Discover Dylan At Death’s Door

Sitting in the dentist the other day, I found myself musing about the state of Dylan’s teeth, the only part of his body he seemed to care about. Then my eye caught a poster about the dangers of plaque and, as one thing led to another, I was soon thinking about the various Dylan memorials that I had come across. One of my favourite plaques reads: ‘Dylan Thomas slept in this cottage on March 10 1953, on his way back to the Boat House in Laugharne.’ The cottage is in Cwmsylen, a village in Marcel Williams’ 1990 novel, Diawl y Wenallt. Was this, I wondered, Dylan’s very first appearance as a character in a literary work of fiction?

Two more quickly came to mind, both also written and published in Wales. Dylan is a central character in The Dylan Thomas Murders, a mystery novel set in the real-life village of Ciliau Aeron. Then came Rob Gittins’ The Poet and the Private Eye, a fiction about Dylan’s last days in New York in 1953. But are there other works out there, literary plaques if you will, that bring Dylan back to life, perhaps as a character in a short story, or in a play or novel?

As I waited for the injection to kick-in, I googled a useful Wiki page that included a handful of references to Dylan in works of fiction. I found the most plaqueable in Walter Mosley’s 2012 crime novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man, a street poet’s eulogy in a New York bar. It’s a hybrid form, as much placard as plaque:

“….among many of the recognised and lauded lights of the New York poetry scene the allure of Dylan Thomas has faded… They criticise everything from his depth of linguistic complexity to the obvious melodrama of his most well-known works. But what these poetry pontiffs fail to understand was that Thomas was a people’s poet, a man that connected song and metre and the concerns of every human being living their lives and suffering the consequences. His work, in its every repetition, fights for the survival and lifeblood of a form that most so-called great poets have moved beyond the reach of the common man …”

The extraction of my wisdom tooth was painless but messy. I wandered home, and shuffled papers. Two letters from Dylan to fellow-poets, neither in the Collected Letters, one to Alun Lewis, and another to John Berryman. A note from a New Quay resident, recalling that Dylan and Caitlin had lived there in 1942-43. Not in Majoda, she insisted, but down on the front in Penwig Isaf, and shouldn’t there be a plaque? And an email from a dance teacher, with stories of Caitlin and a young poet in Italy in 1956.

“When I was four or five, we spent the year in Positano. I was playing with two other children I had just met on the beach. Their babysitter overheard part of our conversation, seemingly an effort on my part to gain points with my new playmates. Doubled up with laughter, she told my parents that I had bragged to the kids that my father was a poet. Their response: ‘Our father was Dylan Thomas.’”

Are there any plaqueful words that can help us understand why Dylan, a relatively young man, died of a very treatable illness, and in a city which boasted some of America’s finest hospitals? He was already ill when he arrived in New York, and using an inhaler to help his breathing. A course of penicillin would have taken care of his developing chest disease but his doctor injected morphine, sending him into a coma from which he never recovered. The doc’s plaque has already been written by one of his patients: A wild doctor who believed injections could cure anything.

But the ending of Dylan’s life was a joint enterprise; his agent, John Brinnin, failed miserably in his duty of care. He was completely fed up with looking after Dylan, and decided to stay away from New York. For Brinnin’s plaque, we need go no further than his own memoirs, where we find these words of chilling ambiguity:  “Getting rid of Dylan was an obsession I was never able to curb”.

He knew Dylan was very ill, so you might wonder why he didn’t cancel his programme. But that was never an option for Brinnin; he was badly in debt and facing legal action. He desperately needed the money that would come from Dylan’s engagements, a punishing schedule of four rehearsals and two performances of Under Milk Wood in just five days. The play, said Dylan, “has taken the life out of me…” But he soldiered-on, conscientous to the end but he, too, needed the money. The Times Literary Supplement insightfully plaqued: “A man of genius who was overworked, overstrained and overdriven by material pressure, but who was trying to do his best for a public that appreciated him for all the wrong reasons”.

And that useful Wiki page? It’s by no means comprehensive but it’s as fitting a memorial as any plaque or gravestone. Here’s to you, Dylan. Without you, we would never have had Ivor the Engine.

David N. Thomas