An American Poet in Wales
Book Review: The Laugharne Poems by Thomas Rain Crowe, published by Gwasg Garreg Gwalch, Wales, available in the USA from Small Press Distribution, £4.50 / $10.00. ISBN: 0-86381-432-8. 1997.
Thomas Rain Crowe went to Wales four years ago as a quest for his poetic father, Dylan Thomas, as an essential part of his pilgrimage to Scotland, the place of his ancestors (Crowe, born Dawson, the clan MacDhaibhidh), to help him better understand his own place, the mountains of North Carolina and how his poetry roots him there. This book is the record, a familiar pattern: an exile returns with a new understanding and appreciation of home. And while these poems speak of and from the mountains, they are unique in their ability to evoke the home that was his during his time abroad. That he was the first and only poet to be given permission to work in Dylan Thomas’ Boat House in Laugharne, the first poet to write there since Thomas’ death in 1953, makes the resulting poetry unique. But there is even more.
The poems do what I had hoped they would when I heard about his first trip in 1993 and his return two years later. They extend, driving it fiercely home, the poetic legacy of Dylan Thomas into American literature, a legacy that started but quickly dissipated, not leaving a lasting influence on contemporary poets despite his legendary poetry reading tours and the half-hearted attempt to establish Thomas as a literary icon by university English departments. Rain Crowe is rescuing Thomas’ reputation in that he is bringing to his own work a Dylan Thomas rediscovered and appreciated by a poet whose ears have been tuned by oral tales and songs but also by jazz and rock and mountain music turned electric. And this new poetry of sound is signaled as a directed, knowledgeable, informed opposition to the sight (not site) based poetry of the post-modern.
The Laugharne Poems are poetry of syllable, sound, and sense that challenge, now that William Carlos Williams has become enshrined as the god of the creative writing classes, the prevailing and predictable poetry that now reigns as standard.
From “When The Black Boat Breaks” we get language that is primarily to be heard not seen, listened to rather than silently read:
When the black boat breaks free from the hook
that hangs in the mud and the heron flies
off from its mast and the cry of gulls... .
Sight does matter in these poems. But Rain Crowe can play with alliteration and measure as well as the syntactical line that balances sound with sense guided by syllables as much as by politics of place and the wind (breath) of Wales and waters of the North Carolina and the blood of the body. This is, after all, informed poetry. But it is primarily rooted in voice.
This is an important collection. There are poems, like “The Fox Tree,” that are worthy of John Clare. There are poems of promise and praise and power. And there is my favorite, one that weaves politics and discrete observation of nature with the sounds of oral history and local legend with metaphor and meaning that keep me reading and re-reading such lines as “The great angler said, ‘I am the fisher of men.’ And / the great wrangler came behind with his back nets / and his coracles of gluttony and greed, blocking the / way back to the seas. To homes and / loved ones. And life that was free.”