ON READING PETER THABIT JONES'S POEMS FROM A CABIN ON BIG SUR (forthcoming from Cross-Cultural Communications, New York)
Vince Clemente's Introduction
Born and raised in Swansea, Wales, Peter Thabit Jones teaches literature courses at the Adult
Education Department at Swansea University, and an additional literature course at 5 Cwmdonkin
Drive, birthplace of Dylan Thomas.
In a letter addressed to me dated July, 2010, just home from his “Fourth American poetry tour,”
culminating as poet-in-residence for a month, at the invitation of poet and friend Carolyn Mary Kleefeld,
in a solitary cabin “on” Big Sur, high above the Pacific Ocean, Peter wrote:
“I enclose the typed manuscript of my poems from a cabin on Big Sur. You are the first person to see it.
I have titled it On, rather than In because the cabin was on a mountain cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean,
the man on Big Sur reunited with the boy on Kilvey [the towering hill above his Swansea home].
It was a religious/spiritual experience for me, as I, Peter Thabit Jones, was diminished in the huge
life-force that confronted me daily. God grew and grew, and the universe unfolded in all its amazing
patterns of glory. The man on Big Sur saw/observed with the eyes of maturity, but he felt with the
open heart of the boy on Kilvey.”
Indeed, the month-long retreat in this “monk’s cell” of a cabin sanctuary is reverentially chronicled
in this manuscript. I truly feel anointed as I read through its sixty-eight poems and concluding Coda.
I love the poems’ clarity of vision, this genuflecting before a life-affirming experience, part of the
webwork of a world, so much in its purity, like that of the very dawn of Creation.
The poems vary, both in length and in prosody, yet always with Peter’s dual vision and sensibility:
“The man on Big Sur [observing] with the eyes of maturity, but [feeling] with the open heart of
the boy on Kilvey.”
About the volume’s initial poem, ‘The Airport in San Francisco,’ Peter tells me in the July 2010 letter:
“The opening poem/experience about the boy in the airport, a boy named Mathew, set the tone of
my mind for my four weeks of virtual solitude.” Of course, it is also the name of his lost son, Mathew,
found dead in his crib at eight months old, a loss Peter carries with him daily, attempts, somehow,
to come to terms with this soul-deep wound in poems like ‘The Cold, Cold Corner’ (from The Lizard
Catchers, Cross-Cultural Communications, 2006), a six-part elegy for a son he will never see again.
I’d like to quote just two sections from this poem: 3. Mathew, and 6. Remembrance. We understand,
then, how this spontaneous call in an airport, for a “toddler”, one who “runs from his mother” indeed
for Peter, “set the tone” for his four weeks of “virtual solitude” in Big Sur.
On Sundays, we go to attend to his grave:
The large, paper cornet foaming with flowers;
And our eyes as dry as the surrounding stones.
His smile and small darkness are vinegar
Memories stinging the cut cord of our living love.
His white cross stabs the formal grass. His photos,
Wordless elegies, inhabit my wallet.
I bury you softly in thoughts like snow.
I wear my grief, my black flower of pain.
My thoughts are prayers that can never reach home;
I tend to your grave in the cold of cold rain.
And to think, nonchalantly in ‘The Airport in San Francisco,’ along with lamenting Peter, we hear,
indeed, eavesdrop “Mathew! she calls,/ Mathew!/And lights/ A dry bonfire/Deep in my heart”: one,
I fear, burning to this day, for he confides, “A shadow in the soul,/ Two syllables of love,/ A cross
with some words,/ The silence of dust.” And the “silence” there in that cabin, yet one eternally
Another early poem, one of incipient moments, ‘Arrival the Cabin, Big Sur: First Night,’ only has five lines,
yet is so typically the voice of the poet of the full volume, always this sonic-semantic integrity, reverence
for both vision of the natural world and the levitating sanctity of words:
The ocean washes
The winds of my dreams. I sleep
At the feet of its roars,
The engine of its life-force,
The eternal Pacific.
