A STORY OF THE NEED FOR LOVE: PETER THABIT JONES'S THE BOY AND THE LION'S HEAD, A VERSE DRAMA

(PUBLISHED BY CITADELA PUBLISHING, ROMANIA, 2009. BILINGUAL: ENGLISH/ROMANIAN. INTRODUCTION BY VINCE CLEMENTE. TRANSLATED BY DR. OLIMPIA IACOB)

BY PROFESSOR ALEXANDRU ZOTTA, ROMANIA

(Delivered at the publication launch of The Boy and the Lion's Head, a verse drama, in Satu Mare, Romania, in December 2009)

In the actual ample dialogue taking place between the cultural identities there is a special condition for to bring nearer the peoples that more keenly feel the existentialist state of conflict and the historical tensions, that more intensely take part in its dramas. Maybe the high importance of drama concerning Romanian reception of English literature can also be explained by its prestige and the growing awareness about the life’s aspects in conflict in Romanian community, as a result of its uncomfortable position at the West and Far East Gates.

Some poets’ impulse towards the theatrical creation in a context in which the numerous liberties of contemporary theatre no longer go significantly to dramatic poetry is quite interesting. In the actual repertoire of many actual theatres verse drama remains a rare presence. This aspect has been given some theoretical explanations of sociological nature on one hand, and aesthetical one on the other. Despite the real need for lyricism in a world that is too much preoccupied with the pragmatical aspects of existence, even poetry no longer enjoys large social audience, its recent manifestation maintaining itself in the limits of intimacy, and in the framework of the individual life. It is quite seldom met among the discourse forms of the town, its frequency restricting itself to a reduced number of individuals who are still nostalgic about the plenitude of life and still feel the need for a spiritual enlightenment of the human being.

At a time when communication has the character of an imperative emergency, for which reason it is desired to be “without borders”, trying to eschew and avoid the language barriers, it is explainable that the poetic structuring of the language and its dramatic suprastructuring arises additional difficulties in comparison with the pragmatic communication. Both the making and the receiving of such an efficient codified language, becomes an extremely difficult task. Under such conditions the dramatic configuration of a lyric discourse definitely becomes a rare performance.

It is thus worth welcoming from the very beginning the undertaking of Welsh poet Peter Thabit Jones, the author of the verse drama The Boy and the Lion’s Head, with the proper consideration for a creative effort, almost solitary, and for a genuine act of a writer’s courage.

 
As I hardly know Wales and its geography, I have followed, first of all, the configuration of the space by reading the Romanian version of this verse drama, remarkably carried out by Olimpia Iacob, an experienced translator of English poetry. In this way I have tried to find the most accessible coherence scheme of the poem. Soon I have realized that it has been possible only the simultaneous reconstitution of the physical and the spiritual configuration of the space evoked in the poem so beautifully entitled The Boy and the Lion’s Head, which the lyrical musicality and the dramatic tension, so harmoniously joined by the inspiration and the writer’s experience of the author, have facilitated me to an extent that has urged me on the present notes.

I have taken the Boy for my guide following him close behind on his way to Kilvey Hill from where one can see Eastside Swansea, along with the Bay and Port Tennant, the Lighthouse, Danygraig Cemetery, Cranfield’s Shop, Grafog Lane, The Canal and the Gyp, Tir John Power Station, the council houses district where the Grandfather and the Grandmother live. I have found it much more difficult to follow the Boy climb up to the Lion’s Head, because Kilvey Hill turns out to be almost as hard accessible as the Everest. He climbs the steps of an existentialist route decisively marked by an incurable trauma. These bear such names as, for example, Crymlyn Woods, Crymlyn Bog, Giant’s Palm, The Devil’s Cave, The Windmill, Cajo’s Farm, The Fox’s Den and so on, that is marks that record the ascent towards The Lion’s Head, a peak of maximum altitude of Kilvey Hill, physically accessible but, metaphysically speaking, hardly reachable.

