I was in Wigtown, Scotand’s National Book Town. And I have something to confess.
I went for the Writer’s Gathering – a great privilege and a perfectly splendid occasion. Lively, talented, spirited people, raring to go. Marvellous interaction. It could not have been more welcoming. But for an hour, I slipped away into the town.
There are as many as a dozen second hand bookshops there. As I wrote that sentence, a shiver went through me from my scalp to my toes.
I only had time for one – the biggest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, on the main street. It is called The Bookshop. It is divine.
As is my wont (though I love all books), I went straight to the poetry section. I ascended a white ladder to the high shelves and knelt beside the low shelves. I extracted a little bundle of desirable volumes. Then I sat in a deep comfy chair beside the stove and read.
Needless to say, I made purchases. The walls here are groaning with books, most of them filled with poetry and poets. My Significant Other, who would never read poetry by choice, tells me one day – not too far away – the ceilings will collapse.
Nevertheless, I bought several books, one of which was a hardback copy of the Daniel Jones edition of Dylan Thomas’s poems. I already have it in paperback. (I had it with me in paperback.) But I could not leave this book behind.
It was not expensive, probably because it is full of pencil scribblings. Some of the scribblings are not pencil. They are in red pen, or red crayon. Inside the front cover, there are eight yellow/orange newspaper cuttings about the bard, and a bookmaker’s note from the Mecca Bookmakers. But it doesn’t record a bet.
On the bookmaker’s note the owner of the book, David W F Brown, has copied a poem stolen by Dylan Thomas as a boy for his school magazine (plagiarism is not a modern art). Such an irony in the poem he stole! Its sentiments are true to much of DT’s later writing.
The plagiarised poem was by Thomas S Jones and DT found it in 1000 Poems of all Times and Countries: Children’s Encyclopaedia, ed Arthur Mee. I know this because David Brown has carefully copied the detail onto the bookmaker’s slip, as well as the whole poem. Thomas S Jones sounds like another Welshman but he was in fact American (‘Sometimes’ can be found in Untermeyer’s Modern American Poetry in 1919). Here is the stolen poem:
Across the fields of yesterday
He sometimes comes to me
A little boy just back from play
The boy I used to be.
And yet he smiles so wistfully
Once he has crept within
I wonder if he hopes to see
The man I might have been.
In the blank front sheet of the book, Mr Brown has written It’s like eating caviare, only. Above the crossed-out ‘only’ he has substituted ‘alone’. Underneath that is another inscription in pencil, with crossings out and substitutions.
Can you read the inscription clearly? Why did Nico stop being ‘dear’? What hastened the ‘disillusion’? Was David Brown himself a poet? I think he might have been. He was certainly an analytical, obsessive reader. He had a mark-up system with a capital E for Erotic, M for Metaphysical and R for ‘Regeneration theory’.
Like me, Brown began meticulously in his study but the pencil markings dry up as the poems get later (and mainly stronger). Above ‘The Neophyte, Baptized in Smiles’ he has written Drunk at the time. He has crossed through some poems as completely worthless. Above ‘High on a Hill’ he has written Tumescence and detumescence which, yes, sums it up.
Under ‘Being But Men’, he has written – a plea to the poet himself regarding his determination to subvert ordinary word order – Couldn’t you, just for once have changed it? But BEING MEN . . . .
But what got me – the reason I had to have the book – was the markup on ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’. This is an early poem, you know. Most of the best of Dylan Thomas arrives later. It is dated April 1933. (The poet wasn’t even twenty when he wrote it.)
I have wrestled with ‘And Death Shall Have No Dominion’ for as long as I can remember. Where other readers find reassurance (it is both apocalypse and resurrection), I find nightmare. But David Brown’s comment took me into a reading of two lines so absolutely compelling that I sat and stared. I was astonished. Turned (temporarily) to stone. Heads of the characters hammer through daisies? They certainly do.
This is what David Brown wrote, among other things (and perhaps I should mention he has scribbled A v. great poem under the title). His longest remark, in pencil at the end of the poem, is attached by an arrow to this couplet in the poem’s final stanza:
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain
Note (writes David Brown) This ‘may’ is not an imperative. One of most evocative couplets in Eng. Lang. I can’t speak it without tears. Such a sad impression of buffeted beauty bravely striving.
Of course I had to have this book. What is more – as I travelled back to Fife with it, carefully scrutinising the annotations, I was absolved of a terrible and secret sin. If you only knew the guilt I have accumulated for writing in books! I have been doing it since I was three. Some of the volumes I have scribbled in are rare and old. I love them but I have desecrated them. What would a librarian say?
But it’s a conversation. David Brown is the real reader. This is his response to the poems, which are, after all, a communication, and here is that response: alive in the very moment it was written. And now I am the reader of David Brown reading Dylan Thomas, and so are you. We are reading David Brown, who possessed Dylan Thomas: The Poems in more than one sense.
You don’t get this on Kindle.