Return to Cardiff by Dannie Abse

‘Hometown’; well, most admit an affection for a city:
grey, tangled streets I cycled on to school, my first cigarette
in the back lane, and fool, my first botched love affair.
First everything. Faded torments; self-indulgent pity.

The journey to Cardiff seemed less a return than a raid
on mislaid identities. Of course the whole locus smaller:
the mile-wide Taff now a stream, the castle not as in some black
gothic dream, but a decent sprawl, a joker’s toy facade.

Unfocused voices in the wind, associations, clues,
odds and ends, fringes caught, as when, after the doctor quit,
a door opened and I glimpsed the white, enormous face
of my grandfather, suddenly aghast with certain news.

Unable to define anything I can hardly speak,
and still I love the place for what I wanted it to be
as much as for what it unashamedly is
now for me, a city of strangers, alien and bleak.

Unable to communicate I’m easily betrayed,
uneasily diverted by mere sense reflections
like those anchored waterscapes that wander, alter, in the Taff,
hour by hour, as light slants down a different shade.

Illusory, too, that lost, dark playground after rain,
the noise of trams, gunshots in what they once called Tiger Bay.
Only real this smell of ripe, damp earth when the sun comes out,
a mixture of pungencies, half exquisite and half plain.

No sooner than I’d arrived the other Cardiff had gone,
smoke in the memory, these but tinned resemblances,
where the boy I was not and the man I am not
met, hesitated, left double footsteps, then walked on.

By Dannie Abse
from Poems, Golders Green
(1962)

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Additional information: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

The River Taff (‘Afon Taf’ in Welsh) is a river in Wales. It rises as two rivers in the Brecon Beacons; the Taf Fechan (little Taff) and the Taf Fawr (great Taff) before becoming one just north of Merthyr Tydfil. Its confluence with the River Severn estuary is in Cardiff. The river supports several species of migratory fish, including salmon, sewin (sea trout), and eel.

Tiger Bay (‘Bae Teigr’ in Welsh) was the local name for an area of Cardiff which covered Butetown and Cardiff Docks. Following the building of the Cardiff Barrage, which dams the tidal rivers, Ely and Taff, to create a body of water, it is referred to as Cardiff Bay. Tiger Bay is Wales’ oldest multi-ethnic community with sailors and workers from over 50 countries settling there in the 1950s.

Sunday Evening by Dannie Abse

Loved not for themselves those tenors who sing
arias from 'Aida' on horned, tinny
gramophones-but because they take a man back
to a half forgotten thing.

We, transported by this evening loaded
with a song recorded by Caruso,
recall some other place, another time,
now charmingly outmoded.

What, for wrong motives, too often is approved
proves we once existed, becomes mere flattery
-then it's ourselves whom we are listening to,
and, by hearing, we are moved.

To know, haunted, this echo too will fade
with fresh alliteration of the leaves,
as more rain, indistinct, drags down the sky
like a sense of gloom mislaid.

Dear classic, melodic absences
how stringently debarred, kept out of mind,
till some genius on a gramophone
holes defences, breaks all fences.

What lives in a man and calls him back
and back through desolate Sunday evenings?
Indescribable, oh faint generic name:
sweet taste, bitter lack.


by Dannie Abse
from Poems, Golders Green (1962)

Additional information: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.

Red Balloon by Dannie Abse

It sailed across the startled town,

over chapels, over chimney-pots,

wind-blown above a block of flats

before it floated down.

 

Oddly, it landed where I stood,

and finding’s keeping, as you know.

I breathed on it, I polished it,

till it shone like living blood.

 

It was my shame, it was my joy,

it brought me notoriety.

From all of Wales the rude boy came,

it ceased to be a toy.

 

I heard the girls of Cardiff sigh

When my balloon, my red balloon,

soared higher like a happiness

towards the dark blue sky.

 

Nine months since, have I boasted of

my unique, my only precious;

but to no one dare I show it now

however long they swear their love.

 

‘It’s a Jew’s balloon,’ my best friend cried,

‘stained with our dear Lord’s blood.’

‘That I’m a Jew is true,’ I said,

said I, ‘that cannot be denied.’

 

‘What relevance?’ I asked, surprised,

‘what’s religion to do with this?’

‘Your red balloon’s a Jew’s balloon,

let’s get it circumcised.’

 

Then some boys laughed and some boys cursed,

some unsheathed their dirty knives:

some lunged, some clawed at my balloon,

but still it would not burst.

 

They bled my nose, they cut my eye,

half conscious in the street I heard,

‘Give up, give up your red balloon.’

I don’t know exactly why.

 

Father, bolt the door, turn the key,

lest those sad, brash boys return

to insult my faith and steal

my red balloon from me.

 

by Dannie Abse

from Poems, Golders Green (1962)


Fun facts: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to a Jewish family. He was the younger brother of politician and reformer Leo Abse and the eminent psychoanalyst, Wilfred Abse. Unusually for a middle-class Jewish boy, Dannie Abse attended St Illtyd’s College, a working-class Catholic school in Splott.