With the appearance of an enigmatic sphinx, The Lion’s Head rules over the surroundings, guards the land and determines, mythically and magically, the inhabitants’ destinies. The contact with it may produce a catastrophe:

One touch would bring the sun down from the sky,
Its rage of red exploding like a bomb
Until the world was just a No-Man’s-Land
And the sky more dark than the Devil’s Cave.

The Lion’s Head is endowed with malefic powers and one touch is enough to release them all over Eastside, because it is

King of Kilvey,
King of the sun,

and at the same time

King of darkness:
The King of Death.

The powers of this one are shown at one oracular utterance, having the configuration of a magic charm or a curse, preserved by the inhabitants of the land as something taboo:

Great white eye you’re red and dead,

Disclosed through the magic of this interdiction, its powers can come down malefically upon the whole land and the Boy who climbs up and down Kilvey Hill in search of some answers to questions about facts that have decisively affected his life, avoids to utter them. He will do it, anyway, it seems that he does it being urged by it or in the guise of a stranger, of conscience freed from the magic thought of childhood, after he has not received any answer to the calls addressed to his parents gone and to the questions he has asked himself about the world and life.

When, at the end of the poem, the Boy utters the forbidden formula and touches The Lion’s Head, fright will come into his life, and the Grandfather’s life will suddenly stop, this moment being a dénouement of a subject, more inferred rather than structured, according to the lyrical nature of the poem. The touch of the Lion’s Head and the utterance of the oracular formula of the curse, bring about the darkening of Kilvey Hill, and bring the darkness of sufferings for the world at its foot.

The life of the inhabitants climbing up and down Kilvey Hill, in a ritualistic recurrence, has been gravely affected and changed its course because of the war, started by powers beyond human reason. Not only its development, whose images the grandfather obsessively bears projecting them onto the whole existence, did mean suffering, but also its consequences. The disappearance of the Boy’s parents causes life’s discontinuity and imprints his life an unhappy course. In a similar way, the wounding and the traumatizing of the Grandfather becomes endless suffering both for him and for the Grandmother, characters bound together by an exemplary love. But the gravest aspect of all is that by its consequences the war has taken away from people their right to plenitude. To me this seems to be the complete message of the lyrical-dramatic poem.

The re-establishing of aspiration towards plenitude would be the Boy’s task. Within him are his grandparents’ hopes, towards this existential mission lead the ample commentaries of the Unknown People. He is a mirror of the fulfilments and failures of the others’ life, everybody can see within himself the wished course of life, a course interrupted by the presence of the war.

With his painful life experience Grandfather sees in the Boy’s existence the shadow of his own being, seized by the nightmare-like threat of death:

The shadow of my childhood on the hill,
He runs as if the Devil’s on his scent.


The shadow of my childhood on the hill,
He runs as if he’s heard a comrade call.

The shadow of my childhood on the hill,
He runs until his anxious breath is spent.


The shadow of my childhood on the hill,
He runs as if he’s seen the mad sun fall.

At other times the boy is perceived as the embodiment of the unachieved aspirations of his grandparents, as a hope and a message of fulfilling their destiny: For the Grandmother

He is the life I never felt inside.

and for the Grandfather

He is the freedom cry I never cried.

Not only the boy’s wanderings across Kilvey Hill are images of the desired plenitude. The Grandparents have still alive in their memory the decisive moments of their life, spent in the same place circumscribed and outlined almost mythically, whose concatination convincingly illustrates the power of love. The Hill finally turns out to be a real “hill of love”.

By their structure of paired lines the distiches express quite adequately the reciprocity of this feeling. It is uttered in few words, in lapidary lines with a similar structure, as reciprocal speeches of equal value and importance, becoming impressing love distiches:

I took his smile,
He took my thoughts:

 
I took his kiss,
He took my heart:

I took his touch,
He took my dreams;

I took his flesh;
He took my world.

