The eye of my distractible friend Janet often brings her to a full stop, clamps her there, and causes her to drift away from what she’s been doing.
Lichen, for instance, distracted her on the boardwalk at the Corkscrew Swamp in southwestern Florida. There she was, leaning over the rail, pointing, and when I stopped beside her, she said, “Look down, do you see the red lichen.”
Up to that point, I’d been clocking white lichen on the trees. Not very interesting. Just chalky splotches.
Then I noticed crusts of white lichen beginning to turn pink at their edges. As the pink moved towards the center of the patch, it became rose. On rare occasions, the center was red.
All of which distracted me, then channeled my thoughts to R. S. Thomas’s love poems, whose typical emotional temperature on the surface is not red. Rather, their romantic range is from pink-edged white to rose.
Certainly, that is the case with one of my favorites:
With her fingers she turns paint
into flowers, with her body
flowers into a remembrance
of herself. She is at work
always, mending the garment
of our marriage, foraging
like a bird for something
for us to eat. If there are thorns
in my life, it is she who
will press her breast to them and sing.
Her words, when she would scold,
are too sharp. She is busy
after for hours rubbing smiles
into the wounds. I saw her,
when young, and spread the panoply
of my feathers instinctively
to engage her. She was not deceived,
but accepted me as a girl
will under a thin moon
in love’s absence as someone
she could build a home with
for her imagined child.
Those lines are Thomas’s tribute to Elsi, his first wife, an artist who had already made a name for herself in London art circles while he was still an unknown Welsh curate and would-be poet.
Elsi’s oil paintings of flowers have an Impressionist quality. Delicacy and precision, however, characterize her watercolor and pencil flowers, as well as her birds. She sees owls with a photographic eye, then her hand gives them personality.
RS was a birder, and often he saw Elsi as a woman with a bird’s fineness of bone and movement. So the first eight lines of “The Way of It” provide an unshowy tribute to a deep affection.
Thomas, to say the least, was not a Hallmark Valentine card sort of lover. And one of his poems, “Luminary,” suggests that neither he nor Elsi wore a wedding ring. “They did not feel,” to quote Tony Brown, “they needed even that outward show of their love.”
The same year, 1977, that Thomas included “The Way of It” in a small book with the same title, Colleen McCullough published her soon-to-be bestselling novel The Thorn Birds. I assume that’s a coincidence, but I can’t be certain.
This is the thorn bird legend: From the time the thorn bird leaves the nest, it searches for the right thorn tree. Then, swording its breast on the sharpest of the thorns, it sings – sings so sweetly that God in his heaven smiles.
The image in the opening sentence of the second stanza is pure RS, and that is one of the reasons I nominate “The Way of It” as one of his best love poems.
All you need to do is substitute different pronouns in these lines: Her words, when she would scold, / are too sharp. She is busy / after for hours, rubbing smiles / into the wounds. And you have a formula for any enduring marriage, whether a ringed or ringless one.
The poem’s last nine lines present RS, appropriately, as a bird, then move on to the phrase “in love’s absence.” And here, as interpreters, we’re on our own. Elsi, certainly, knew how to ‘take’ it, but even her parsing may have changed from day to day, year to year, even decade to decade.
And RS? I think that what he felt was a matter too unnamable to be encoded in the word “love” – it was a white lichen developing pink edges that spread inward, becoming rosy, perhaps red.
Poem by R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“The Way of It” – The Way of It , 30.