seathumbed leaves: a Wales visitation with the Thomases

The love that M. Wynn Thomas and I share for Walt Whitman crosses oceans. His latest book on Whitman (Transatlantic Connections: Whitman U.S., Whitman U.K.) is an energetic and provocative exploration of the remarkable endurance and continued influence of the poet’s work, breaking boundaries of space and time. Wynn’s Lunar Light of Whitman’s Poetry helped set me on my Whitmanic path in graduate school, and I now recommend this illuminating and passionate portrait of Walt to my own students. When I met Wynn in person this June at the Transatlantic Whitman Symposium, I was pleased and awed to experience the power and connectivity I so keenly feel in his writings. The graduate students attending the session, too, were visibly moved by his fierce dedication to studying, teaching, discussing, and loving Walt Whitman.

Catching up at one of the conference’s many after-hours gatherings, Wynn and I found we shared a similar devotion to teaching as well as dedicated passions to our hometowns. Wynn has been living and teaching in Swansea most of his life—which means that he’s been living with Dylan Thomas. Though Wynn admitted that he had never wanted to teach a single author course on Dylan (though he’s led several Whitman seminars), he knows the poet as a neighbor, a ghost, an obsession, a symbol. Wow, I said shyly. If you show me your Dylan’s Swansea, I’ll show you my Whitman’s New York.

Dylan Thomas stagger-danced back into my life this spring, when I decided to include him in my NYU-London seminar, “Bohemian Ink, Beginnings to Beats.” Our final session focused on Dylan’s poetry and love letters (Kerouac’s scroll, on exhibit in the UK for the first time through January 2009, prompted us to read On the Road first)— and as I attempted to wrestle down a few ideas for class, I realized how challenged I was by these rich and highly crafted poems. It was slippery, shimmery stuff, and I needed and wanted to spend more time with it. So Dylan stayed with me through the summer in Whitman’s New York (accompanying me more than once on strange and sad pilgrimages to the White Horse Tavern, where according to urban legend he drank himself to death in 1953) and then back over to the U.K. in August. Of course I had to write to Wynn. Could I take him up on his offer for a Dylan Thomas tour of Wales? Might we really be able to see the house where everything started, hunchbacked Cwmordin Park—maybe even the boathouse at Laugharne, about an hour’s drive west of Swansea? While New York had spelled the end of Dylan Thomas, Wales was the place where he had written best (and most). And M. Wynn Thomas was the person who could best explicate and demonstrate the importance of this place for this poet.

On the morning of August 11, Wynn greeted me warmly at Swansea’s busy train station—and was hailed in turn by several passers-by as we crossed the High Street to the parking lot. It was a wonderful, breathless thing, to drive with Wynn through streets he knew and loved so well. He chatted easily about Swansea’s troubled history, and pointed out several Dylan-related sites that no longer are. The Blitz had ripped through Swansea’s heart, so instead driving by Dylan’s Kardomah Café we past Castle Street’s bland 1950s structures and big parking lots. The streets teemed with life, though—mothers and children, old folks and droves of students. And when Wynn brought me to the top of Townhill, the city looked like a British version of the Bay of Naples—shinier with industry, perhaps, but just as beautifully situated around the curve of Swansea Bay.


After a fun if unsuccessful search for the Dylan Thomas fountain in Cwmdonkin Park (though we had a good stroll through this hilly green, and stopped to admire the last few lines of “Fern Hill” on a stone: “And I sang in my chains like the sea”), we walked down Uplands Crescent past the Uplands Tavern (“Come back when we’re open, to sit in Dylan’s snug!”) and finally up the steep rise of Cwmdonkin Drive. Here, in the upstairs front bedroom of Number Five , Dylan Marlais Thomas was born on October 27, 1914.

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…

Something magical was bound to happen.


“Do take a look at the gate,” said a tweedy voice, breathily striding towards us from the top of the street. Emlyn Davies’ father had bought the house from the Thomas’, when they moved out in 1938. And Emlyn Davies knew what it felt like to live with the ghost of Dylan Thomas, even more than Wynn in some ways. But this family hadn’t tread cautiously over Dylan’s haunted floorboards: they had made it theirs, “as any family would,” explained Emlyn congenially. His father had been an artisan of some note in the Swansea circuit of the 1940s, and Emlyn had recently gifted his father’s letters to the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth (including some correspondence from the poet David Jones, and one letter from Dylan Thomas himself). What remained was the front gate that his father had designed: a graceful bend of the letters DT and the number 5—perhaps the most fitting and loving monument to Swansea’s poet in town. He opened it for us with a smile… and I had to smile too, recalling the open door at 99 Ryerson Street just about a year ago.

