VINCE CLEMENTE'S INTRODUCTION TO THE BOY AND THE LION'S HEAD, A VERSE DRAMA

PUBLISHED BY CITADELA PUBLISHING, ROMANIA, 2009. BILINGUAL: ENGLISH/ROMANIAN.

TRANSLATED BY DR. OLIMPIA IACOB


ON READING PETER THABIT JONES'S THE BOY AND THE LION'S HEAD


by Vince Clemente


In a letter just last month, November 2008 from Peter Thabit Jones, there in Swansea, Wales, he included a lengthy, thirty-one page manuscript of a ten year struggle to say what he felt all his life. He went on to write:


I am attaching something I have worked on, off and on, for ten years: my verse drama, The Boy and the Lion's Head. I hope you will find time to read it. There is much of me, and what made me a poet, in it. I wrote it for radio, but it could be staged, ideally with music. I have tried to show the impact language/words on a small boy's imagination: in a narrative of impending grief. The old man's Somme reality is the young boy's end-of-the world fantasy (a fantasy powered by the power of childhood myth and the old man's ragged ramblings of war-wreathed truths). Ultimately, for me at least, it is the story of the need for love.


It is indeed “a narrative of impending grief,” as the boy's seminal years, alone in a council house in Swansea, Wales, with a grandmother and dying, war-weary, haunted grandfather, just under a brooding Kilvey Hill, with its light--“smudge of sun”--and shade, the hill tainting, “Their minds/With its/Darkness,” indeed a world of chiaroscuro, these very contradictory elements of nature's manifestations that the boy engages, every day of his ambulatory, Kilvey Hill life. In fact the boy's final utterance, and as Peter writes, while “crying,” is simply, "Don't let the world die!" The long, finely hewn poem, “a poem for five characters,” holds, not only the birth of a poet, but also clear assertion of the poet's “priestly” calling, best summed up in a line by the contemporary Japanese poet, S. Takahashi, how, “The poet must restore the ravaged body of the world.” And well into his fifth decade, Peter Thabit Jones remains committed to that duty. I must insist that Swansea, Wales has given the world three poets of major and enduring stature: Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins, and Peter Thabit Jones.


And this verse drama, ideally “could be staged.” In fact, I see it vividly, hear its human murmur as a flute--as if here from the heavens--undersong, ever-present, to both introduce and define the five characters, the music as definitive and certain as grace is certain, a lyrical caul woven about them. And as stage backdrop, Kilvey Hill, its sunlight and shade, the stage itself, bedroom in the family's council house, where the five characters indiscriminately sit, the one reserved, with its “stale bucket,” for the tormented, World War 1 wounded “trench” survivor, the grandfather, whose ghost, “as if in the distance,” has the piece's final words, its final summing up, indeed coda:


The shadow of night wants to come.
Longer and deeper than a trench,
More darker than the Devil's Cave.
They'll cry in their cold, cold corners.
And the beautiful sun will come,
The silent roar of a lion,
To dry the small bay of their tears,
To warm the big hill of their love.


“To warm the big hill of their love,” indeed Kilvey Hill, the poem's omnipresent beacon of life's light and darkness, and for the boy, a perpetual ascent and descent, both God's sunlit face and the very darkness welling in evil, the world's catastrophic destruction: confronting, in tactile fashion, the menacing, world-ending, Lion's Face. Bold and far-reaching, with the lyrical choral music of five characters: “The unknown man,” “The unknown woman,” “The grandfather,” “The grandmother,” and “The boy,” solitary wanderer and risk-taker, slowly and painfully becoming the “poet within,” his final plea to us: “Don't let the world die.” Were he to stroke The Lion's Head, there, as “The lion of a rock lolls on Kilvey's spine,/The hill's dark king shaped by years of weather,” indeed, apocalyptic catastrophe would follow: a village myth, yet one terrorizing the boy.


In fact, he “shouts” to us, early in the poem, the repeated lines, antiphonal cadences, not unlike a canticle of terror, or the human groan from Adam down:


The Lion's Head!
The Lion's Head!
I can't touch it!
I can't touch it!
The sun shall fall!
The sun shall fall!
A ball of red!
A ball of red!
And all is dead!
And all is dead!


