A Tribute to Dannie Abse: A Look at 'Return to Cardiff'

A Tribute to Dannie Abse: A Look at ‘Return to Cardiff’

I’m yet to have my full reckoning with Dannie Abse. His famous poems have always loomed in my peripheral vision, like an older brother who’d left home by the time I was born. As with the imagined older brother, my feelings towards Abse are respectful, protective, proud, even loving after a fashion, while at the same time I’ve run from his example – whether consciously or not – and tried to differentiate myself, to plough my own furrow. If ever I thought I could run away entirely, though, I was a fool. No Cardiff-born poet who seeks to write about his roots could coherently avoid him.

To exacerbate this quasi-Oedipal relationship, I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence about Abse’s style. That style is hard to pin down because it opts for varying levels of musical effect, from the mellifluous early lilt of ‘Epithalamion’ to the staccato elegance, not a word out of place, in ‘Peachstone’. Overall, though, it seems fair to say that his preferred mode was the plainspoken. Frequently, the diction in his poems rests on fragments, communicated in the clipped, extemporary manner of a doctor taking notes, as per the opening lines of ‘New Diary’:

This clerk-work, this first January chore
of who’s in, who’s out. A list to think about
when absences seem to shout, Scandal! Outrage!

But even at its most plainspoken, his writing only sometimes achieves the fluency of a Richard Wilbur or Philip Larkin, two poets to whom it would be natural to compare Abse in terms of generation and thematic outlook. To a remarkable degree, Abse’s speakers waver, hedge and retreat into themselves, and time and again these linguistic postures of uncertainty disrupt the surface quality of the verse. I used to find fault in this tendency, thinking that it brought prosy clutter into otherwise fine poems. (Take, for instance, the first two lines of the celebrated final stanza of ‘Last Words’: ‘And how would I wish to go? / Not as in opera – that would offend’. I always want to follow this ponderous aside with the question, ‘Offend whom?’) Increasingly, however, I’ve come to admire these dilations, which can be interpreted more generously as the tics of a judicious mind weighing up its options. If ever they render a poem’s diction awkward or strange, well, that might be because experience itself is awkward and strange. To paraphrase what has often been said about Louis MacNeice, Abse is one of the great laureates of inbetween-ness and doubt.

‘Return to Cardiff’ is one of his most loved and anthologised poems. Though no one could miss the melancholy that clouds this homecoming, it would be easy to underestimate the unusual, fractured quality of the poem’s prosody. It appears to offer us a moving experience – one that any prodigal son might understand – but in fact does everything within its power, formally, to frustrate emotional purchase. Through hesitancy and interruption, the poem enacts a type of failed nostalgia. It is a numb poem, a mistimed poem, and a poem that almost disintegrates into ugly, fragmented non-poetry. As such, it is a poem better equipped than any other I can think of to convey the listless non-emotion of self-imposed exile.

The opening word, ‘“Hometown”’, sets us at an immediate remove. Held up in the pincers of those inverted commas, it refuses to enter into the life of the line. A semi-colon divides it from the first proper sentence (‘well, most admit an affection for a city’), an admission so cautious as to strangle any possible affection at birth. The whole line, like those that will follow, is rhythmically strained and overlong, stretching a good two feet beyond the pentameter that seems natural and expected for an apparently traditional lyric performance. The phrase ‘an affection for a city’ sucks any vestigial iambic energy from the line, giving us the cluster of muffled, unstressed syllables around ‘affection’ and the falling rhythm of ‘city’. Together, these lines cut the gangling shape of a young man trying to fit into the trousers he wore when he was fifteen: the shins are showing between sock and turn-up.

After the first line, the speaker grows averse to sentences. It isn’t always helpful to hold poetry up to the standard rules of grammar, but in this case it can’t be helped: to avoid grammar altogether would be to sacrifice a full appreciation of what the poem does. Abetted by a restless arsenal of colons, semi-colons and commas, Abse’s speaker drifts in and out of conventional prose grammar, just as he waxes and wanes in his ability to make full sense of his situation. To begin with, the retreat into fragment comes as a relatively innocent attempt to generate reverie, of the sort that any normal person should experience naturally on coming home:

grey, tangled streets I cycled on to school, my first cigarette
in the back lane, and, fool, my first botched love affair.
First everything. Faded torments; self-indulgent pity.

The last line of the stanza operates in three jerky steps. ‘First everything’ collapses all the trash and baggage of childhood memory into one dismissive phrase. ‘Faded torments’ continues to refer to those individual memories, but now in the abstract (‘torments’, as opposed to love affairs or cigarettes), with ‘faded’ opening up a distance between the speaker and the times when the events actually happened. Finally, via the tiny portal of a semi-colon, those memories morph into ‘self-indulgent pity’, or the paralysis of the present moment. The reverie hasn’t worked.

Between the second line and the fourth stanza, the speaker manages to sustain a single complete sentence, but even then it is awkward and abstract, hedged around with qualification: ‘The journey to Cardiff seemed less a return than a raid / on mislaid identities.’ (Italics my own.) This willingness to commit to ‘seem’ as a main verb makes sense when we consider how elsewhere the speaker shirks the responsibilities that come with its stronger relation, ‘to be’. Two passages from the poem, from the second and sixth stanzas:

Of course the whole locus smaller:
the mile-wide Taff now a stream, the castle not as in some black,
gothic dream, but a decent sprawl, a joker’s toy façade…
Illusory, too, that lost dark playground after rain,
the noise of trams, gunshots in what they once called Tiger Bay.
Only real this smell of ripe, damp earth when the sun comes out,
a mixture of pungencies, half exquisite and half plain.