And in the many poems that capture Peter’s solemn walks along “The eternal Pacific,” solitary or with
“adopted sister” Carolyn, one is reminded of Emerson’s comment about Thoreau, how “The length of
his walk uniformly determined the length of his line.” We find such a definition of Self in ‘Walking with
Carolyn’, inspired by their initial evening walk together, with ‘The Pacific purring/Its aeons below us.”
This is a poem of finely hewn couplets, each line becoming a footprint along the ocean’s tideline.
From our oceans of thoughts.
A man and a woman,
We follow our shadows.
Our words burn their passion
On rough drafts of the wind
At the edge of your world,
These very ambulatory “rough drafts” became the poems of this volume, as we come upon in ‘Writing
in the Cabin,’ the poet at work on his poems, those, as he tells us in the Dedication, written “in memory
of my father who still sails the ocean of my heart,” the very father lost at sea, Peter just a boy at the
time. We find him alone at his modest table “Writing, stopping/Thinking, writing.” And along with his
finely crafted tercets, we hear these antiphonal cadences that chime with hymnal sanctity throughout
this poem of creation, one that, “Rides through each day / To the language and the longing / Of the
Earth’s growing song.” And the imagery itself, always from the sounds, fragrances, rhythms of his
sea-surging life, here, worlds from Swansea, yet still the boy under Kilvey Hill.
And in ‘Morning,’ after he wakes, “…so tired/ From a night of writing,” he finds just under him, and
certain as grace is certain, “The ocean still leaving/Its verbs on the shore,’ indeed this act of faith, in
what he tells us, “was a religious/spiritual experience,” yet one enshrined in this very world.
And always this “length of the walk,” as the volume is prolific with poems, at least a dozen, of ambulatory,
soul-seeking wanderings along the ocean’s tide line, the woods beyond the cabin, each walk shrouded in
Time and the lingering caul of mist that is Big Sur. Early in the volume we come upon a cluster of three
short tightly braided such poems: ‘Evening Walk: One,’ ‘ Evening Walk: Two,’ and ‘Morning Walk.’ In the
initial poem, we are with the poet “Above the sea-pounded bay/ That’s kingfisher blue.” Then this leap
to Faith, immersion in self, one plaited to the natural world, “It seems I’m on an island/ A poet now
By the third poem in the cluster, he is so immersed in the mystical calling that is Big Sur, that he has
entered what Japanese Zen poets call Yasenkanna, translated as “alone at night in a boat,” shedding
the self, becoming a pulsating particle of the natural world.
In ‘Black Scarab on the Path,’ we come upon, with Peter, an isolated, possibly lost “black scarab” or
huge beetle. The poet, so absorbed in the image of this, also ambulatory creature of nature, and
not unlike himself, asks: ‘What’s its concept of being/ Under the enormous stars?’ And he continues
observing and questioning: ‘What keeps it going/ Through obstacles of the night?’ Peter’s conclusion
is one all-embracing for human, animal, even planetary life, there in the orchards of the spheres: ‘Is it
a sense of its home/ Where something’s waiting like love?”
And in ‘Pacific Ocean,’ one for his wife, Hilary, alone in Swansea, ‘home/where something is waiting for
love,’ we hear from our “castaway” here on ‘This daily walk/That takes me/ Far from home’ the very
“scratch” of his footprints as he confronts the sea, indeed at this moment in his life, this very fount,
‘Which leaves its grief /Along a broken shore,’ yet there, both as life’s solemn evanescence, and living
presence of life’s Enigma, this sacred union of Temporal and Eternal, unfolding. We must conclude that
each walk, in spite of place, time, distance, is part of life’s hallowed rite of passage.