And like Dylan Thomas's “Under Milk Wood,” the long poem is richly autobiographical, evoking the local both in place and in character. (In fact, place is so important, I recall a line in Yeats, how, “A poet must recite the names of place, much the way a mother says the names of her children.”) We are reminded, then, just how Swansea remains nurturing forcing house in every line said or chanted, in every finely crafted stanza and flute-like voice. Yet in ways we cannot ignore, The Boy and the Lion's Head, also places us securely in Wordsworth's The Prelude, the verse drama that far-reaching.


Early in the Jones poem, indeed the boy's initial utterance, and said “loudly,” we meet him as one not unlike Wordsworth's youth, a boy, who can be the poet of Grasmere, alone at nightfall hugging the rim of Lake Winander, as he “Pressed closely palm to palm and to his mouth/... as though an instrument,/ Blew mimic hootings to the silent owls/ That they might answer him.” And after a pause, the natural world that both circled the Lake and one to engage forever the poet of Dove cottage, “Would enter him unawares into his mind/ With all its solemn imagery.” And at this very moment, the solitary lad with hands cupped was consecrated Poet, what Wordsworth called all his life, this “priestly calling,” as does Peter Thabit Jones.


Before we eavesdrop on the boy, there on Kilvey Hill, his Winander, embracing the world of Swansea below him, “Through the binoculars of my cupped hands,” we first hear “The unknown woman ,” then “The unknown man,” as both come in many guises. They are never identified, yet move with the boy through his Swansea world, omnipresent and often all-knowing: seers, yet locals in their knowledge of place, the boy himself, his grandmother and upon-the wrack-of-the-world grandfather. Or they may also be wandering heavenly Spirits, there to ensure that the boy's, at times, daunting life-journey is, somehow, whole, purposeful, simply a Poet's faith-driven initiation. First, “The unknown woman,” again in her voice, prayerful repetition and balance, as she traces the boy's “fast and breathless” ascent along sky-reaching Kilvey:


The boy climbs the hill,
Climbs the Everest
Of all his thoughts,
Climbs the huge shadow
In all his poems,
Climbs to its black spine
As high as the clouds,
Climbs, fast and breathless,
To the adventures
Promised by the sky,
To the day's freedom.

“Climbs” sounds, a repeated, distant flute-note, that signals the ambivalence of his poet's life, as in the far distance: “...the huge shadow/In all his poems,” as it also takes him “To the adventures/ Promised by the sky.” The ascent, then, his baptism through fiercely engaged reality, yet one “As high as the clouds.”


“The unknown man” speaks next in clipped hammer fall of generally single words, the two stanzas like narrow paths the boy follows through his Swansea ramblings, which includes, “Bright docks,/ The Bay,” where always. “Kilvey/Shadows/ Its world,/ Shadows/ The boy's/ Mountain/ Of dreams.” Both “unknown” speakers more than recording onlookers, often comforting companions, yet those, who both encourage and alert.


We meet the boy for the first time, his entrance framed by the voices and chronicles of place of the two prior speakers, in a truly Wordsworthian fashion, who sees his Swansea world from the breathless heights of Kilvey and is also anointed “Poet,” through the free-fall of transforming human imagination:


Through the binoculars of my curled hands,
I see ghost-white Moby Dick breach the sea
And smash a tanker slower than a snail,
Then drown it in a frenzied snowy whirl
I watch its shadow submarine away.


I am a giant above Port Tennant;
One stride and I could wade through Swansea Bay
And lift Mumbles Lighthouse like a skittle.
I could stand in the fields of Grenfell Park
And blow and blow the rows of roofs away.


“I am a giant above Port Tennant,” or anything his imagination allows him to be, except one to touch The Lion's Head, indeed a descecration, for as The unknown woman murmurs: “But not this dark child bothered by the myth/ That one touch would pull the sun down the sky/ And blister to a cinder all the world.”


