Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Poetry: A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London, by Dylan Thomas

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child's death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London's daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
- by Dylan Thomas

For me, the most shattering moment of this awful week of Haitian pain came when a CNN anchor lost composure over a report that a little bespectacled girl who had been rescued from rubble in front of cameras had died later, off camera, for lack of medical care. It's just one of tens of thousands of such stories - neither the saddest nor the most significant. Out of the vast pool of sad stories, this one grabbed at Campbell Brown's heart, and shook it.

For me, Dylan Thomas speaks to the heart more than the brain. I had the benefit of first encountering this poem on tape, where his majestic voice elevates his poetry from mere words to sounds that ring with a truth that exceeds their dictionary meanings. Here is that recording used as the soundtrack for a collection of photos of Thomas - my recommendation is to shut your eyes and listen to the poet without photographic distraction:

Pretty amazing.

By way of background, Dylan Thomas was a sincere believer in the cycle of nature. When he writes that he will rejoin the Zion of the water bead and the synagogue of corn, he is saying that our bodies are recycled through nature, and his atoms will rejoin the cycle upon his death. His mechanistic, unsentimental cycle clashes with his deep emotion, just as the unmourning water of the Thames does not register the elegy of innocence and youth.

And so the death of that little girl in Haiti is completely understandable in the confluence of tectonics, poverty, and the frailty of a little girl's body. But it is horrifying and cuts us all to the core, so that words fail us, and we dare not try to cover up our emotion with pat phrases or even journalistic restraint.


Blogger Catherine VandeVelde said...

Thank you for sharing that, Dan.

1/21/2010 3:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home