The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter
This book is the story of disgrace and disaster and death that came of all these hopes and plans. For the poet the end was death, tragic yet sordid, in a strange uproar of conflicting claims and feelings, from the most oddly assorted lot of people; with hospital discipline and medical science and the few steadfast friends keeping vigil hardly able to stem the rush of rage and hysteria and melodrama of visitors to his bedside; and all around the cloud of scandal and outrageous gossip floated like dirty smoke in anybody’s ears, leaving its gritty deposit in the memory. But the dying of the silent figure at the center of this disturbance, already wrapped in darkness, has its own majesty, and Brinnin never loses sight of this reality in the clutter of mean detail.
No man can be explained by his personal history, least of all a poet. Dylan Thomas’ life was formed by his temperament, his genius, in relation—in collision—with his particular human situation. As Brinnin discovered in his saddest days, a drunken poet is not more interesting than any other drunken man behaving badly and stupidly. His daily, personal life in fact was no better than that of tens of thousands of dull alcoholics who never wrote a line of poetry. His poetry made the difference, and that is all the difference in this world. All his splendor and virtue are in this poetry—the terrors and follies of his short life here below may very well be put away and forgotten. He wrote his own epitaph, as a poet should: “This was not everlasting death, but a death of days; this was a sleep with no heart. We bury the dead, said the voice that heard my heart, the brief, and the everlasting.”
“A FEVER CHART. . .”
Leftover Life to Kill, by Caitlin Thomas.
Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press/Little, Brown & Co., 1957.
“I added that I loved him still, and perhaps later. . . so reluctant is love to part with any part of itself. Or should I say so tenacious is a bitch of her carrion meat.” This is one of the milder tones of this book which Caitlin Thomas promised to write, telling her side of the story, in her foreword to John Malcolm Brinnin’s memoir, Dylan Thomas in America. She felt bitterly injured then, and one might have expected a counterattack. But time has worked its changes, and, while her hatreds of others and fierce repudiation of almost every human relationship is as hot as ever (except for a few chosen ones who indulge her moods), her rage, as W. B. Yeats once described it, is now like a knife turned against itself. Subjective, self-centered to the last degree, she tells nothing that contradicts or falsifies Mr. Brinnin’s story, nor the stories of others, even the wildest rumors that flew about. This is quite simply another story, from her own valid point of view, and a more painful one than any I have known.
On one plane it is a melancholy account of her furious attempts to waste and spoil her life out of a mingling of revenge against, and remorse for, her dead husband. It is a memoir, an apology, an accusation against God, the devil, life and death alike; a show-off temper tantrum with a vocabulary of self-hatred and abuse of others that often goes far beyond the merely outrageous. It is a losing battle to free herself from a medieval sense of guilt in an almost medieval ferocity of language: “I sought filthily to purge the blood-thronging devils out by using the devil’s own filthier still instruments.” These instruments seem to have been the husbands of her neighbors during, the first year or two of her widowhood, if I make out the time, first in Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas’ family still live, and then on the island of Elba, with her younger son, Colm, the witness of her disorders.
She describes her daily life and habits as “buckets of squalor and fecklessness.” And though one feels that she does pile it on at times, I daresay by any standards things were grubby and wretched, even sordid. She confesses, or rather boasts, that this was so, and it was as if she were determined to trample herself into the mud. Her husband, who thought women fit only for bed and board, betrayed her as masculine matter of course, but demanded of her the most rigid fidelity—not even a sidelong glance permitted. She therefore had two separate affairs on the island where she had once visited with her husband, both of them in the very room they had occupied together.
Both men were highly ineligible—one nearly as young as her eldest son, the other her middle-aged landlord, with a wife in the same house. She describes the young one as enchantingly beautiful and charming, the older as a paragon of manly virtue; yet I got the impression that the one was stupid as a pot, and the other really vicious. She lived in sloth and lethargy, in dirt and drunkenness; she describes herself as “stinking” for want of a bath. The old lover slaps her around for jealousy and orders her out of the house more than once as if she were a sluttish servant, a tramp or a beggar; and she refuses to go and will take any amount of abuse because she has no other place to go. She was a woman noted for her beauty in the grand style, and even this grace and treasure she treated with the utmost disrespect, as if she could not despise and destroy herself brutally enough.
Why? It is a true mystery, and to her as much as to any one. One might think it came about because of her fatal collision in love, her marriage to a poet who had a secret he could not share with her or with anyone, whose obstinate impervious genius exasperated her, and whose final escape into death was taken by her as a bitter personal wrong; but all this seems to have been only the final provocation to a spirit blindly rebellious from the beginning.
She says of her disasters: “By such devilish devices, you’d swear there was somebody behind it with the lowest intentions; my rindy fruit of bitterness, already installed since childhood, though I can trace no evidence of suppression,” had tainted everything. She has always had this rage and panic in her, though she does not plead the shabby excuse of an unhappy, mistreated childhood. She says further: “My bitterness is not an abstract substance, it is solid as a Christmas cake. I can cut it in slices and hand it around and there is still plenty left for tomorrow.” Wrath can be a great healing power when put to use in some direction or other—but this seems to be going nowhere. She rages that no one loves her, no one needs her, and that all she ever needed was love: and goes on to relate some bloodchilling incidents of what she did to several unfortunates who mistakenly took her at her word.