Many of these poems are also paeans of poignant indebtedness for Peter’s Big Sur companions,
comforting presences during that month of pious reflection and self-discovery. And only fitting we
begin with one for Carolyn, at work as a painter, her secluded, open-air studio, just behind her Big
Sur home. In ‘Carolyn Painting: The Absurd Hero’ we find her at work in this ‘…patch of garden/
Where Buddhas rest/In contemplation.’ Her painter’s world is not unlike Peter’s, one tinctured with
the Zen notion of Yasenhkamma, one where he can ‘…reach and almost cup/A lone grey boat in my
hand.’ For just below Carolyn ‘… the ocean pulls/Its slow full song.’ We also are privy to her world,
where, ‘Birds stir and flowers flare/ And the sun behind her /Fingers its colours/Over the calm sea…’
And Peter pays homage to Benjamin DeCasseres, whose books Carolyn placed in the cabin for him to
read. The line in DeCasseras’ Chameleon/ The Book of My Selves, “We go toward ourselves” is epigraph
for “Birthday Poem: the Boy and the Man,” this balanced psychic drama, again, prayer-like in antiphonal cadences, as “The boy on Kilvey/ Is the man on Big Sur,” the meditation, this birth of two who indeed
“… go toward ourselves.”
It is the prosody that gives this poem its enduring nature lines of balanced, parallel cadences both stirring
and subtle, yet as lucid as the waters below Peter’s cabin on Big Sur, or those girding the Swansea home
of his boyhood. After the initial two lines, assertion of this “boy/man” union, miraculously, here on Big Sur,
we hear how Peter’s prayer-like intonations come to rest in the reader’s larder of heart: “Both humbled by
the land/ And the sea’s vast engine/ Both letting the clouds/ Start thoughts in their mind;/ Both feeling
the trees/ Root into their tongue…” The poem continues its sonic-semantic depiction of ‘birth,’ of prior
divided selves, now in this sacred fount, these very amniotic fluids of their “shared” Big Sur days. And
with them always, this consoling presence of a God-head: “Both blown by a wind/ Like the breath of a
god.” And finally, indeed this act of faith, again within the aural boundaries of these haunting, chapel-
hushed, musical phrasings, “Both dressing their ghosts/ With the songs in their heart.” After reading
such a poem, one is inclined to murmur, “Amen.”
In another paen to Peter’s Big Sur companions, ‘Your Blue Eyes Call me’ (dedicated to Patricia Holt), we
find the poem at rest in eleven finely woven tercets, some with full rhyme, others with antiphonal repletion
of initial lines. We discover such prosody there to gird, accompany, the poem’s bold leap back in Time, as
we hear in the initial tercet:
Your blue eyes
Back to Atlantis;
And about “Atlantis,” this symbolic island supposed to have existed, self-possessed there in the
western sea, indeed an ideal world, richly developed civilization, and one that intrigued Plato. The
legend-impregnated human imagination, as its demise, thousands of years ago, was the result of an
“earthquake.” Atlantis, its slow drift through time, remains this near-perfect utopian world, one now,
come to rest in Big Sur, embedded there, and as Peter intones ‘Your blue eyes/ Call me/To a world/we
And I am trancelike reading this poem, as its diction is truly unique to the volume, as Peter places us in
a world, ‘Where seahorses/Rode/ An ecstatic dream;’ indeed such a visionary world, ‘Where our thoughts
/Were like rainbows/ That necklace the sun;’ And he only deepens the poem’s eloquence with ‘Where
the golden days/Danced with the souls/ Of our world;’
Whatever he found in Big Sur, that modest cabin above the Pacific, a serene, trance-like world, and
as he concludes in a hushed, reverential silence, ‘To a place/We have lost,/ Except / For the feelings/
In memory’s/Dust’. As for ‘In memory’s/Dust,’ I feel he again evokes the memory of his lost infant son
Mathew, one to become ‘A shadow in the soul/Two syllables of love/ A cross with some words/ The
silence of dust.’ This is our poet, Peter Thabit Jones with such a grasp of poetic prosody, far-reaching
human devotion to words, all nurtured by a reverence for life, the human family.
