Thursday, October 20, 2011
I was recently marveling over this poem by Dylan Thomas, "Who are you who is born in the next room..." (published in 1945) from a series of pattern poems called Vision and Prayer because of what it does or enacts so successfully and in doing so transcends its arbitrary form. I don’t have the entire series in front of me, so it may be that this particular shape has some relevance that isn’t obvious when it’s viewed out of context because apparently these shapes form a series. What seems most interesting to me is how this writing works so well to set a scene and create a poetic equation with an ending that comes as somewhat of a surprise in a visceral way with such depth of metaphor, while it almost completely resists its own rhyme scheme. It provides an almost perfect balance between meaning and form that still manages to raise interesting questions because of certain effects. I’m drawn at the outset to the two somewhat cavernous caesuras. The first comes after “In the birth.” It seems appropriate that the poet creates this gap in the line after the word birth (where the reader nearly falls in), and the second occurs after the word “alone.” Both caesuras offer a perfect physical illustration of what is being described because the reader is forced to involuntarily pause after these words, which not only gives them emphasis but reemphasizes in a very graphic way the visual provided a few lines earlier with “I can hear the womb opening.”
From the poem’s opening there is a double meaning established because dramatic tension is established succinctly in the first three words. The intentional ambiguity almost has the reader questioning himself or this might also be Thomas asking the question of himself.
Dualities cascade throughout it. In the idea that Jesus was man and god. The two physically separated rooms exist showing the reader separate from what goes on in the other room and mention of a “wall thin as a wren’s bone” seems to underscore a difference between what the speaker perceives as the natural and unnatural world. “Wren bone” is also an anagram of “new borne.” Other imagery underscores an idea that this event on some level is holy but again, a duality within the structures finds the reader noticing a shift of perspective in the mirror image of the poem that begins as the lines reach a midpoint and then recede in the second half. The poem’s structure mimics what is described, i.e., the poem itself is turning or shifting. These lines could be read in multiple ways “In the birth/bloody room/unknown to the …” or “In the birth bloody/room unknown to the…”
The poem, although only 71 words, does start with a vision and end with a sort of prayer but is Thomas describing his own thoughts on his own life that started with a similar birth but resulted in the many physical, mental and domestic problems which plagued him for years? Or is this a meditation on our relation to the natural world and the unnatural, as represented in the poem, is the overlay of religiosity that is placed upon us that begins at birth. Thomas encapsulates a prime moment, birth, which serves as a hinge between these two “worlds” i.e., the natural and the world of civilization and all the socialization that civilization entails.
As the wall is a part of the natural world or natural order, the infant is not, yet anyway, and the point is emphasized internally as the rhyme scheme pairs “wild” and “child” together as a final example of the mysterious duality that ripples throughout what might have been a poem that Thomas wrote in one sitting in a very short amount of time.
The visual pattern creates interesting parallels that otherwise might not have existed had the poem been left aligned in a ragged block. The final interesting afterthought is that the form provides the reader with an object to be stared at, which it gives it an element of spectacle. Because of its symmetry the object simultaneously resembles a box, a shape of some sort like a pyramid reflected in water, a crucifix, the human form with arms outspread, and finally and obviously a diamond. Sixteenth Century alchemist Agrippa also include this shape and its opposite, which would look like a jagged hourglass, in his “Of the Proportion, Measure, and Harmony of Man’s Body,” which included diagrams of geometric shapes aligned with the human form. These two shapes comprise the ebb and flow of the alternating patterns in the book.
By starting with such an unanswerable question, by including such vivid imagery (e.g., heart print), and ending with such a violent twist the poem registers like a minor earthquake and we stare down into its dark abyss and wonder what it meant to the author, as well as what it might mean to everyone facing the riddle of human existence.