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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

We Are Wounded by Birth and Bleed to Death

This is an essay I wrote for my ENG COMP II class

Death is all metaphors, shape in one history;
The child that sucketh long is shooting up,
(Thomas, “Altarwise” 80)

There is no easy reading here in the gloaming owl-light; this is poetry deep and dark, wherein the poet obfuscates and distorts as much as he reveals and illuminates. “Altarwise by Owl-Light” is a difficult poem written by a mature (though a young) poet, an established poet who’s “earned the right” to write so obliquely “by first attracting an audience of readers, editors and publishers with less difficult poems” (Rooser 3).  This is the work of a poet writing as much himself as for his audience.  “My poetry,” says the poet, “is, or should be useful to me for one reason: it is the record of my individual struggle from the darkness toward some measure of light” (Jones 196).  If his words should illuminate our individual darknesses, well, that is well and good as well.

Dylan Thomas was a Welsh poet of the 20th century, born Dylan Marlais Thomas in Swansea, Wales, in the year 1914.  He died young, a mere two weeks after his 39th birthday, in New York of pneumonia exacerbated by his alcoholism.  These dates are recorded here, not as mere biographical data, but as both the bookends and context of his writing.  Much of Thomas’ poetry concerns birth and death.  His most popular works (which are among his more accessible works) are about Death: “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” in which the poet exhorts his dying father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Thomas, “Do Not” 128), and the poem “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” in which Death’s power and finality are denied by the poet.
And Death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
 (Thomas, “And Death” 77)

But it isn't death alone that fascinates Thomas; birth, too, holds him enthralled, for there can be no death without first being born.  In his poem “Before I Knocked,” Thomas writes of his birth as the beginning of his eventual and inevitable death. The poet is wounded by birth and bleeds to death.

I, born of flesh and ghost, was neither
A ghost nor a man, but mortal ghost.
And I was struck down by death’s feather.
I was mortal to the last
Long breath that carried to my father
the message of his dying Christ.

You who bow down at cross and altar,
Remember me and pity Him
Who took my flesh and bone for armour
And doublecrossed my mother’s womb.
(Thomas, “Before I Knocked” 9)

The ten stanzas of Thomas’ “Altarwise By Owl-Light” are unrhymed sonnets that can be read biographically as an account of Thomas’ life, “beginning with his begetting” and proceeding through his childhood and proceeding through the poet’s life (Riley 9). And “In the beginning” it was dark, except perhaps for flickering candle light: “Altarwise by owl-light in the half-way house / The gentleman lay graveward with his furies” (Thomas, “Altarwise” 80).  In the dim twilight of the half-way house that is his mother’s womb, the yet unborn poet is already facing “graveward” toward death.

Then, being birthed, the poet unleashes a torrent of images, allusions, and wordplay that all but overwhelms the reader.  Biblical allusions are frequent, piling up, one atop another from Adam (in Genesis, the first book of scripture) to Abaddon (in Revelation, the final).  Thomas also draws his images from Greek legends (“his furies” in stanza I, “sirens” in stanza V and “odyssey” and “river of the dead” in stanza IX), Roman poets (“white bear quoted Virgil” in stanza V), and American literature (“Rip Van Winkle” in stanza III, and “Jonah’s Moby” (that is, Moby Dick) in stanza V) and weaves them together with animals, card games, the human body, and his own idiosyncratic word play in which the words themselves become “generators of meaning” (Scutts 6) to create an impressionistic description of the journey from birth to death.

“I make one image,” says the poet, “though ‘make’ is not the right word; I let, perhaps, an image be ‘made’ emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make, of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict” (Dylan Thomas).  And there is conflict within the poem.  The images clash against one another throwing up both sparks of illuminating light and obscuring smoke.  Meaning is both revealed and hidden; the poet giveth and the poet taketh away.

“Altarwise by Owl-Light” is not a straight poem, a narrative poem; it is not a poem that is easily read and understood.  It is complex and contradictory.  It is dense and obscure.  It is alternatingly wonderful and worrisome, bawdy and beautiful.  It is, like life, “As tarred with blood as the bright thorns I wept” (Thomas, “Altarwise 84).  And, again like life, it may still not make much sense when it ends, but there is something within of hope and life and “…resurrection in the desert … With stones of odyssey for ash and garland / And rivers of the dead around my neck” (Thomas, “Altarwise” 85).  We are born; we will die, but in-between those painful bloody bookends is something complex and beautiful.

Works Cited:
"Dylan Thomas." Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web.
Jones, Daniel ed. The Poetry of Dylan Thomas New York, James Laughlin. 1971.
Riley, Linda L. "The Word Made Flesh: Dylan Thomas' "Altarwise By Owl-Light""
Diss. Texas Tech U, 1973. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
Rooser, Ted. The Poetry Home Repair Manual. Lincoln, NE. University of Nebraska Press. 2005.
Scutts, Julian. "Altarwise by Owl-light" by Dylan Thomas: What Is a Rude Red Tree? N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Apr. 2015.
Thomas, Dylan. “Altarwise By Owl-Light,” Collected Poems 1934 – 1952.
New York, New Directions Books. 1971.
Thomas, Dylan. “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” Collected Poems 1934 – 1952.
New York, New Directions Books. 1971.
Thomas, Dylan. “Before I Knocked,” Collected Poems 1934 – 1952.
New York, New Directions Books. 1971.
Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” Collected Poems 1934 – 1952.
New York, New Directions Books. 1971.

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