His “world,” a council house under Kilvey Hill, where he lives out his days with The grandmother and The grandfather, having lost both his mother and father in childhood, the mother having run off, the father lost at sea. And the boy, in an introspective moment, and “almost whispering,” confides in us in a voice already harnessed in a poet's use of meter, union of sound and sense, balance of ten syllable lines, iambic and anapestic feet, concluding with prayer-like antiphonal calls to heaven, and with metaphors that indeed “ferry across” the very face of life:

 
A mother's kiss must be as soft as water
And a father's hug as strong as a tree;
A mother's kiss must be fresh as the grass
And a father's laugh as free as the wind.


Where is my wild-haired runaway mother?
Where is my sea-loving Sinbad father?


And as he speaks, I hear a soft runnel of flute melody to mime the heart's yearning and plea, its fissured fiber of heart tissue. And we hear as well single-line assertions from the four characters, each introduced, by what is now, their identifying thematic notes. First The unknown woman: “I could kiss away the sulk from his lips”; The unknown man, simply, “I could untie all the knots in his thoughts.” And the grandparents offer love. We hear a wise grandmother, “My love is giving his body shelter.” And The grandfather, as Peter insists speaks “in ragged ramblings of war-wreathed truths,” adds to the tonal melancholy, “My love is giving the pain he will know.” This becomes the pattern of all that is to follow in “this narrative of impending grief,” yet simultaneously, “.. .the story of the need for love.” We are witness to uncommon poetry and characters, their closely held lives together, woven like the very fabric of our human journey, the chiaroscuro of all our days: work of a remarkable poet's vision and music, held securely in the creel of the ear.


I feel Peter insists the boy will be consecrated Poet, only if like Dante, he experiences Hell as place--and without the guidance of a Vergil. Darkest Hell is here too, as local myth tells us, a seemingly endless recess in Kilvey Hill, aptly called The Devil's Cave, that place so vividly described by The unknown man, here speaking as one about to alert the boy, prepare him for his own, “dark night of the soul”:


The Devil's Cave, dark mouth
Of an old dying man;
The Devil's Cave, dribbling
Water sickened with rust;
The Devil's Cave, dark gasp
That's frozen forever;
The Devil's Cave that leads
To the boy's last nightmare.
That leads to hell-faced death.


The boy will enter the Devil's Cave, where he tells us, “.. .the Devil sits in there,” but only through the corridor of imagination, unprepared for what local myth has woven, having loved too deeply and for too long, the things of this world. We find him again on Kilvey Hill, at the Cave entrance, meditating. The unknown man is there to tell us of the boy's ambivalence, both need to make the journey and the terror of passage, as he says in a heavily accented couplet, “The small boy stands outside The Devil's Cave,/ Its darkness calls his fears to its core.”


We then hear the boy, “nervously,” his voice that of a “palimpsest,” his body of imagined imagery, superimposed upon that of the local myths that have walked with him, all these Kilvey ascents. And we must not ignore his emerging poet's need for the “cage of form,” two finely drawn sestets, each line held in ten syllables:


The big boys say the Devil sits in there,
Sits at its end where no-one's ever reached.
He waits for boys who walk too far inside,
Blinded by boasts and teased by shouted dares.
He waits to throw his black cloak on their souls.

If I shout my name he'll catch its echo
And cast a spell on me and all my life.
He sits in his cul-de-sac of coldness,
As worshiping rats gather at his hooves,
Surrounded by the bones of children lost.


“And cast a spell on me and all my life.” He will leave the encounter, where he will be, “Surrounded by the bones of children lost,” as he will leave rubbing the earth-devouring Lion's Head to the sacred vessel of imagination and memory, as if pauses in his ambulatory Swansea life, this dual vision of ascent-descent. The unknown woman sees this clearly, as she comments in pentameter lines, “He stands like a Sherpa who has conquered/ The mountain in his life and in his mind.” And she concludes in lines within that same Robert Frost-like, “freedom in harness,” “His world unfolds below the hill's rough steepness,/ The house, the dying Grand-dad, and his Gran.” And how I applaud the poet's boldness in having The unknown woman see the boy as a “Sherpa,” a Tibetan mountaineer, and here in Swansea: more of the universal haul-seining of poetry, always after the hid pulse in things, their inherent oneness.


And before he comes to rest in the council house with “the dying Grand-dad, and his Gran,” he pauses in Danygraig Cemetery, and in one of the poem's most lyrical moment, as he is “singing,” in four closed couplets, the rhymes indeed “language's ache for union,” as Richard Wilbur insists, in music as if a benediction, he intones:


Weep flowers, weep
For all the people buried deep.


