Altarwise by owl-light
by Dylan Thomas
What is the metre of the dictionary?
The size of genesis? the short spark’s gender?
Shade without shape? the shape of Pharaoh’s echo?
(My shape of age nagging the wounded whisper).
Which sixth of wind blew out the burning gentry?
(Questions are hunchbacks to the poker marrow).
What of a bamboo man among the acres?
Corset the boneyards for the crooked boy?
Button your bodice on a hump of splitters,
My camel’s eyes will needle through the shroud.
Love’s reflection of the mushroom features,
Stills snapped by night in the bread-sided field,
Once close-up smiling in the wall of pictures,
Arc-lamped thrown back upon the cutting flood.
This sonnet proceeds from hopeless questioning to hopeless love (which is, after all, the big question of adolescence) and back again to despair. I doubt that the questions posed in the first few lines are remotely capable of an answer.
The last four lines do provide an answer to the question, ‘What is love?’ But it is not very encouraging.
Love’s a reflection of the mushroom growing at night features faces which are stills photographs snapped by night before birth into daylight in the bread-sided field the womb feeding and enclosing the foetus, once then close-up smiling like movie stars in the womb’s wall of pictures faces of those who will be loved, subsequently ark-lamped thrown back upon the cutting flood.
‘Arck-lamped’ of the periodical printing was changed to ‘arc-lamped’ in Twenty-five Poems. I suspect this was done by someone at Dent’s who was unsettled by the puns. The primary image is the one that continues the womb scene. The faces of the ones to be loved, pictured on the screen of the womb, are now arc-lamped, projected at birth like an ark on the waters that burst in a flood from the sac in the birth process, which also involves the cutting of the umbilical cord. but the images are thrown back, discared like film on a cutting-room floor that descends in waves of celluloid.
For anyone who thinks that the idea of future loved ones pictured on the wall of the womb is an impossibility far-fetched interpretation of these lines. In Edith Sitwell’s copy of Twenty -five Poems now deposited in the Texas library Thomas wrote a marginal note.
Love is a reflection of the features (the features of
those you will know and love after the womb) which are
photographed before birth and the wall of the womb
the womb being surrounded by food; a field being its
own field, and the womb being its own food.
To have one’s future loves as pin-ups in the womb is a striking way of saying that we are fated in our loving by genetic disposition. We love because we had an image given to us before we were born. It is something we can do anything about, any more than we can answer all the other questions that plague our existence in adolescence and beyond. Love, like doubt, comes as an overwhelming flood, and when this becomes a ‘cutting’ flood, as it does in the last line of the poem, everything is thrown back; we are cut off the promised happiness.
[excerpt from where have the old words got me? by ralph maud]
i ask to you dear aficionados, please do not divulgate thi(e)s(e) picture(s) outside the experienceofthinking
sunday october 29 2017