It is a kind of grace when life affords a poet the opportunity to give a final shape to his or her creative journey; that rare thing was accorded Dannie Abse, who was able to put together his last volume, Ask the Moon, in September 2014, the month that he died. So we as readers are provided with a privileged insight both into what he considered poems worthy of inclusion in terms of quality, and also into those themes that preoccupied him from the start of his career until his death.
Born in Cardiff in 1923 of Welsh Jewish parentage, he described himself appositely in his autobiography, Goodbye Twentieth Century, as being descended from the traditions of both Dafydd and David. It is an indication of how the dichotomies seemed to accumulate; indeed, in many ways, Dannie epitomised the famous lines from Goethe’s “Gingko Biloba”: “Fühlst du nicht an meinen Liedern,/Dass ich eins und doppelt bin? (Can’t you sense within my poems/ That I am both two and one?)
Culturally Jewish—his parents spoke Yiddish, attendance at synagogue was regular and he went to cheder classes to learn the scriptures—he was nevertheless educated at the Catholic secondary school of St. Illtyd’s, run by what he experienced as the conservative, repressed and repressive de la Salle Brothers. The effect of this intensive double exposure to the Judeo-Christian tradition was to inoculate Abse against institutionalised religion and zealotry of all kinds, “All God’s robots lose their charm/who carry prayer books, wear a hat./ I don’t like them, I don’t like them,/ and feel less guilty thinking that” (“Even”). His epiphanies were henceforth to be gained from the evidence of what he could see, touch, smell, hear, “I start with the visible/ and am startled by the visible,” (“Mysteries”). But even so Abse remains haunted by those experiences that go somewhere more profound than our mere experience of the everyday. He can’t, as a poet, deny them.
No one as aware of his Jewish heritage as Abse was could avoid the terrible confrontations that the 20th century placed before him. And here we have another dichotomy: though he felt repelled by orthodox Jewry, he was proud of his ancestry and affiliations, defensive of Israel when it was under threat yet critical of it when he felt it needed criticism. As for so many others, it was “Auschwitz which made me more of a Jew than Moses ever did” (“White Balloon”). Few have captured the horrific arrival of the evidence of the death camps into the consciousness of the ordinary British citizen as well as he does in “A Night Out”: “We watched, as we munched milk chocolate,/ trustful children, no older than our own,/ strolling into the chambers without fuss,/ while smoke, black and curly, oozed from chimneys.”
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