Sigh tall trees, sigh
For all the prayers sent to the sky.

Pray strange day, pray
For all the grief that's gone away.


Sleep dead ones, sleep
For all the sad songs time shall reap.


And then more compass rhumb-line than onlooker, The unknown man tracks in terse, unrhymed couplets the boy's flight, after the solemn pause:


The boy runs and runs
Along the rough path
Behind the drab row
Of council houses.
He passes his home,
The house where death waits
For his grandfather,
The broken hero.


And back to Peter's November 2008 letter: “There is much of me and what made me a poet, in it.” This helps explain why the boy in his solitary wanderings, even “Behind the drab row/Of council houses,” is sacred vessel, human repository for all of Swansea life: its people, their prayers and terrors, and above all place, from which the boy-Poet is birthed. We hear in The grandmother's thoughts, “I wish the boy would let me see his pain,/ The thoughts of darkness always in his eyes/...He is the life I never felt inside.” And for The grandfather, the boy is “The shadow of my childhood on the hill/ ...the freedom cry I never cried.”


He stands as passive, submerged self also for The unknown woman, who confesses how “He is the fox uneasy in my soul“; and for The unknown man, “He is my outcast that the black night stole.” I must add, he is, even at this early age, the unbirthed poet there in us, swirling in our amniotic fluids, struggling to break free.


And this may not be a deliberate echo, but in the character of the boy, Peter Thabit Jones ports us back centuries to the Chinese critic-army officer, Lu Chi (261-300) and to his enduring study of poetry, the duties of the poet, his remarkable work, Wen Fu. He tells us initially how, “The poet stands at the center of the universe contemplating the Enigma.” He may also be describing the boy's essential self and calling: “contemplating the Enigma” that is both Kilvey Hill, the people, and forever beckoning place that is Swansea, so well depicted in the lives and far-reaching yearnings of The grandmother, The grandfather, The unknown woman, The unknown man, as well as the endless sauntering of the boy. I deliberately use the word sauntering to characterize the boy's wanderings, evoking the etymological "ghost" hidden in the word: along a sacred place. His world, indeed this “sacred place,” not unlike Danygraig Cemetery, for which he intones, “Pray strange day, pray.”


And Lu Chi concludes about the poet's calling: “Eyes closed, he hears an inner music....And then the inner voice grows clearer as objects become defined; and he pours forth the essence of words...brings up living words like fishes hooked in their gills....Heaven and earth are held in the cage of form.” The boy's recitation of place names always Yeats' “...much the way a mother says the names of her children,” and always place he anoints with both his presence and intonations. For after The unknown woman discovers how, “The boy's world throbs/ In his drama,” such a pronouncement is directly followed by the boy's litany of place—and he is “shouting,” the stanza a long furrow, and not unlike the etymological definition of verse, from the Latin versare, "to turn, as of a plow at the end of a furrow." And he forever “plowing” the body and spirit of Kilvey Hill, the Swansea world below, looming in the Hill's sunlight and shadow:


Swansea Bay!
The Lighthouse!
Saint Thomas!
Baldwin's Beach!
All the docks!
Port Tennant!
Danygraig!
Cranfield's Shop!
Grafog Lane!
The Canal
And the Gyp!
Crymlyn Bog!
Forty Steps!
Kilvey Hill!
Cajo's Farm
And the Cem!
The Quarries!
Giant's Palm!
The Devil’s Cave!
The Windmill!
Crymlyn Woods
And the farms!


All of place is here and acknowledged but the boy's very nemesis of scorn, what may be for him ineffable. We then hear both The grandfather, “shouting,” and The grandmother, “almost whispering”: “The Lion's Head!” “The Lion's Head.” And the boy, almost reluctantly, “slowly and nervously,” adds: “The...Lion's...Head.”


