled backwards, should be tonic enough against taking the play at face value. Ironically, though, the play has come to emblemetize the very image of Welsh-ness at which it is poking fun.
Just over a year ago (on my brother Paul’s 40th birthday, as coincidence would have it) I was in Swansea to give a night lecture at the launch of The International Journal of Welsh Writing in English. During the day, I drove to Laugharne to visit Dylan Thomas’s boathouse, his writing shed (the real one) and his grave, which he shares with Caitlin Thomas.
I took a few photos in the boathouse (the death mask, for example, and the view from the upstairs window) before I was politely reminded that there was no photography allowed. Atypically for Wales, the weather was perfect all day, and after spending several hours wandering the beach and taking pictures below the boathouse, I went to St. Martin's Church and wandered the rows of graves, reading the names and imagining lives. It's the graves of children that always affect me most. Some of the gravestones were named, others simply said things like ‘mab annwyl’ (‘beloved son’). It seems wrong to write about these nameless children until I think of my daughters’ fragile breathing and hear the wall clock pushing me on. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that all children die in Dylan Thomas’s work. Even as they are green, they are dying. They go to sleep and wake in a childless land. One of Thomas’s most famous poems, ‘A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London,’ ends with the line, ‘After the first death there is no other.’ I have read more interpretations of this poem than I can count, but for me the poem is a simple one. Thomas refuses to personalize the death of a young girl killed in an air raid not because he does not feel her loss but because he feels it all too keenly. To politicize her death by mentioning war’s cruelty or moralize upon her death with religious platitudes about the afterlife would make of her death an anomalous tragedy when for him, the death of childhood is perhaps the only universal reality.
On the way back from Laugharne I visited Fernhill. (The title of Thomas’s famous poem is 'Fern Hill,' but the place name is a single word.) This is where Thomas's aunt Ann lived and where he spent time as a boy. His magnificent poem 'After the Funeral' is an elegy for her. I confess that saying I visited Fernhill isn’t quite accurate. Trespassed on the premises is more like it. I knew before I went to Fernhill that it was a private farm and that I wouldn't be able to get in to see the house, but I hadn’t expected the barbed wire all around the farm or the 'Guard Dogs in Operation' signs. I had seen old photos of the wall outside the gate, where there used to be two ‘Fernhill’ signs, one on each side, but those have been taken down now, probably to deter people like me. In fact, unless you know what you are looking for, there is nothing to identify the farm as the setting for one of the great lyric poems of the 20th century. At the boathouse I could claim ignorance for not seeing the ‘No Photography’ sign. At Fernhill I had to accept my delinquency or go back to my hotel. I hopped the fence of the adjacent property and walked into the field behind some out buildings. Then I followed the pebbled stream and climbed a few hundred meters onto the property. I stayed until I heard the dogs start barking.
Something strange and chilling happened at Fernhill. As I was walking by the stream, I came across a baby pacifier lying in the leaves. I instantly felt very remote, very alone, and the world seemed emptied, not dissimilar to a house when the power cuts out. This was before the dogs started barking, so it wasn't fear I was feeling, not exactly. It had something to do with my own children being an ocean away from me, but mostly it was the realization that it was somehow very right for there to be barbed wire, guard dogs, and chains keeping me out of a child's paradise. The sun is young once only, and we all follow time out of grace. I had come, I realized, in search of a lost child, of an innocence that cannot be reclaimed because it has already died. Paradise only exists as a conception of the fallen, and there are no stories there. There is no art. These only exist beyond the walled garden, and their common theme is loss.