THE POET, THE HUNCHBACK, AND THE BOY by Peter Thabit Jones
The Welsh Centre, London, 28th May, 2013
Performed by members of Swansea Little Theatre and directed and produced by Dreena Morgan-Harvey
of the Dylan Thomas Theatre, Swansea
Steve and I made it to the London Welsh Club last night and we're very pleased that we did! Your play was absolutely spellbinding. All 3 actors gave an amazing performance which really did justice to the wonderful alliterative poetry of the script.
I found myself scribbling down some of the phrases that moved or delighted me: dearest dives of Swansea, blur of a bar, secret scribbling, my incurable disease - poetry, nurses...sitting virginal as fresh flowers, posh Cwmdonkin Park, swans...mad tantrum of their wings, the arrow target of their jokes, hair will waterfall down and soothe this crooked pain.
Recurring images developed and united the scenes: the spotlights, nurses, perfect poems and perfect woman, boy, man, bread.
I liked the religious imagery of Christ on the cross, the virgin, Sodom, my incurable disease, bread, angelic dreams, the depths of my grave, Adam and Eve, choir.
These wove seamlessly into the social observation: outcast, lonely, posh, smoky, dingy, work, factory floor, docks, sailors, oil tankers, cenotaph.
The use of proper names gives the play a particular power: Swansea, Cwmdonkin, Sodom, Kardomah, Christ, Frankenstein, Keats, Romeo & Juliet, Quasimodo, Adam & Eve.
HEY MISTER TJ, you've written a perfect play!
AMERICAN REVIEW - The Lizard Catchers
Published by Cross-Cultural Communications, New York
ISBN Number: 0893048658
REVIEWED BY JOSELLE VANDERHOOFT
Published in The Pedestal Magazine USA
Welsh writer Peter Thabit Jones's latest poetry collection, The Lizard Catchers, concerns itself with small things and the small moments of life: ivy climbing a wall, snow melting, the ugly mystique of frogs, lunching in a noisy city pub and, of course, a boyhood quest to capture the small reptiles mentioned in the title. Generally speaking, the thirty-four poems in this collection are also small, in terms of length; most are shorter than a page, and a few less than ten lines. But there is nothing small about Jones's vision or his profound humanity, both of which shine through his musings on such universal subjects as grief, mortality and the innocent cruelty of children, for which his small, everyday subjects serve as unusual and striking portals.
Many of the poems in The Lizard Catchers are set against the backdrop of Jones's native Wales, a landscape that is beautiful, mysterious and sometimes even cozy in the way a hometown feels after several years of living there. Yet nothing feels quaint about the affection Jones obviously feels for Wales in such poems as "Cajo's Farm," 'Weller' and Burning Waste' (here reproduced in full). Here his language can be deceptively simple, each word chosen as carefully as seeds for planting, and the images he creates make his country appear before the reader in all its wild, harsh beauty:
The bonfire flares,
Shredding the black night.
The wooden bones crack.
Smoke, salt-white, departs,
On its self-made tracks.
The wax faces of children
Are buttered with firelight.
But not all of the poems in The Lizard Catchers are joyful paeans. Jones also sees a darker side of living in his country, which includes painful events he (or at least the persona in some of his poems) experienced, such as a last visit with a dying loved one in 'Home,' the anonymous, noisy loneliness of being in public in "Lunch in a City Pub," the cruelty of children towards innocent animals in "Bunker Frog," and a young man's realization that old age will some day claim him in "A Clock Ticking and an Old Man." Of these more melancholy poems, the collection's true standout is the longer poem "The Cold Cold Corner," a piece in six parts (titled after a line from Edwin Muir's poem "The Child Dying") which Jones wrote for his deceased son, Matthew. It is a profound and highly personal meditation on different stages of grieving as told through the impressions of time and landscape a grieving person often notices most strikingly: changes in weather from warm to cold, the barrenness of nature and the wordlessness of keeping watch over a grave. From the first section, "Bereavement":
Your head is full of trees
And the leaves have fallen.
Your eyes are full of lakes
And the water's frozen.
Your ears are full of birds
And the songs are stolen.
Your mouth is full of skies
And the clouds are ashen.
Your heart is full of fields
And the grass is barren.
Your soul is full of hills
And the paths are broken .
Your life is full of caves
And the dark is open.