Grandfather’s song has also structure and significance of love hymn, although it is associated with the sadness of its unfulfilment:

An Eastside boy, an Eastside boy,
I took a girl up Kilvey Hill,
She sang a song as sad as war.

An Eastside boy, an Eastside boy,
I kissed a girl on Kilvey Hill,
She stole the magpies in my eyes.

An Eastside boy, an Eastside boy,
I touched a girl on Kilvey Hill,
She wept a widow’s cold cold tears.

An Eastside boy, an Eastside boy,
I loved a girl on Kilvey Hill,
She placed her medals in my heart.

Achieved by recurrence the unity of the image completes with the diversity of the metaphors of this beautiful song of love and destiny in a poise of the imaginary and of the composition.

A song equally grave is also that of the Grandmother, expressing the feeling of the impossibility to replace the mother’s being when alleviating the boy’s suffering:

I wish the boy would let me see his pain,
The thoughts of darkness always in his eyes.

I wish the boy would spend less time alone
Up on the hill that’s always in our lives.

Why can’t he voice the anger he must feel
For his runaway mother, my wild girl?

Why does he sit and listen to the tales
Of young men dying in their self-made graves?

I wish the boy would let me see his love
And not the black and white of sorrow’s bird.

The flow of life in Eastside, which should have been, as always, continuity by the uninterrupted succession of the generations, ritualistically marked by the fundamental existentialistic events, is strongly shaken by the war, which introduces a fracture in time and in the existence. This is suggested by the absence of his parents, painfully regretted by the boy who has not known but only thinks that

A mother’s kiss must be as soft as water
And a father’s hug as strong as a tree;

One of the boy’s songs is made up of questions resulting from the long pursuit and waiting for his parents. The answer to them is looked for into a world whose spaciotemporal and spiritual coordinates go much beyond the space at the foot of the hill, reaching the incommensurable dimensions of the boundless world, addressing himself to some instances responsible for the being’s destiny:

How far does the sea go?
Does it go to where his ship sails?

How far does the land go?
Does it go to where her house is?

How far does the sky go?
Does it go to where Jesus lives?

How far does the day go?
Does it go to where the War is?

Maybe only by crossing these boundless distances could the boy find answers to his painful questions. These are, therefore, more comprehensive even than the ends of the world.

Almost all the poem consists of such monologue-like, lyrical, musical structures but it includes dreadful questions with no answers of all the characters.

The couple of the Unknown People achieves, above all, the epic component of this dramatic poem, required by the synthesis, specific to the genre, between epic and lyric. They narrate in the third person the happenings of the other characters and make known their thoughts and moods. Their speeches alternate according to some associations in couple and to some symmetry of reflection, representing ritualistic gestures. Even if they also express themselves through monologues with unfailing lyrical tension, these ones form within the framework of the dramatic poem a ballad-like level, which replaces the epic drama of the text. Under the form of commentaries on a series of events that have taken place, their speeches contain grave reflections on them, deepening them and amplifying their significances. By this position in the distribution of the characters, the Unknown Man and the Unknown Woman in the poem of Peter Thabit Jones perform chiefly the function of the chorus in the antique tragedy, a presence that does not take part in the action but comments on it conspicuously emphasizing the significances of each moment.

Structurally, all the characters of the poem come from expressionist drama. A first clue is their names, representing categories rather than individualities. The unknown people, especially, perform important functions in the drama: they narrate the events that form its epic support, discreetly depicted in its few didascalies and in the aspects with stage direction value, representing the setting where the characters evolve: the boy’s council house in the working district in Swansea, the Grandmother’s kitchen, Kilvey Hill, Crymlyn Woods, Danygraig Cem, the Devil’s Cave, etc. We notice that they perform almost all the functions of a dramatic work, the characters being expected, almost exclusively, to utter the speeches, which is supposed to happen in a poetic theatre. As in expressionist theatre the characters’ identity is maintained at a certain categorial level, the Unknown Man and the Unknown Woman represent, in the dramatic poem of Peter Thabit Jones, its very equivalent. They have the typological value of an Everyman, no matter if he is the reader or the spectator, the receiver of the text or of the show. It is possible that the effect of moving off (Verfremdungseffekt) of the spectator from the scenes of the show, produced by the epic theatre and the absurd one, may be counteracted by the lyrical nature of the text that may render the show the sympathetic communication ( Einfuhlung) of the public with the characters.

