Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Force That Through the Green Fuse...

Nate muscles up a metaphor

I left our family home when Nate was 14 and Julie was nine. My separation from their mother ended in divorce about three years later, about the time that I moved down to Dayton to live with Marrianne. But working for the American Friends Service Committee I travelled a lot and being the noncustodial parent, I wasn't as present in Nate and Julie's life as I wanted to be. A frequently absent father is not a good thing, but kids do a lot of adapting and find ways to compensate. Nate certainly did, finding a number of different adult males to guide and mentor him.

One such man, Jack, the father of Nate's high school girlfriend, worked as a therapist. He took a real interest in Nate and they developed a friendship that outlasted Nate's relationship with his girlfriend. A couple of days ago, in a long phone call, Nate talked about Jack for a bit. In trying to describe aspects of Jack's outlook on life, Nate grasped for a line, the first line, from a Dylan Thomas poem. "I can't remember it exactly," he said, "but it's something about 'the power rushing through a green fuse.'"

Nate's comment excited me; I've been a Dylan Thomas fan since high school when I actually decoded, if only briefly, some of Thomas' complex metaphors. That experience of sudden comprehension thrilled me, and seeking to recreate the rush, I've frequently returned to Thomas' poems over the years. And then there's Thomas' voice (you can hear a recording of him here), for me the most sonorous and elegant and compelling (and Welsh) of all voices, with the possible exception of James Earl Jones (except for the Welsh part) in his prime.

So, forgetting for the moment that Nate was trying to make a point about Jack, I dug out my copy of Thomas' Collected Poems, while Nate lingered on the line. Though it is a digression of fairly significant dimensions, I cannot resist observing that my hardcover copy, published by New Directions and in its 23rd printing when I bought it, sold for $3.80, discounted by the now defunct University Cellar Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Mich. from its cover price of $4.25. The Cellar, a nonprofit bookstore established by the University of Michigan regents in response to student demands for cheaper text books, is a whole other story, but not for now. This digression must conclude.

At any rate, after the second scan through the table of contents, the poem, "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower," turned up. And as it did, I remembered that Nate was making a point about Jack and quickly understood that he was saying that Jack believed in a pervasive spiritual presence, a "god force," which inhabited all things. Though I had to look up the line to understand what Nate was trying to say, it turned out that he could hardly have been more economical or more vivid in characterizing Jack.

But here's the point: In paraphrasing Thomas, Nate connected two separate ideas that ended up illuminating each other and providing me with the rush of an "aha!" moment; one in which I suddenly understood a good bit of the poem and a whole lot more of it than I had been able to grasp previously.

I haven't been writing poetry much lately, confining myself most often to blogging about politics and the need for social change, And, when I do write poetry, I'm not in the same league as even ordinary Welsh poets, let alone Dylan Thomas. But sometimes reading poetry satisfies some of the same urges that motivate writing poetry. Either way, one frequently wrestles metaphors uphill and gets flattened by runaway tropes, if one's stores of energy run out before reaching a safe place to rest.

But here is the Thomas poem. Read it and see if a decent understanding of the first line doesn't help to unlock the meaning of much of the rest of the poem. And thanks to Nate, also, for somehow always finding a way to teach me something new.

The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man
How of my clay is made the hangman’s lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind
How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover’s tomb
How at my sheet goes the same crooked worm.

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