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R.S. Thomas was asking questions from the first, at the very beginning of his poetry making — well, perhaps just the one big question. Even when describing the dying of a local farmer (in EVANS, from an earlier collection) the reader is aware of the poet's compassion for the individual being dwarfed by the immensity of the unknowable. The title, RESIDUES, is the name of a file in which Thomas kept his uncollected (and mainly unpublished) poems. These 'residues' are in no way crumpled remainders, appealing only to the curious, they are indeed essences. There are no spare words here; his metaphysics, his spirituality, his tenacious grip on the rugged natural landscape of his homeland are reduced to bones on which the reader may imagine an infinite flesh.
Thomas has never been sentimental or less than brutally honest about the past. His poetry is peopled with victims, either of a harsh natural world or of an even harsher unnatural one. Thomas is also victim — more so perhaps than his flock of farmers and labourers. He shares with them not only the 'seven ages' and all that goes with it but also, and that which is infinitely more uncomfortable, the agony of his tortured and questioning intellect.
In RESIDUES that old spiritual wrestling is still witnessed, although in some poems he describes a kind of acceptance; not an acceptance beaten — fashioned — by the fierce insistence of his perennial questioning and doubt, but something that goes more gentle into the 'dark night' of that other 'Thomas': from GRAVESTONE:
... Patient earth, building your house with out bones, keep these pieces of me that in better poets my pride may be mended.There are, in this slim book (more noticeable than in his mammoth COLLECTED work) several poems about his marriage and the loss of a wife that have a moving (but not unqualified) non-cerebral lyricism: GOLDEN WEDDING:
Cold hands meeting, the eyes aside — so vows are contracted in the tongue's absence. Gradually over fifty long years of held breath the heart has become warm.and from COMPARISONS:
I remembered she rested at the dance on my arm, as a bird on its nest lest she lean too heavily on our love. Snow melts, feathers are blown away; I have let her ashes down in me like an anchor.But, of course, the Thomas we expect is here too; if now not always questioning, then prompting those big questions to be asked by the reader alone.
|reviewer: Michael Bangerter.|