I have longed to move away but am afraid;
Some life, yet unspent, might explode
Out of the old lie burning on the ground,
And, crackling into the air, leave me half-blind.
– Dylan Thomas, I have longed to move away
I read Thomas’ poem when I was twenty-one, squandering a life in my comfortable childhood home in Sydney. As the youngest of four in a traditional, severely conservative migrant family, I felt for the first time reading this line as though the poet had grabbed my ribs and bent it to expose my throbbing, nervous heart. The yearning in that first line—I have longed to move away—spoke to me as clearly as winter water against my bare skin when jumping into the ocean. That line encompassed such a simple desire of my own existence, finally validated. I, too, had wanted to move away from the confines of my place in the world—which, at that point, felt tiny, a drop in the ocean. Nobody outside of my family knew I had a life.
My parents embodied the perfect union of two stoic and judicial individuals who came together for the purposes of raising four stoic and judicial young people. This required them to kill the person they dreamed about being when they were younger and detrimentally naïve. I imagine them bathing themselves in a big tub the night before they decided to have their first born, scrubbing themselves clean, getting rid of any evidence of the person they were, abandoning their childhoods, preparing themselves to give every single breath for the rest of their lives from that point on to the wellbeing and prosperity of their offspring. They would leave their souls behind. In time, perhaps, they will long to move away from their parenthood, their parentness; but they will yearn for it in the private spaces of their heart, someplace hidden, so hidden that sometimes they would be unable to find it.
My mother was the one who managed to scrub perfectly—not a single stain was left in sight. When I became an adult, I would not have a close relationship with her because I love the child in everyone I meet. I discover that there is no child in her—she has always been an old woman.
Loving my father was easy, despite our relationship going through more intense tsunamis. When I was a teenager, our frequent arguments would become so furious and his criticisms of me so vicious and horrifying that I would end up in my bedroom shaking, terrified that I’d broken my ribs from the shouting. But my father has a child in him, a child who had also longed to move away. He had yearned to travel to foreign places. He used to tell me about them: Canada, Alaska, high mountain places where you could traverse the open landscape for days and not meet a soul. He had wanted a much bigger life, a life exploring the other worlds he’d only dreamed about as a boy growing up in Taiwan. When he talked about his youth, I could see how he had let go of the child inside him, year by year, but he held onto that child’s arms just enough, to show me how it used to be inside his world.
The grandeur of the line—am afraid; Some life, yet unspent, might explode—exactly expressed my fear of my father’s life and my own. I am afraid of letting my days slip by and not having anything to show for it. Perhaps it is because my paternal grandfather was once a vagrant on the streets of China, that he starved. Both my father and his father toiled—body, mind and spirit—and then I came into the world, never having to know what it means to toil. There is pressure from some invisible force that tells me to make my life something worthy of note, worthy of their struggles.
I exploded once, when I was seventeen and finishing my final year of high school. I went to my bedroom and picked up a piece of glass that had broken off a mirror. I carved a red line across my left wrist, afraid of that unspent life Thomas describes in his poem. I grieved over the life my parents had wanted for me. I looked to my father. He was the compassionate one in the family, he let me see the child in him. Both of us, afraid of not fulfilling the lives we’d wanted for ourselves. I see him now at sixty-five and living day-to-day according to my mother’s complicated schedule of medical appointments.
Thomas’ line speaks to me on another level too. The words he chooses–old lie burning–leave me feeling hot, anxious and jittery—like a match has been struck in front of me, and I have ten seconds to make a snap decision about something important, to blow out the flame or light a candle. What is that old lie burning inside my father? What is the lie I am telling myself? I feel there is a hidden creature inside me that is buried deep. I am afraid of the violence of it, that it has a heart of its own. If I lead my life, continuing to let it brew beneath shrouds, will it explode and leave me half-blind? There is yellow and bright orange when I read Thomas’ lines, an explosion, a flame, dark black ground, crackling in the air. I can hear the poet’s violent creature flipping around in its cage, thrashing about, wanting to be let out.
I feel it all. It comes alive in the dark, grey space between my bent ribs, like a child’s small hand perched on a mother’s neck, squeezing it, holding on tight. It feels more real that the touch of my father’s hands on my shoulders. I can hear the sonic boom of the explosion, the ‘crackling’. I hear the thrum of urgency in the end, the mention of ‘death’s feather’, a dramatic shift from the more tender, reflective tone of the beginning ‘I have longed to move away, but am afraid.’ I feel the regrets of a man who has lead a life, and, realising there is that ultimate end, panics.
I am reminded of the child in me, to hear the constant growl of her irritable yearning for something beyond the reach of the old life.
Jessie Tu is a Taiwanese Australian writer and poet. Her poems have appeared in The Asian Australian Contemporary Poetry Anthology, Vibewire and Peril and AustLit.
She won the 2016 Joseph Furphy Literary Prize for poetry and shortlisted for the 2017 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. She has attended the New York Writers’ Workshop Pitching Conference, Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio and Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival.
She was awarded a residency at the Atlantic Centre for the Arts in Florida in 2018 and Vagabond Press recently released her debut collection of poems “You should have told me we have nothing left”. She is a recipient of Development Grants Individuals and Groups from the Australia Council for the Arts and is working on her second novel. She is a teacher at Newington College in Sydney.