Poet Dannie Abse has last word in book of his collected works

Poet Dannie Abse in 2006. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Poet Dannie Abse in 2006. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

Bridget Galton looks at a new anthology of the late Golders Green poet and picks out extracts from his 66 year career.

Golders Green poet and playwright Dannie Abse was writing right up until his death in September.

His final poems, marking the centenaries of the first world war and the birth of fellow Welshman Dylan Thomas are included in the first complete anthology spanning his life’s work.

Ask the Moon New and Collected Poems 1948 – 2014 (Hutchinson £20) also features some of the 91-year-old’s best loved verse, much of it inspired by his beloved wife Joan who died in a car crash in 2005.

One of his first poems, Epithalamion – often read out at weddings – celebrates the beginning of their life together, while the deeply moving Lachrymae – from Abse’s meditation on grief The Presence - marks its terrible end on the hard shoulder of the M4.

“Love is, perhaps, the most distinguished feature of Dannie Abse’s work both in terms of its subject matter and how it is received. I honestly cannot think of any writer who is held in greater affection than Dannie,” says fellow poet Ian Duhig.

“Witty and humane, subtle and skilful – I’d call him a national treasure if I wasn’t worried about upsetting the Welsh; so an international treasure.”

Most Read

Born in Cardiff to a Jewish family that included older brother the politician Leo Abse, he combined writing with a thirty year medical career as a chest specialist, living between Golders Green and Ogmore in Wales - with both locations inspiring his verse.

In the foreword, Abse writes that the poems are “rooted in and from my life experiences, some mundane, some dramatic”.

“I recall words of Rilke whom I read when I was a young medical student, ‘In order to write a single verse one must be able to return in thought to unexpected encounters, to days of childhood that are still indistinct, to nights of love… But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in a room with open windows and fitful noises.’

“I have experienced such things and I have done my best to tell of them in the best way I can, with what gifts I have. I hope these poems are universal enough to give others mental and heartfelt pleasure, in their comedy and in their grief.”

Extract from Ask The Moon

I once visited once, once only, elsewhere

near a lake, near an oak,

near a weeping willow tree and thorn

one summertime, out of time, in England,

during the cosmic love-making hour

when day and night shyly intermingle,

when day entranced does not know

what or when and night, ecstatic,

is not itself entirely

till the late coming of the stars.

But now it’s 4 a.m. already

and like a snow-flake’s touch

shiver-cold and quiet.

Did someone cry out?

I heard someone cry out.

No-one cried out.

I woke up dreaming I

was wide-awake.

The Presence

Though not sensible I feel we are married still

After four years survival guilt endures.

I should have said this, could have done that,

And your absent presence has left a weeping scar.

Like a heartbeat, you are indispensible.

Each year, I think the cries of the dead retreat,

Become smaller small. Now your nearness is far

And sometimes I sense your’e hardly there at all.

When in company, when my smiles persist,

Your distance briefly is like the furthest star.

It’s when I’m most myself, most alone

With all the clamour of my senses dumb,

Then, in the confusion of Time’s deletion

By Eternity, I welcome you and you return

Improbably close, though of course you cannot come.

Valediction (2014)

In this exile

People call old age

I lived between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of the fools and fear.

Thanks be. I was lucky to be here.