The dramatic functionalism of this couple in the poem is extremely high. The interventions of the two people produce the fracturing of the ballad-like text, mark, at the discourse level, the limits of the fragments suitable to the acts and scenes in the dramatic work, symetrically configurate the speeches of the characters, mark the presence and the absence of the lyrical discourse in the foreground, which is similar to the characters’ coming on and leaving the stage. At the level of the dramatic organization of the poem their role is essential.

If the making of the lyric discourse is already a rhetorical structure of the message , the dramatic organization of the latter is a suprastructuring of the text. The text gets, therefore, a double codification: one that is lyrical, at the level of the characters’ discourse, and another, dramatic, at the level of the composition, first of all.

The rhetorics of the poem harmonizes, therefore, with its poetics understood as a structure ‘‘that is overadded to the discourse”, as Paul Ricoeur thinks. The close weaving of rhetorics and poetics at the level of some structures of small dimensions, from distiches to short hymns or short elegies, to texts formed as distinctive works, consistent with the dramatic speech, contributes to the accentuation of the reflexive level of the poem, to the disclosing of its universe of significances.

By the diversity of the discourse forms the rhetorical level is also used for the configuration or the dramatic structure of the text. Lyrical in its essence, throughout the poem, the discourse varies depending on the character, and especially, on the existential moment it refers to, because in lyrical drama the events are replaced with such existential moments, which dictates the frame of mind of the character, too. It is remarkable the large range of forms of lyrical discourse, of rhythms and the meter of the lines, especially their arrangement in stanzas or in a continuous text, which gives the monologue-like speeches the characters of some distinctive lyrical species and of some original metrical combinations. Vince Clemente’s essay, the commentator of this poem published at the beginning of this volume, come out at Citadela Publishing House, Satu Mare, minutely analyses the significance of the prosodic structures of the poem.

It is right to mention the remarkable imagistic level of the poem, brought into relief by the extremely suggestive metaphors, especially the rendering of the traumatized consciousness of the old man, whose thoughts” snag / On the barbed-wire/Of his memories.” or for whom “The world is reddened with poppies, /The blood of young heroes’ bodies.” and so on.

We can also bear in mind that the discourse modalities also support the distribution of the characters in couples; in this way, one can achieve the complementarity and symmetry of the couples: the Grandfather, the Grandmother, the Unknown Man and the Unknown Woman, including that one of the characters who are absent such as Father, Mother and, by contrast, the Boy’s solitude:

He cries for a mother’s kiss.
He cries for a father’s hug.

And his heartrending destiny maintains the duality at the level of conscience, which explains the presence of Two Kilvey Hills in his heart!

The coherence and cohesion of this poem is also reached with the help of the space unity, the continuity and the recurrence of the moments and the existential acts, the familial structure of the characters, all supporting, together with the oracular uttering and the metaphoric language and the ritualization of life. By this aesthetic effect the concrete aspects of everyday life intensify and amplify their functions making the ordinary fact reach significances with destiny value.

Looked for at the beginning of these notes, the geography of the space turns out to be, by the power of the dramatic poem, a topography simultaneously physical and spiritual, particular and general, where the people spend and also become aware of their destiny, getting, thus, the possibility to warn, as the Boy does, the powers hidden in the Lion’s Head:

Don’t let the world die!

 

 

Translated by Olimpia Iacob   © Professor Alexandru Zotta 2016