Saturday, May 12, 2007

Owen Dodson and Poetry.

Owen Dodson. Books still have a magic of their own. There is a thrill in opening a book for the first time, touching the crisp pages, watching how they fall back as if they have not been touched, so refusing the enquiring gaze. With second hand books it is somewhat different. They have a used story to tell… And that story is often implied, cryptic, too much for a hermeticist to reject! I was intrigued, therefore, to come across a copy of Owen Dodson's poetry in a small second-handbook shop in Wales. Books travel. But how did that copy find a home amidst the rolling green hills of Wales rather than some place in Washington D.C.? I suppose the answer rests with the bold, black free inscription flowing like waves across the title page:

“Your name is Johnny,
My names is Owen,
Hello across the sea.
October 5, 1976.”

Owen, is of course, Owen Dodson. But Johnny? Not a passing acquaintance, since Dodson sent a copy of his photographic book on Harlem to the same Johnny in 1978; and this one came from Dodson’s family home, from his sister, in New York. The inscription to the poetry book suggests an introduction, a friend of a friend and someone not met. Yet, you don’t send signed new first editions unsolicited. So, who was the Johnny, in England, who merited the attention of a 62 year old ex-Howard University professor of drama and major Black dramatist?

The book now exudes mustiness. It belongs to a period when poetry books were published on quality paper and came unevenly cut. In the pockled paper there is a soft grain: a grain that fits the soft, elegiac tone that runs through Powerful Long Ladder. Published in 1946, this volume has a private and public face: it mourns the war dead, but also a world only half-acknowledged, as was typical of the Harlem Renaissance poets. “Counterpoint" is for the magician of that period, Carl Van Vechten, and comes with an ominous refrain: “Terror does not belong to open day”, as if suggesting a secret life beyond the glamour and glitz.
Countee Cullen” is an elegy written shortly after the poet’s death, in 1946, and this touches, like the Van Vechten poem, upon a world of secret desires: Cullen’s love for other Black men. There is a finely crafted short lyric for the Black gay actor and singer, Gordon Heath, who had just appeared, on Broadway, as Brett Charles, in Deep are the Roots:

Nothing happens only once,
Nothing happens only here,
Every love that lies asleep
Wakes today another year.

Why we sailed and how we prosper
Will be sung and lived again;
All the lands repeat themselves,
Shore for shore and men for men.

The echoes accumulate until they ring behind the ambivalent “you”. Like Auden before him, Dodson had learnt how to use the “you” to imply a personal, private and secretive “he”:


There is no evidence that you loved me,
Or witnesses: there was fire for the letters,
And those I told are promised, sealed.

Once there was a prism even the sun
Could not glory, light came from
Somewhere more abstract than the sky.

But light is the name, there is no other;
This light was human living, not aerial,
Mixed, fragrant, showing even at blazing noon,

Never in a dark so solid nothing
Struck through: sun or star or moon
Or artificial lamp, electric-full.

It is no secret: the somewhere light was you,
Nor the flesh part only, not the bone part merely
But the dream undyed with passion:

You when there was no henceforth
To walk, no now to penetrate,
No therewas to shadow. You in clarity.

The prism still lies near the clock,
But time nestling up to dawn, to spring in afternoon,
Loves hours, only hours, never light.

Powerful Long Ladder is a significant volume which contains a lost imagination that once stretched like human arms to embrace love and death. Dodson gets no metion in the Academy of American Poets. His poetry, like the above examples, ranges from short lyrics to dramatic dialogues, and are often written with an apocalyptic and metaphyscial fire. Dodson's imagination in Powerful Long Ladder is strongest when it is most personal. Its roots are deep, especially at the close when they mix prophecy and politics and reverberate like Baldwin:

Brothers, let us discover our hearts again...


BronzeBuckaroo said...

It goes without saying that I envy your coming upon that inscripted copy of Owen Dodson. I'd definitely like to know more about this Johnny. Searching for Dodson poems now, preferably in a handsome second hand book. There is something special about holding a book worn with age and use.

eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
eshuneutics said...

I would have to agree, though I am fond of new books, there is something about an old book--it touches a period more intimately, or perhaps that is just a book lover's romantic notion.