On a Sunday afternoon this year, I received an email from a close friend with the simple title, ‘Dannie’. I understood at once what it meant. One of the greatest Welsh voices of the last seventy years had finally been silenced and the world seemed a poorer place.
Dannie Abse’s last collection was ‘Speak, Old Parrot’, the title itself suggesting his own awareness of his fragility. Indeed, he expected it to be his last published work as he neared his ninth decade. The first words of the first poem, ‘Talking to Myself’, suggested that this very personal poet was mining on his own meditations on age and frailty, ‘In the mildew of age/all pavements slope uphill’. It is a beautiful poem despite its subject matter. Contemplating how ‘I wasted time’ and ‘Now Time wastes me’, it ends with a desperate desire for Time be held at bay, to be spoken words of comfort, calling on his muse to be given the opportunity to continue to write, ‘Quick, quick/speak, old parrot, do I not feed you with my life?’ That final question (is it claiming a truth or is the poet doubting its veracity?) is a fitting opening to his final work. As with so much of Abse’s work, it doesn’t shy away from the darkest of subjects yet it imbues it with dignity and a desire to embrace the fullness of life.
I first came seriously to Abse’s poetry through teaching. I’d leafed through his collection, ‘Welsh Retrospective’ before, was familiar with some of his most famous poems like ‘Epithalamion’ and knew that he was a Cardiff City supporter. Comparing the latter collection to Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ meant some proper reading was required. It also led to one of the best things about teaching, hearing others’ voices contemplating the poems, teaching me as we read along together. What was striking was how similar he was to Larkin in that he also, even in his youth, wrote about Time and change and death. However, while Larkin wrote ‘Reference Back’, the title itself suggesting a certain coldness, a detached view of his own experience visiting his mother, Abse wrote ‘A Winter Visit’; the memory is distinct, personal, a memory that is still being remembered and considered.
Larkin, considering the way time changes us and holds us, memorably wrote in ‘Dockery and Son’ that ‘Life is first boredom then fear/Whether or not we use it, it goes’. Abse, considering the same truth in ‘Return to Cardiff’ also understands that time brings loss and change. The ‘mile-wide Taff’ is ‘now a stream’. Yet that same river has its beauty ‘as light slants down a different shade’. Rather than everything being negated by the great leveller, Abse prefers to face the reality of change and decay and yet accept it and celebrate life for what it is as he ‘walked on’ at the end of the poem.
In ‘St Valentine’s Night’ the poet is aware that ‘scowling Thanatos keeps trying/To recite the 11th commandment: Thou shalt die.’ Simlarly to Larkin, he knows that he ‘cannot make our sun/Stand still’ but unlike the English poet he wants to ‘make it run.’ Perhaps there’s nothing he celebrates more than love, and perhaps there is no greater poet of married love and family love. Losing his wife, Joan, in a car crash in 2005 led to some of his greatest work, in his poetry and in the moving book recording his grief, ‘The Presence’. But even in mourning, his mind would turn to the joyful memories of marriage in ‘Postcard to his Wife’ and ‘The Malham Bird’. Again, joy and sadness share the space. The memories are celebrated, ‘…we lay on our shadows naked,/more than together…’, a balm for present grief in ‘…the vanished gardens of Paradise’.
What I love about Abse is his ability to write about everyday experiences and invest them with honour, dignity and humanity. In the darkness, he notices the beauty, the beauty we might often miss. It’s no wonder that the world felt a poorer place that fine Sunday afternoon. And yet, as I write this I realise that he hasn’t been silenced. His voice continues to speak and will speak as long as his work is read. Yes. Speak. Speak, old parrot.
Dannie Abse’s ‘Welsh Retrospective’ is published by Seren, ‘Speak, Old Parrot’ by Hutchinson.