Our next stop was the Dylan Thomas Center, opened in 1995 by his fan Jimmy Carter and staffed by a dedicated core of Thomas enthusiasts, including many of Wynn’s students. The excellent permanent exhibition includes several of Dylan’s childhood books (I was surprised to see a copy of Struwwelpeter, a terrifying tale that I haunts my own early memories), some furiously scribbled poetry drafts, and a “New York Tablecloth” covered with pencil sketches by Dylan, who was actually a pretty good sketch-artist. The text panels were energetic and daring: “Was Dylan Thomas a Drunk?”, one of them challenged. Recordings of Dylan’s poetry readings drifted into the café-bookstore, as Wynn and I chatted over lunch. He recollected the special events of 1995, when the Centre hosted the “UK Year of Literature and Writing”—and I loved the story of his afternoon with Allen Ginsberg, who fell to his knees in front of Dylan Thomas’ grave and recited the kaddish. Now: how now do we get other people to visit this shrine? How do we get people to become interested in preserving his memory? Will you, patient reader, follow our path and honor the memory of this complex ‘spinning man’?


An hour’s drive brought us to Laugharne, a picturesque and still not overly touristy village in Carmarthenshire where Dylan lived and wrote for his last four years. Wynn steered us first to St. Martin’s Church, where a simple white cross bears Dylan’s name on one side, his wife Caitlin’s on the other. Someone had placed the Welsh dragon and a riderless horse atop the arms of the cross. Wynn threatened to remove them, but then thought better of it. We placed some tart wild blackberries on the grave, in lieu of a stone. And we considered the restless, beautiful bodies beneath our soles.

For the bird lay bedded
In a choir of wings, as though she slept or died,
And the wings glided wide and he was hymned and wedded.


Through the town, then, past Dylan’s last-favorite pub on these shores (Brown’s Hotel, with its very brown, timbered interior), a stained-glass warehouse and a small bookshop, to a windy seaside path. Bright sun and low tide had encouraged many families to saunter out here, and the way to Dylan’s house was lively. Our first stop was the writing shed—really, a sort of boat-garage on stilts, lightly resting on the Cliffside with its writing end nosing out from the Cliffside. The floorboards must have bounced precariously, responding to his every move. So this was Dylan’s home away from home away from home, where he escaped Caitlin and the children and hid away to edit a single line for hours at a time. “Walt used to hang up there,” Wynn pointed about the rickety desk, set up to look as if Dylan had just stepped out. So many words, so little space—and time! But it was so much easier now somehow, to imagine Dylan wrestling down the first lines to “Poem on his Birthday”:

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.


As we meandered down the path, I—delighted in the company and the very pretty scene—wondered if Dylan had ever felt as happy and lucky as I did now. And was the Boathouse as charming to him, as it was to Wynn and me? The simple white cottage shone from its nook in the rocks. I couldn’t imagine a sweeter, cuter place to think and write poetry. Even the retired policeman who manned the front desk grinned as he handed us our tickets, urging us to take tea on the terrace below while there were still Welsh griddle-cakes to be had. “And they call this work,” he said, and told us about the last time he had seen Dylan’s daughter Aeronwy, who died of cancer on July 27 this year. She had come to terms with her dysfunctional family history in her later years, speaking and writing more candidly about her father and his poetry. Lately, she had read her own work in a small room upstairs that now showcased the text of her “Recollections of Christmas Day at the Boathouse.” Aeronwyr had packed the house, we were told in excited tones. I imagined the tiny house overflowing with lovers of verse. Imagined, too, the scattering of her ashes around the Boathouse just a few days before our visit.


No photos were allowed in the Boathouse, and it’s really just as well. Despite my efforts to take you with me on Wynn’s wonderful tour, you must know by now that you need to experience this for yourself. But while we’re here, try to imagine the cozy claustrophobia of Dylan’s living room—the overstuffed furniture, rugs, radios, and English kitsch. We had a laugh over the familiar-looking China spaniels that guarded the books on the mantelpiece. And we pored over the photos of the handsome young couple, Dylan’s comfortable-looking mother and his big, lazy dog.

Dylan’s scene was not within, but just outside the green-framed windows. This was the view that he absorbed and translated in the last four years of his life— as he wove the word-webs of poems like “Author’s Prologue”, and when he wasn’t drowning himself on the streets of my Mannahatta. The stunning vista even silenced our happy chatter. We noted that the two boats on a sandbar of the Taf Estuary had also not been prepared for the change in tide.

This precious Wales visitation serves as a beautiful reminder that “being there” really does matter. Just as I feel that my understanding of Whitman’s message is illuminated by my daily walks in his New York, so I believe that seeing the Wales in his arms clarifies and transfigures my vision of Dylan and his sea-thumbed leaves. But the best part of the adventure was getting to spend time with and to know Wales’ “other” beloved Thomas. Thank you, Wynn, for an extraordinary day of poetry and communion, and for the great gift of your friendship!


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Karen Karbiener

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09 2009

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