And the boy, this emerging poet, is certainly one to hold heaven and earth “in the cage of form.” Just recall his perfectly crafted five closed rhyming couplets, indeed “language's ache for union,” of his Danygraig Cemetery meditation, in which he indeed cradles “heaven and earth”; and there is the furrow we just walked along with him, the boy as steady as a compass rhumb-line. And, I'm sure, if we were to make a comprehensive study of verse form housing his poetry, in murmurs, intonations, shouts, calls to the inner self, we would find the ideal aspiration in all of poetry: content wed ideally, appropriately--even in its effortless simplicity--to “the cage of form.” I magine Lu Chi smiling, his eyeline, an interminable furrow to Swansea, Wales from China.


And like his “cage of form,” miraculously holding “heaven and earth” the boy knows, and soul-deep, just how tenuous is our hold of things; for as we begin to close down on the lengthy poem, The Lion's Head emerges again and again to both torment and challenge the boy: catastrophe and planetary destruction always this arm's length away. And because of this, his peripatetic journey through life, the very furrow reeled out of him must be often imbedded in terror: The Lion's Head always his sauntering's palimpsest. We overhear The unknown man, “His scared thoughts are covered by black poppies,/ He sees a sky like a roof of a cave/ And the rock lion standing in its hell.” Of course, the “black poppies” are returning images in his grandfather's conversation with an imminent death, his chant-like intonation, “Craters of dead.”


But it is The Lion's Head that the boy addresses, his ongoing conversation with all of life's inevitable final silence, even of its “tugging heather”:

 
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.


Yet there remains something in the boy, not unlike Seamus Heaney's Orpheus, “who must haul back up life against the slopes, in spite of all the contrary evidence,” he remains prepared to celebrate life's seeming permanence, its far-reaching vision and promise. For he answers boldly a “weeping” grandfather, his ongoing conversation with life's dark trenches, with “The ghosts of his comrades [that] surrounded his bed,” and from this bed, a death-call: “The world is reddened with poppies, the blood of young heroes' bodies.” Here, indeed, we hear a young lad, but suggesting something of a resurrected Christ:


But I can fly as fast as Superman
And catch the giant red ball of the sun,
And place it in the sky and save the world:
And hurry home to my house for tea.


After this act of worldly salvation, he will once again immerse himself in the pristine commonplace and human, “And hurry home to my house for my tea.” He will find, though, in that modest council house, in his loving grandparents, deeply fissured human beings, divided selves. We first hear The grandmother in an eight line, pentameter stanza with anapestic, iambic, and spondaic feet, and four lines beginning with the melancholy, flute-note melody, “There are days,” that direct us to her deepest shade of self, concluding with the impending death of one she truly loves, her husband:


There are days when my heart feels like a rock,
Like the lion of rock on Kilvey Hill.
There are days when the sun falls from the sky
And my world is as dead as No-Man's Land.
There are days when my memories can't run
Because mounds of dead poppies block their way.
There are days when my thoughts sit in a cave
And the magpies peck at my dying love.


It is indeed a threnody for life's “Enigma,” for the very heartbreak at the heart of things. The grandfather is just as wounded as we hear him “singing,” in four iambic trimeter closed couplets, the rigged “cage of form,” holding his love song, set against the Swansea of his youth, yet one that ends in death of the loved one:

 
I fished in Swansea Bay
And caught her love that day.

I searched in Crymlyn Wood
And found her love was good.

I looked in Devil's Cave
And saw her love was grave.

I touched the Lion's Head
And felt my love was dead.


How seemingly permanent his evocation of both the Swansea of his youth and his life's true love, punctuated by chapel-still, repetitious, “I fished.…/I searched.…/I looked..../I touched.…” Yet, he too, along with his wife and grandson, is governed by the daunting shade of myth and memory of the looming Lion's Head. I can only imagine what a flute melody could do with the caul of terror woven by such a governing tactile-visual image in this play for voices.


Immediately following these elegiac chants of human immersion in life's contradicting self, we find The boy, “taking a sheet of paper from his trouser-pocket and reading it.” This will be The boy's longest utterance, one of forty-two lines, a skein of rhyming couplets, with the piece he reads from, of his own making, and called, “The Boy and the Lion's Head.”


