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Dannie Abse - Touch Wood: Poems and a Story (Corgi Series: 1)

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Manylion a Disgrifiad y Llyfr | Book Details & Description

  • ISBN: 9780863817014
  • Author: Dannie Abse
  • Publication December 2002
  • Format: Paperback, 148x103 mm, 96 pages

A pocket size selection of 28 poems and one story by a prolific poet and author reflecting his Welsh upbringing and his Jewish descent in works of humour and irony, with a short biography and a useful bibliography.

Gwales Review
'I’ve never thought poetry is a career. I know it sounds romantic, but I think poetry is a destiny, certainly a vocation.' Dannie Abse’s comment – made in a Guardian profile marking his eightieth birthday in 2003 – may at first seem strange for somebody who has published thirteen books of poetry. Those familiar with his life and work, however, will know of his dual existence as both doctor (he worked for many years at a London chest-clinic) and poet. Indeed, this duality is a central aspect of Dannie Abse’s writing – what he himself has dubbed the white coat/purple coat approach. Furthermore, Abse’s Cardiff upbringing and Jewish roots have also been highly influential, and this, the first in the attractively produced Corgi series covering writing from Wales, offers as good an introduction as any to his work.

Some of Abse’s finest poems draw on his medical background. While he celebrates the joys of life he is also fully aware of its harsh realities, as expressed in 'Pathology of Colours': 'I know the colour rose, and it is lovely,/but not when it ripens in a tumour'. The interrelationship of the beautiful and the destructive is a strong characteristic of Abse’s work, giving it a melancholic feel:

So in the simple blessing of a rainbow,
in the bevelled edge of a sunlit mirror,
I have seen, visible, Death’s artifact
like a soldier’s ribbon on a tunic tacked.

Another notable medical poem is the harrowing 'In the Theatre', based on a true incident witnessed by the poet’s bother, Wilfred, while working as a dresser during a botched operation to remove a brain tumour. This is not to say, however, that reading Dannie Abse’s poetry is a depressing experience. There are humorous pieces collected here also, such as 'Pantomime Diseases', which waggishly shatters fairy-tale myths. Of Sleeping Beauty, for example: 'Poor girl – she married the Prince out of duty/and suffered insomnia ever after'. Definitely not to be read to children at bedtime!

Dannie Abse is often quoted as having said: 'Auschwitz made me more of a Jew than Moses ever did', and poems such as 'A Night Out' deal specifically with the Holocaust. Here, the poet tells of a visit to the cinema with his wife to see a Polish film about the atrocity, an experience in which the dramatic becomes inseparable from reality: 'we forgot the barbed wire/was but a prop and could not scratch an eye;/those striped victims merely actors like us'.

Another characteristic of Abse’s poetry is its nostalgic quality, clearly present in poems such as 'Sunday Evening' and 'Photograph and White Tulip'. Thankfully, the poet’s nostalgia seldom descends into pathos, which owes much to his continual self-awareness, as in 'Return to Cardiff':

Unable to define anything I can hardly speak,
and still I love the place for what I wanted it to be
as much as for what it unashamedly is
now for me, a city of strangers, alien and bleak.

This anthology ends with a short story, 'My Father’s Red Indian', from Abse’s work of 'autobiographical fiction', There Was a Young Man from Cardiff. Set in Ogmore-by-Sea (where Abse now owns a second home) many of the themes predominant in the poetry are also here present, though the writer’s family generally has a more prominent place in his prose. 'My Father’s Red Indian', despite the title, is a touching tale of a son’s relationship with his father, and also maintains the lyrical qualities of Abse’s poetry.

All in all, newcomers to Dannie Abse’s writing will appreciate this thoroughly enjoyable selection from the work of one of Wales’s most prolific and illustrious writers.

Owain Wilkins