I first became aware of Dannie Abse’s work in 1986 when he and his wife, Joan, were editing Voices in the Gallery, a sumptuous anthology of poems about paintings for the Tate Gallery. To my astonished delight, they accepted ‘At The National Gallery’, an early poem of mine about Gerrit van Honthorst’s ‘Christ Before the High Priest’ which later appeared in Beneath Tremendous Rain (1990). Our paths continued to cross around the London poetry scene, especially at (usually fraught) Poetry Society Council meetings in the 1990s. A couple of years ago he visited the College where I work and happily discussed his poems with students. His death in September 2014 was such a sad loss.
With the New Year we are again teaching Dannie Abse’s collection Two for Joy (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0091931177/karelsoftw-21). But with the changes to A Levels being hurried in from September 2015, this will be the last time we work on this book (for AS Level Coursework) though it has proved a joy to teach. This is perhaps a surprise given its subject matter.
The book is a compilation of work from several years focused on Abse’s relationship with Joan, his wife (herself a writer, editor and acclaimed art historian). It was published a couple of years after The Presence (http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099531860/karelsoftw-21), a memoir completed in response to Joan’s tragic death in a car accident in 2005. ‘Two for Joy’, of course, alludes to the old country saying, cited on seeing magpies: one for sorrow, two for joy. The poems in the collection evoke both sides of this cryptic saw, from the early joys of young love to the sorrowing widower more than 50 years later.
In terms of teaching and coursework the book’s focus is so intense, powerful and yet varied that the material always goes down very well with students and enables them to write confidently about ‘the collection’ (one of the Assessment Objectives). We might start with the simplicity of ‘Condensation on a Windowpane’ where the aging narrator inscribes his and his lover’s names on the wet windowpane because he wants to write “something simple as pure water”. Yet even water, further considered, is complicated, “like steam, like ice, like clouds”. This plainness of address and nakedness of emotion is immediately engaging but Abse is really flagging up the collection’s main themes of love and time as, eventually, the words fade, dribbling down the glass: “They weep as they vanish”.
Or what better way (I mean appalling way) to gain students’ attention than this opening quatrain of ‘Lachrymae’:
I crawled from the noise of the upturned car
And the silence in the dark began to grow.
I called out her name again and again
To where neither words nor love could go.
This little sequence of poems like tear drops is set after Joan’s death and delicately re-visits a few scenes from married life, only to end with the narrator walking in solitude beside the Hampstead ponds, “where a lone swan sings / without a sound”.
An earlier poem ‘A Night Out’ records a visit the couple made to the Academy cinema in Oxford Street in the 1950s. As a Welsh Jew in London, courting and marrying a gentile, there are plenty of moments in these poems where the unconventional couple have to confront the narrow-mindedness and bigotry of the 1950s and early 1960s: anti-Semitism in ‘A Marriage’; general moral strictures in ‘Two for Joy’. On the occasion of the cinema visit, Abse’s cultural background is significant as they watch a fictionalised account of the Holocaust: “images of Auschwitz, almost authentic, the human obscenity in close-up” so much that “we forgot the barbed wire / was but a prop [. . . ] those striped victims merely actors”. Afterwards, the couple are stunned by what they have seen, sitting in a “bored espresso bar”. Gathering themselves at last, they return home to a German au pair girl, their own children safely asleep upstairs:
Reassured, together we climbed the stairs,
undressed together, and naked together,
in the dark, in the marital bed, made love.
Abse’s technical skill with plain language is on full show in such lines and the class might have debates about how far individual love is shown to counter, compensate, or merely distract from world horrors. In a 1980 essay called ‘Rhyme’ (collected in Dannie Abse: a Sourcebook, ed. Cary Archard: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/1854115073/karelsoftw-21) Abse has commented on this poem and presenting students with his observations has often proved to be a moment when sceptics about the deliberateness of a writer’s choices can be converted. He compares ‘A Night Out’ with ‘In Llandough Hospital’ arguing that the charge of emotion from the film was so powerful that he “did not want to make any pretty artifice out of it. I did not want to be lyrical about such a theme. I wanted to be as truthful as possible, to avoid all kinds of artificiality, to say what I felt and to say it plainly. I wanted the verisimilitude of prose”.
The period of the Cold War is briefly evoked at the end of ‘A Scene from Married Life’ in contrast to the “few and brief” cold wars of the couple’s marital rows. Set in Abse’s beloved Ogmore-by-the-Sea in South Glamorgan, after a petty squabble, the narrator metamorphoses into a monster of self-pity and suicidal thoughts. The poem cleverly balances the two perspectives of the over-dramatising, younger self with a more ironic, mature judgment. It’s only at the end with the appearance of Joan on the cliff top (surely an echo Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Voice, with Emma in her ‘sky blue gown’) that the faux-suicide relents:
On the high cliff my wife dressed in blue and all
The best of the world true and desirable.
With surrendering waves I crawled back to the shore.
Such humour, often in self-mockery is never far from Abse’s work. The darker side of grief is evoked in the image of blood-stained petals falling in ‘Magnolia’ (“bridal branches slowly violated”) but most powerfully in ‘The Revisit’ which again works the rich seam of two periods of life knotted together. A beautiful lake scene enjoyed together is re-vised by the lonely widower into an apocalyptic vision, with the sun-set now evocative of “Angel wars. Such April bloodshed!” Though there are more consolatory poems in the book, where time the healer is seen to begin its work, ‘The Revisit’ shocks in its blunt confrontation with grief and on this occasion Abse’s use of poetical devices, the abundant skill of the artist, only serves to emphasise the helplessness of the man:
The gradual distance between two stars is night.
Ago, love, we made love till dark was bright.
Now without you dark is darker still and infinite
It would be a shame indeed if, in the mean-spirited, ever-narrowing criteria of the new A Level specifications, a collection such as this one could not continue to find a place. Dannie Abse’s website is at: http://www.dannieabse.com/.