It is not Jones's subject matter alone that makes him a strong poet and his work exemplary. He is an extraordinary poet because he understands, and utilizes, devices and techniques many poets today downplay or discard entirely: namely, rhyme (both external and internal) and meter. As the above quotation may indicate, a poem's rhythm is important to Jones: each line has exactly six syllables and the same pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables, which gives the first section of "The Cold Cold Corner" a cadence which feels as grave and measured as a dirge. Jones employs his understanding of meter throughout The Lizard Catchers, in such poems as "My Grandfather's Razor," "Volunteer Work: Special Needs" (a poem about working with special-needs children written in iambic pentameter) and "Watching the Sea: Swansea Bay."
In an age when rhyme is often considered the trademark of an unimaginative poet, or the worst kind of doggerel verse, Jones is also brave enough to use external rhymes in many of his poems, most strikingly in "The Boy and the Lion's Head," a poem about a young boy's terrifying encounter with a lion-shaped rock in Swansea, South Wales. Told from the boy's perspective, the poem uses a combination of hard and soft rhyme to create a feeling of running, and of rising dread:
One Sunday, I crossed Kilvey Hill
And saw a strange, thin man sat still,
By the rock shaped like a lion,
Above Tir John Power Station:
As private as a Nazi camp.
His rough clothes labelled him a tramp.
He beckoned me to join him there,
But I was frozen like a hare.
"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." His voice frightened me.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jones also uses his ear for rhyme to create poetry for children. A few such poems are included near the end of the book, along with another painting by Nick Holly, the cover artist, which details the boys in the title poem shouting in triumph after they have captured the lizards. These seven "bonus" poems further showcase Jones' talent by showing him at his most wide-eyed and innocent, and they are to a poem witty and entirely charming. None, however, is as breathtaking as "Spring", a four line concrete poem which provides visuals of the land waking up after a long winter sleep, such as a breeze "b I o w i n g" [each letter in a larger point size] and a cat "c. . r. . e. .e. . p. . i. . n. .g." Elementary teachers who read this collection would do well to inquire about using these and any of Jones's other children's poems in their classrooms, as they illustrate the mechanics of poetry and truly speak to children's sense of wonder.
At times joyous and at times melancholy, The Lizard Catchers is an excellent new collection from one of Wales's premier poets. Not only for fans of world literature (and literature from the United Kingdom, in particular), it is also a desirable collection for any reader who appreciates well-crafted language and the skilful employment of traditional techniques.
Joselle Vanderhooft, The Pedestal Magazine USA
WELSH BOOKS COUNCIL REVIEW - The Lizard Catchers
Gwales.com REVIEW BY CLARE MAYNARD
(With the permission of the Welsh Books Council)
'The recipient of several awards for his work - which includes six other collections of poetry and one collection of short stories - Peter Thabit Jones' new body of poems is diverse and touching, thanks to his sensitive yet powerful use of language.
The leading poem 'The Lizard Catchers' has many astute and succinct observations. He captures well those small moments in human life that are profound and potent. The powerful 'Psalm for the twentieth century' is a heartfelt poem about environmental damage -
'Blessed is the bird that is no longer heard'.
There is a very concise and sincere tribute to R.S.Thomas in 'The Priest-Poet':
'The sweet birds, the peasanted hills/ That housed their heavens
and their hells.'
With his wide range of subject matter and his dynamic way of representing intense emotions, his beautifully crafted poems engage us in the real world. There is a selection of poems for children towards the end of the book, all lively and concise, including the emotive 'Some people in other lands'. Overall, this is an intelligent and interesting collection of poems - definitely to be opened often.'
AMAZON.COM REVIEW - The Lizard Catchers
A first American edition, poetry for grown-ups and children, by ‘the new Dylan” from Swansea, Wales. It made an incredible impact on the audiences during the first Dylan Thomas Tribute Tour of America, Spring 2008, since the death of Dylan in 1953. Peter Thabit Jones has been established as a poet of stones and sunshine, a remarkable synthesis, which both inspires and enlightens, a new powerful, humanistic voice from Wales.
ROMANIAN REVIEW - The Boy and the Lion's Head, a verse drama
THE WAY OF INITIATION TO KILVEY HILL by Liviu Comşia
Review of THE BOY AND THE LION’S HEAD by Peter Thabit Jones, published by Citadela, Satu Mare, Romania, 2009. Introduction by Vince Clemente. Translated by Dr. Olimpia Iacob
The Romanian reader is, definitely, puzzled by such a book as The Boy and the Lion’s Head by Peter Thabit Jones ( Editura Citadela, Satu Mare, 2009, Romanian version: Olimpia Iacob) A verse drama? What else can such a dramatic text tell us? It is a theatrical formula in the past centuries that even then addressed itself rather to some distinguished sensitivities than to the ordinary spectator who wanted to know he focused the attention of the playwright who facilitated his mounting the stage with all the burdens of his life.
