'A living cipher...syllabIc blood'


 John Goodby Uncaged Sea
(78pp, 8, Waterloo Press)


Goodby's book comprises a single long poem - a mesostic reading-through of Dylan Thomas' Collected Poems 1934-53. If you are unfamiliar with the technique, invented by John Cage, Goodby's procedure is explained in detail in his note at the end of the poem. For the purposes of this review, all it is necessary to be aware of is that composition takes place by selecting words from Thomas' poems which contain letters from his name. Any given word is selected by the first instance in the source text of a letter which appears in the 'mesostic string' formed by the words 'Dylan Marlais Thomas', arranged vertically on the page and repeated over and over. This letter cannot then reappear until the text reaches the next letter in the string, and so on. The poem also includes additional words from the source text that appear between the occurrences of the letters of the string. The poem opens:

      golD tithings barren
  Off bY
      soiLs
the grAss
      wiNter floods of


faded yard, Teach Me
            threAds of doubt
             houses wheRe
           signaL
           sap rAn
      Is zero in
         that flashed the hedgeS

STature by seedy
       fro wHere
  Or
         the Mouths
 lAme the air
      they with the Simple
                                           (p. 15)

Goodby has applied this technique rigorously and inventively, working through Thomas' collected works from both ends in alternate lines and even determining the number of words per line in each mesostic stanza. In this edition, one is also offered a recording of a performance of the poem by the experimental poetry performance group Boiled String, of which Goodby is Artistic Director.
         What does reading this poem sound and feel like? As one might expect with a technique such as this, the overall phrasal mode of writing affords many interesting syntactic patterns and abrupt transitions:

The shameful oak, oMens
                                     And sand, The
                   Siren-pRinted
    hoLding
          staved And
      wIth the long
  molested rocks the Shell
(p. 66)

Local continuities start to emerge when sections are examined like this in detail: 'sand', 'rocks' and 'Shell' provide a possible setting for a psycho-sexual drama played out around shame and molestation, perhaps even given a classical reference in the form of 'Siren'. However, it would be hard to sustain this kind of reading across the whole poem and it reads most effectively in small fragments:

out of every doMed
                        orAtor Laying my
            the coveRing
                      metaL
    to heAven-
         twIn world tread
anonymous beast. Two Sand
                                    (p. 44)

At its best this writing reminds me of the intensity of Maggie O'Sullivan's approach to language and the space of the page, and also to Geraldine Monk's verbal wit and uncanniness. It is no small tribute to Thomas' poetry that at times the cumulative effect of these reorderings resembles that of reading a concordance, as themes relentlessly emerge and re-emerge from the charged vocabulary. Such themes will be familiar to any reader of Thomas - nature, death, faith, kinship, time - some of which are no less shared with Monk and O'Sullivan than they are with Ted Hughes. Monk has indeed acknowledged Thomas as an early and important influence on her own writing (see Bill Griffiths' essay on her work in The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk
) and, in his important critical work on Thomas, Goodby has been at pains to unearth what he calls the 'buried presence' of Thomas in contemporary poetry of various traditions.

The recorded performance of the piece is a multi-voiced affair performed by Goodby, Peter Williams, Angela Colderick and Margot Morgan. The movement between voices ranges from short phrases to longer runs at the text - occasionally in unison - creating a fluid and dynamic texture. This is counterpointed by a dense under-weaving of sound effects ranging from thunderstorms to birdsong to Williams' jazz bass. There are some stunning moments when the sound effects momentarily pull away, leaving the voices suspended in silence. Despite the richness of this sound world however, the possible shortcomings of the Cageian technique become apparent in the reduced affect and lack of development that a procedure-driven text often exhibits. There is thus a tension throughout the performance between the semi-dramatic tone of delivery and the fragmentary nature of the text which does not always come off. One also feels that the text tends to stay in the same place throughout - because its mode of construction is the same throughout - although this could also be considered a positive feature.

There is a big question underlying this enterprise about why Goodby chooses Cage's technique to illuminate Thomas. Goodby partly answers this question in his note on the text by placing his work in the context of experimental Welsh anglophone writing, citing David Jones, Lynette Roberts, John James, Peter Finch, and David Greenslade (alongside Thomas himself) as exemplars of this tradition. However, mesostics have not been a key part of any of these poets' technical repertoire to my knowledge - although they would sit well in Finch's practice - and the appropriation of Cage's technique perhaps risks too easily eliding the idiosyncratic Buddhist poetics of non-intention that informed Cage's practice. That said, it is Cage's use of the mesostic as a form of homage to his great modernist heroes: Pound, Joyce and Satie, that is closer to the spirit in which Goodby uses it here. In his intention to help his readers to 're-imagine Dylan Thomas' in the twenty-first century, Goodby is brilliantly successful.

        Scott Thurston 2010