One has trouble following the line of this story because it is like a wild fever chart without the guiding squares on the background. The disorderly sentences and the relentless violence of the style become at times as dull as dullness itself. In her writing, as apparently in her several other diffused talents, Mrs. Thomas is untrained and wildly runaway. She has no more control over her thoughts and method than she has over her emotions and behavior. I feel that she must be a wonderful talker and she might be a splendid writer if she had not such contempt for any and all disciplines. There are many passages of power and feeling as expressive as the most knowledgeable art could make them, and they seem accidental, though they may have been done in full consciousness. It is possible, for Mrs. Thomas regrets that she is not a spontaneous person, and that this book cost her heavy labor and suffering. We may well believe it.
So far as the actual events of her life go this is not an interesting or a particularly unusual story. There are too many women with ambitions beyond their talents, experiences beyond their capacity, with romantic daydreams of glory and fame as the center of attention—we have many of their sad histories.
If they happen to marry men of gifts or even genius, they inevitably stubbornly refuse to play their natural role of second fiddle. But this one, Caitlin Thomas, passes all bounds; her war was with her god, hand-to-hand, like Lucifer’s; she would be damned rather than take second place, and again, would be damned on her own terms. So this pathetic and apparently pointless escapade on Elba ends as it must; she takes away again the same despair that she brought with her.
Yet this book has a good reason to be and a beauty of its own. It is not only about dingy love affairs and senseless hatreds. It is a long lament, the heart-moving lyke-wake dirge that the widow Caitlin Thomas set down and brought back from her funerary island where she went to perform the antique rituals of
Beginning tenderly as a lullaby over the newly dead, not yet changed beyond recognition: “The same endearing childish hair,” the tone changes to raptures of rebellion, to bitter, ugly memories, to resentment, to terrible grudges and remorse, to homely, dearly treasured things, to a nightmare vision of the rotting body in the grave and her ghoulish descent into the earth to feed again upon his corruptible part. It is a curiously impressive performance, and I could wish to see it isolated from the rest of the story, for I feel that this is what she really wished to say.
Yet—strange woman—after all this; after going back to that island where she had once been with her love, and there in search of a cure she had done all that she could to degrade and humiliate herself in all the ways that would most surely put her love and her marriage to shame, and offend most deeply the ghost of her husband, she says quite suddenly and flatly: “I was not even sure I ever loved Dylan.”
After a short coda, the story closes, or rather, comes to a pause, on a note of sentimental collapse into total bathos of nursery rhyme and rather tardy maternal tenderness. And yet, and yet! There is a paradox of a hopeful kind in this whole muddle; it is a true chronicle of despair, it is not shameless, but shameful, it is not irreparable, for there is almost nothing one can do to be disgraced at present. Getting this book down on paper must have been a good, hard, steady, galling job of work—that in itself is a good sign of returning health and the sense of form. In spite of hell, the afflicted, unhappy woman got this work done, an act I don’t doubt of positive therapeutic value. She says herself somewhere in this work that sooner or later one has to take hold and do plain hard work. I have always doubted that art could be used as a medicine for the artist’s personal unhappiness or confusions. But this is not art, it is a huge loud clamor out of the depths, and sometimes as oppressive to read as if the raging woman was in the same room making daylight hideous with her unreason.
“IN THE MORNING OF THE POET. . .”
Dylan Thomas: Letters to Vernon Watkins,
edited, with an introduction, by Vernon Watkins.
New York: New Directions, 1957.
This collection of letters from Dylan Thomas to his best, earliest friend and fellow-poet, Vernon Watkins, is fresh and reassuring as a spring of water—a very lively spring to be sure, bubbling and leaping and running sometimes through muddy flats and stones and rubbish, but a true source, just the same; a good long look at the poet in the morning of his energies and gifts. So many persons have looked at Dylan Thomas through themselves, it is a change for the better to have Thomas looking at himself through a friend, a good, faithful, gifted friend who played it straight. Here are no perverse sexual motives, no wifely jealousy and rivalry, no literary hangers-on elbowing each other out of the reflected glory, no wistful would-be’s hoping that a little of the genius would rub off on them if only they could get close enough. Oh, none of all that dreariness!
Besides the early gaiety in some of the letters and the hubbub of daily life lived quite literally from hand to mouth, and later family life and the almost constant shifting of domestic arrangements, the eternal grind of poverty, which oppressed him constantly for years, these pages record the growth of a poet into the mastery of his art, and that with the simplicity of a man with his sleeves rolled up, working. The excitement of this occupation carries all the accidents and mischances of living triumphantly up to a certain point, and then the signs of exhaustion, the hints and surmises of disaster to come, begin to oppress the reader’s mind—or is it only because we know the end?