We are back in the doctor’s notebook, with each clause slipping free from its implied main verb. Why not, ‘the whole locus was smaller’? Why not, ‘illusory, too, was the lost dark playground after rain’? Why can’t the ‘smell of ripe, damp earth’ actually be real? Perhaps because actual being is something very painful to admit. We see it in two lines at the heart of the poem that confront the distressing realities of that verb ‘to be’, in two deftly opposed inflections: ‘and still I love the place for what I wanted it to be / as much as for what it unashamedly is…’ This is the nearest the poem comes to a genuinely consolatory or bittersweet moment, as the speaker faces up to the finality of that word ‘is’, and agrees to love Cardiff despite its divergence from what he ‘wanted it to be’. It’s a sign of how far he’s fallen, though, that this lone ‘is’ finds its predicate in ‘a city of strangers, alien and bleak’. Not much of an affirmation, then, after all.

‘Return to Cardiff’ builds to another of Abse’s celebrated endings. Again, inflections of the verb ‘to be’ lie at the crux of the drama.

No sooner than I’d arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on.

‘The boy I was not and the man I am not’: these negated forms of being are given a profound and startling negative life when they are made to meet, hesitate, leave double footsteps and walk on. That the most active moment in the whole poem should arise out of this ghostly, psychological shadow play is entirely apt and, at one level, unsurprising; that it still manages to feel surprising, as if it has come out of nowhere, is a sign of the poem’s last-minute poetic triumph. Abse snatches a great figurative coup from the jaws of rhetorical defeat: a clinching and memorable conceit, at the climax of a poem that has artfully dithered everywhere else.

It would be neater if we could leave it there. Neater, but remiss, for even at this most arresting and clarifying moment in the poem – a moment when we should be released once and for all into wider channels of comprehension – a strong backward current drags us into the same turbid waters we’ve been in all along.

At the start of the third line in the stanza, how does that word ‘where’ work, grammatically? To which exact place does it refer? The natural candidate is ‘Cardiff’, and that assumption is leant weight by the positioning in the first line of ‘Cardiff’, the only phrase in the stanza with enough geographical solidity to sustain a ‘where’. However, two things complicate any easy assent to this assumption. First is the strange obstacle of the second line (‘smoke in the memory, those but tinned resemblances’). It’s easy enough to understand ‘smoke in the memory’, as an associative metaphor for ‘the other Cardiff’, but how do we get to the plural ‘those’ from the singulars of ‘Cardiff’ and ‘smoke’? What exactly are the ‘tinned resemblances’? The notebook is unclear. Furthermore, if we follow the grammar of the sentence, it would seem that the immediate referent for ‘where’ is ‘tinned resemblances’, and of course that can’t be possible: nothing can happen on or in a resemblance. Perhaps we see the enigma most clearly if we remove the second line altogether, on the assumption that it’s a flight of association, and therefore that the first line continues to govern the subordinate clause of lines three and four:

No sooner than I’d arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on.

That makes more sense, but not complete sense.

The second complication is to do with the phrase ‘the other Cardiff’. Fine and resonant by itself, of course: we grasp it quickly as a signifier for the lost world of the speaker’s childhood, this place of bike rides, cigarettes, botched love affairs, trams and gunshots in Tiger Bay. But if we set aside our grammatical queries and assume that it’s also the site of this mystical meeting between ‘the boy I was not and the man I am not’, the waters grow cloudy again. Does this meeting occur in the past – in ‘the other Cardiff’? If so, how can it be born out of the present dejected situation? The natural location for the meeting would appear to be in the world of Cardiff as ‘it unashamedly is’, here and now, but the regression to a lost, historical Cardiff doesn’t allow that. In fact, it throws us into nothing less than a temporal and existential crisis. We’re forced into accepting that this crucial meeting is taking place in a world that, by the speaker’s own admission, is already ‘gone’. So how can the meeting happen at all?

This crisis is of course the whole point of the poem, and the reader’s uncertainty about time signature and reality is part and parcel with the speaker’s. To return home and not to feel anything, or not to feel enough, is a massive insult to identity. If I don’t recognise, or can’t connect with, the place that made me who I was, then who am I now? The answer to that can seldom be a happy one. In ‘Return to Cardiff’, Abse communicates such psychological disintegration through a stark, frustrated music. The rebarbative diction – full of confusing elisions, dangling lists and clauses in disagreement – conveys the feeling of homelessness with greater power than any polished eloquence ever could.

I trust that anyone who has moved away from home and struggled to recover the happy belonging of childhood can identify with ‘Return to Cardiff’. As someone who like Abse moved to London in early adulthood, and who still makes regular trips home to Cardiff – happier than that of Abse’s speaker, I’m grateful to say, but not emotionally uncomplicated – I read it with an almost overwhelming sense of recognition. If I’m yet to have my full reckoning with the breadth and riches of Abse’s work, I know that when I do I’ll be entering a universe uncannily familiar to me, where even the hesitancies and doubts are my own.

 

Dai George’s first collection, The Claims Office, came out in 2013


 original illustration by Dean Lewis