It is true that in the epoch verse drama met with success on the Romanian stage. The staging of verse dramas such as “Vlaicu Vodă” by Al.Davila or “Trandafirii Roşii” by Zaharia Bârsan or “Înşir’te mărgărite” by Victor Eftimiu were moments that whirled the life of the theatre. Today, however, for the past two decades, these texts have disappeared from the stage repertoire, becoming chapters in the history of Romanian theatre. There are no other similar dramas to have been written and I have no idea about any attempts made at having revitalized the formula or, well, re-adapted it. The contemporary spectator is less willing to listen to the rhymed or rhythmed speeches in iambus or trochee. He finds it quite obsolete because it does no longer express his life with which time is no longer patient, it is completely technologized, invaded by raw images that remove any Romantic sensitivity.
But, there is, nevertheless, a dramatic formula Welsh poet Peter Thabit Jones (born in 1951 in Swansea, Wales, UK), proposes to us, “adapted”, if we may say so, to the mentality of the show in the XXIst century, with all its anguishes brought about by the growing technical artificiality of existence. Not accidentally does the poet give his poem the subtitle (for it is about a poem after all) “verse drama for five characters”, allowing us to add their nominalization. Because the poet names his characters only generically (The Unknown Man, The Unknown Woman, The Grandfather, the Grandmother, the Boy), a formula often met with the contemporary playwrights that “stick”, therefore, to the spectators become co-authors, pushing the stage development towards generalization. Peter Thabit Jones also does it, but, as we will see, in a direction different from the one we are used to and , of course, with unusual consequences.
In a letter to Vince Clemente (who also comments on the dramatic text) the poet writes:
“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 make 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.”
The very introduction of some daily elements, of our mentality and perceptions, that explain the actual setting where the community by Kilvey Hill lives its life, are able to make possible the understanding, the coming nearer to the word essence. Kilvey Hill is not only a simple form of relief, it is what once the Greeks called Olymp, where the life surrounding it flows according to the laws of nature and within their framework. The hill is both a witness and a participant at the same time, in all the moments of existence, or even more, it guards and confirms their existence in time:
The hill I climbed and climbed as a small girl:
Kilvey, where I found each moment’s freedom.
All the characters without exception are in one way or another related to this Hill: it is here that they were born, that they suffered, that they loved, later on giving the poems “the raw matter” to pass over the centuries the image of their life, as it was fated by destiny. Even the apocalyptic fancy of the Old Man comes into being here, too, and becomes frightful as any end of civilization and world.
As a matter of fact, we speak about the initiation way of a child who moves away from Kilvey Hill in quest of the essential force of life. The grandparents’ wisdom is but the staff against which he props:
My love is giving his body shelter.
My love is giving the pain he will know.
The boy lives between two questions that increase the enigma. His parents are enveloped with the veil of mystery.
Where is my wild-haired runaway mother?
Where is my sea-loving Sinbad-father?
As we can see, the clearing up of the existential mystery is an invading, eternal, enslaving attempt that makes use of all the human qualities. The knowing of the Evil, for instance, not accidentally introduced by the Unknown Man, produces dramatic moments, prosodicalLy supported at high tensions by the poet:
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 a boy’s last nightmare,
That leads to hell-faced death.
In all this initiation journey the Boy is guided by the Unknown Man and the Unknown Woman, to all appearances two characters, in reality only one in two guises, that sequentially share their initiation path. The Boy asks himself:
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?
The Unknown people know the answer that is in man. It is the boy’s song that lets us know it:
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.
Though the temptation is great we are not willing to come up to Ulysis, who first drew the way to initiation. Maybe to Joyce. But for all of them there remains the fascination of the mythical process of initiation which man begins once he is born and ends it as soon as he passes away. Even Peter Thabit Jones, who writes his artistic biography through the Boy, does not make any exception. He, the Poet, crosses this way to discover “the Lion’s Head” in a dramatic clash between himself and the enigma itself. Here there is no golden means: the human qualities are triumphant or, insufficient or not properly used they provoke the tragedy of the end.
The way of knowledge is never a romantic walk. It is always hard, unforeseeable, tragic. The great art of the poet consists in the introduction of those daily elements by which he brings the Boy closer to us. The war, for instance, obsessively recurs because nothing more absurd has ever been invented by man! In a word, I have read a poem that can be performed by each of us. Because each of us covers this way of initiation. Peter Thabit Jones opens the horizon to Kilvey Hill for us, describing by the quasi-totality of the poetic techniques the way he has taken himself to solve the world enigma that is life.