Though Watkins adds no word of his own except the most reserved introduction, the reserve of the man who does not need to explain anything to anybody, and a few very enlightening notes to some of the letters, and though he saved all of Thomas’ letters, while apparently Thomas saved none of Watkins’, yet the latter is the central figure in this history of a friendship, which for all we know was unique in both their lives; a long, faithful friendship in which Watkins was the touchstone. Several very important letters, he says, “disappeared” mysteriously as letters of persons who become celebrated have a way of doing.
He accuses no one, but regrets that he did not publish earlier while the collection was intact, and mentions that, rather tardily, he has made copies of those still in his possession.
The dignity and restraint of Watkins in the face of the insoluble problem of how to guard your treasures from anonymous “collectors” is very impressive, but so is his entire character in this long-drawn-out trial of friendship. Their bond was poetry, the common topic between them which did not need to be defined—poetry, or rather, the making of poetry, the daily search for the word, getting it in the phrase, making it mean what it should mean and the best way of doing this; for they were both hard-working poets, and, in the end and in spite of all, nothing else.
It is strange, for those who know only the lamentable last years, to see Dylan Thomas treating anything or anybody with respect, but Watkins plainly had him convinced from the beginning, and I believe quite simply by his profound reserves of moral force, calm generosity, acute critical sense, besides a first-rate talent and a head start as a practicing poet who could teach Thomas a number of things he badly needed to know. Who could better instruct a Welsh poet than another Welsh poet? Each one liked the work of only two poets—his own and the other’s. Far from being merely an amiable weakness, or narrowness (think of the vast reaches of poetry they agreed to ignore for the time being!) this mutual admiration was a source of strength to them both, and insured their unbroken attention to each other’s words and feelings.
Then, besides, Thomas was by nature melancholy, living at odds with a world he never trusted, and how rightly; and he believed that Watkins was the only really happy person he knew, and for the only good reason, because he had come through everything and was safely out on the other side of the fears and horrors of life. All these circumstances, so formed and directed and given meaning by Watkins’ own personal character, make up this lucky episode in both their lives.
For Thomas was the one always in trouble, one escapade after another, always needing to borrow money on the instant, asking for advice and quite often not taking it, making engagements for all sorts of occasions from tea “with toasted things” to Watkins’ own wedding, and just not making it, by hair’s breadth always.
He had a gorgeous sense of the comic whenever he could get his head above his troubles. Besides the constant discussion of poetry, the unbroken thread running through all the confusions and worries, his passing account of the events of his days fall on the page as freshly as talk; yet there is a certain reserve even in his bitter-merry letter about being stuck in Cornwall with a lady who speaks no language but Freud—nothing like the utter sprawl of his shameless confidences to others who have also published some of his letters.
This record begins in April, 1936, and ends December 29, 1952: that is, from youth to manhood, his whole life as poet, through marriage, fatherhood, part of the American adventure and the beginning of the end. He was enchanted with Caitlin: just after they were married he wrote to Watkins: “I think you’ll like [her] very much, she looks like the princess on the top of a Christmas tree, or like a stage Wendy; but, for God’s sake, don’t tell her that.” His children enchanted him: several of his best poems are written to or about his first son, Llewelyn, especially “This Side of the Truth.”
His attachment to his family was touching, and another great poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Dark Night,” was written to his father. His people were of small means, no educatio
He was continually running back to them for shelter and comfort long after he was a famous poet and a husband and the father of two children and a third to come, and they shared their miseries; “I am so cold this morning I could sing an opera, all the parts, and do the orchestra with my asthma” (November 23, 1948). And on the 13th of December, same year, same place, same household: “All well, but poor and tired here.”
What is left is the poetry, and his book of letters to a friend. Here is one dated February 1, 1939, that delights me almost more than any: “Dear Vernon: This is just to tell you that Caitlin and I have a son aged 48 hours. Its name is Llewelyn Thomas. It is red-faced, very angry and blue-eyed. Bit blue, bit green. Caitlin is well, and beautiful. I’m sorry Yeats is dead. What a loss of the great poems he would write. Aged 73, he died in his prime. Caitlin’s address—if you would like to send her a word—is Maternity Ward, Cornelia Hospital, Poole, Dorset. Our love to you. Dylan.”
A Most Lively Genius
Short Novels of Colette: Cheri, The Last of Cheri,
The Other One, Duo, The Cat, The Indulgent Husband,
with an introduction by Glenway Wescott.
New York: The Dial Press, 1951.
THE important thing to read in this collection is Glenway Wescott’s introduction. It is a labor of love, affectionate but unblinded; a deserved tribute to a most lively genius, full of Mr. Wescott’s wry judgments—all well seated in a long knowledge of all the works, in French—possibly the only language that can ever really contain them—and a true introduction. This long study, or meditation, on the life and writings of Colette does his dear author the justice to tell the new reader who is depending on translations that these short novels, for all their varying brilliancy, are not her best work.