It is a narrative from his Kilvey Hill life, one significant enough to be saved--possibly his earliest attempt at writing--and on a “sheet of paper,” safe there in a “trouser pocket.” We find him on a Sunday along Kilvey Hill, “By the rock shaped like a lion,” beckoned by a solitary man, whose “...rough clothes labelled him a tramp.” And then the shrill cry to a bewildered boy: “ ‘Come touch the Lion's Head,’ he said,/ Shout, ‘Great white eye you're red and dead,’ /And the stunned sun shall loudly fall/ Down on the town's brown streets that sprawl, /By the sea.”


For the boy, such an encounter, “.. .unlocked fear like a key. /His grin was like a killer's knife/... .My groin felt stabs of pain like glass.” And he ran, ran, ran, “...from that dreadful man./ Over the wall, into our back,/ I hammered our door. Crack. Crack. Crack.” The recall, is possibly his initial attempt as wordsmith; the encounter with the “tramp,” his command to touch The Lion's Head, bring down the sun, is then a terrifying reality. It is, however, one dismissed by his forlorn, unsettled, enigma-assaulted grandparents, as another, out-of-control Kilvey Hill fantasy, meditation of cosmic annihilation. The bewildered boy concludes, what has been his longest most finely crafted passage, with:


I stared coldly at our fire:
The glaring coals shouted, “Liar!”
I went and stretched out on my bed,
Touched an imagined Lion's Head.
The magic words I softly said
And closed my eyes from falling red.


To the final moments of this remarkable play for five voices, The boy remains Lu Chi's notion of the Poet, as, “Eyes closed, he hears an inner music.... And then the inner voice grows clearer as objects become defined....And he pours forth his essence of words...like fishes hooked in their gills.” Even at such an early age, and in the face of such a cryptic world, he casts a broad net, haul-seining for words, already as language supplicant. So we clearly see just what its author, Peter Thabit Jones meant in that letter from Swansea: “There is much of me and what made me a poet, in it."“And he concludes, as we find ourselves closest to the very essence of the man, “Ultimately, for me at least, it is the story of the need for love.”


And in one of the boy's final human calls, this heartfelt need to “touch,” run one's solemnly directed hand over life without a Lion's Head, in a voice we have grown so accustomed to, prayer-like in its parallel cadences: “Old woman, touch me with the hand of a mother./ Old man, touch me with the hand of a father.”


But The grandfather, sensing the imminence of death, with “Death the bride and all her grooms are wed,” this final consummation in a chant of five, rhyme-woven couplets, each concluding with a singular line, holding his life's dark certainty: “Angel's wings are broken in the mud,” indeed, a life-riddled, hushed murmur, repeated five times. He is now ready to cross over to the other side, as he was the young man drowning in the blood-filled trenches of his World War 1, seminal, indeed eternal, darkest corner of the human heart.


The grandmother, his constant witness-companion and courage-teacher, senses his long anticipated departure, the shiver of isolation and loss she will soon live through, says “tenderly,” held again in the modest couplets of her life's companion:


My young soldier sleeps
On a bed of poppies;
The soldier lies
On a cold bed of... (she hesitates)


True, “she hesitates,” unwilling to imagine, utter aloud, his very deathbed.


But we are then privy to his final moments, his life-hold, with the verse drama's overlooking, omniscient locals or Spirits: The unknown man, “The old woman screams out her husband's name”; The unknown woman, “She screams in a room that's cold with his death.” This is immediately followed by The boy's final words, appropriately “crying,” the heartache held in a brief rhyming couplet of spondaic and anapestic feet: “Don't fall from the sky!/ Don't let the world die!” We hear, then, this plea for deliverance and salvation, both for The grandfather and the world he is about to turn from. And again, The boy is indeed the Poet, as these brief end rhymes, are union of sonic-semantic promise of language. And we cannot dismiss the accompanying flute notes, this passacaglia, this caul of haunting melody defining the four characters, their ambulatory, Swansea lives, so much like The boy, both ascent and descent, with always the spector of life's "Enigma."


The verse drama's final voices are that of The unknown man, The unknown woman, concluding with, “as if in the distance,” the “voice” of the departed grandfather, who more than all others understands that, “The shadow of night wants to come.” Through the patient eyes of The unknown man, we have one final look at The grandmother, her mournful soul-weary staggering: “She shuts out the life of the unkind day, / She shuts out the world to guard her new grief.”


And we trace The boy, the very end of his formative days, in the Swansea letter, “powered by the power of childhood myth and the old man's ragged ramblings of war-wreathed truths.” into “the death-changed house.” and The unknown woman follows his ascent: “He rushes up the stairs to his made bed/And his heart breaks in the terrible moments."


The boy's heartbreak, again the very heartbreak at the heart of things, his grief over losing a grandfather, the boy's entire life, then, this death-watch, impregnates the natural world surrounding him, his immersion as if in a fount of holy water. Before The grandfather's Spirit's concluding eulogy, heard, “as if in the distance,” we pause and patiently listen to the verse play's companion, all-knowing voices, in ways its Vergil, The unknown man and The unknown woman.


Again, I must insist this, for as Peter Thabit Jones tells me, “I wrote it for radio, but it could be staged, ideally with music." I have seen this remarkable verse play for five voices as indeed “staged, ideally with music.” We, then, conclude as we began, our stage The grandfather's bedroom, where, “The soldier lies/ On a cold bed of [a death caress.]” We, however, find, again seated indiscriminately, The boy silent, staring at his deceased grandfather; The grandmother, rocking, weeping, as she does; The unknown man, The unknown woman, both sitting erect speaking, their words riding the melancholy lamentations of flute notes, so much a part of their life-songs. And the stage's backdrop is Kilvey Hill, its chiaroscuro nature, and looming, narrative presence.


First The unknown man, “Kilvey,/A hill,/ Two minds/ With its/ Darkness,” indeed true, but a restricted angle of vision. And The unknown woman, dare tells us their shared world absorbing, yet anointing their common grief, life's eternal melody, now “broken songs”:


A row of houses
Dwarfed by a shadow;
The distant docks ache
With their broken songs;
The black canal drinks
The sun's religion;
Crymlyn Woods catches
The breath of Kilvey;
The gulls drop voices
Drowned in Swansea Bay;
In Danygraig Cem
Flowers weep cold names.


This is indeed a world pleached by its very enigmatic nature and being, one where “....docks ache/ With their broken songs;/ The black canal drinks/ The sun's religion.” And we learn, even in the serenity and comforting certainty of Danygraig Cemetery, “Flowers weep cold names.” The five character's struggling ascent through a world they know as the “commanplace,” has been a long journey. And we are reminded of the American poet, Theodore Roethke: “Lord, hear me, and hear me out this day/ From me to Thee's a long and a terrible way.”


And as they all sit in that death-room, staring--I'm sure of this--into the crucifixion-fissured face of a recently deceased grandfather, they are suddenly silent, breathless and solemn, “as if in the distance,” and first introduced by a flute passage, one heard before, they hear The grandfather's “voice,” and only fitting as he alone in the verse drama has spent most of his grief-plagued life in death's shadow: his, then, and the play's final voice.


I sense he is about to attempt to put to rest the Enigma, the ever-present touch of cosmic annihilation in The Lion's Head foreboding embodiment, and just above them on Kilvey Hill, set against the reverential Swansea world below. First, though, the introductory flute melody of clashing, discordant then serenely, soft melodic themes. And all is still; and from some far-off place in things, certainly not there, “in a bed of poppies,” possibly out of a cluster of the Rose of Jericho, flowers fragrant in the heaven's orchards of the spheres, wind-blown and star-bruised, we hear what must be The grandfather's voice, this attempt at reconciliation of life's discordant, yet somehow all-of-a-piece and serenely haunting thusness:


The shadow of night wants to come,
Longer and deeper than a trench,
More darker than The Devil's Cave.
They'll cry in their cold cold corners.
And the beautiful sun will come,
The silent roar of a lion,
To dry the small bay of their tears,
To warm the big hill of their love.


I must say, I have never read anything like this: seemingly random human assertions, lamentations, spontaneous chants; yet the verse drama remains seamless in its verbal texture, in its balanced, often antiphonal metrical design. Nothing is wasted. Every call or cry or meditation in this “poem for five characters” is heard, come to settle in a grateful reader, forever there, in the larder of the heart. Putting down this manuscript sent from Swansea Wales by Swansea's own Peter Thabit Jones, I feel in my deepest self, a man, many times blessed, indeed anointed.



© Copyright Vince Clemente 2016