Another poem of enshrinement for those in Big Sur, Peter’s “companions” along the journey that taught
him “We go towards ourselves,” is one called ‘Big Sur Sculptor Edmund Kara’s Derelict Cabin.’ Peter calls
the cabin “A shrine of dark wood,” and visits daily, I am sure, in homage to this brooding embodiment of
life’s pronounced impermanence.
The poem is made up of seven irregular, unrhyming stanzas, as winding as the path ‘Once worn by your shadow.’ And the path ends in ‘Your workshop lodged/Just above the Pacific.’ This daily descent has the
quality of pilgrimage, as this “derelict cabin” at “this world where you worked” is now splintered by time
and elements of the sea-surging world, just below. It should be said, however, Edmund Kara remains in
the cabin’s fibers of disintegration, as ‘Fragments of the windows/Litter the deck floor./They’re as sharp as
the tools/You once used to shape/ Truths into wood:/And wood into truths.’ The elegy concludes with
the man, his self-imposed fate, his days, indeed cast in life’s ultimate relinquishment, this ‘…recluse/
Shunning art’s game/And the ego’s long thirst,’ And as the poet understands in the deepest recesses of
the heart, the man, Edmund Kara, is finally ‘Like a castaway/On an island/Alone with his dreams.’ We,
along with Peter, are then privy to the very nature of human existence, of Time’s bold dichotomous nature,
the temporal wed to the eternal.
Approaching the volume’s conclusion is the poem, “The Cabin,” one “for Vince Clemente” for some reason,
and I feel undeserved, as I was not in Big Sur as one of Peter’s steadying companions, but did in one of
my letters, describe his writer’s sanctuary-retreat as a “Monk’s cell.” We find Peter indeed in ‘A monk’s
cell, wooden/Squatting above the ocean/Big Sur’s shattered coast” And just below him, hallowed presence
of a world, always this, “religious/spiritual experience,” and details of this nurturing, impregnating life, all
like ‘The stained-glass blue sea,’ such a metaphoric leap, yet so like our poet’s prosody, always this bold
clarity of vision and experience. And nothing escapes him, as each day we see ‘Jigsaw-piece cliffs, proud mountains/Touching gathered clouds…’ and, he shifts angle of vision, as ‘… the window’s picture/Is shadowed…’ with ‘…the sea,/The cliffs, the mountains, charcoaled/By the cloud of night;’ Even this cloak
of darkness only makes more poignant the world just below his “monk’s cell,” the poet, indeed reverential,
one forever solemn, held in the amniotic fluids of ‘…waves coming/To gasp on the shore'.
And now just before the volume’s Coda, this final look, attempt at summing up, put to rest and carry
forever in the larder of the heart, these hallowed days, we hear Peter in ‘Leaving,’ the volume’s
penultimate poem: ‘As I pack to leave/It all seems so unreal…/ In this cabin/On Big Sur,/On the shelf/Of
an ocean.’ And about this “ocean,” he will forever hear it, ‘Endlessly weaving/Its haunting rhythms/
Endlessly making/Its mind-moving myth.’
The Coda is made up of two poems, ‘1. The Sea of Big Sur, and 2. Thoughts on the Way to San
Francisco Airport.’ The Coda is always this consummation, in both music and literature, of primary,
thematic, and structural elements in a work, often disparate, yet somehow finally woven together in
this now seamless composition or text. In “The Sea of Big Sur,” Peter attempts a true summing up,
with echoes of the volume’s poems, diction, at times colloquial and informal, at times “surging” in its
eloquence, echoes of themes and character, as “The sighs of fathers/ And sons rise/ From below/
To bellow and blow/ In the loveless night,” undoubtedly resurrection of Peter’s sea-lost father, of
What we have here, in these poems of sonic-semantic summation, is a physical/spiritual assertion and acceptance, as if in a genuflection gesture, of Life’s Enigma, its simultaneity of birth and ultimate death.
And the key word here is acceptance as Peter returns to Swansea, at peace with such a lived experience,
as the poem concludes: ‘It is not even a moment/In the mood/Of the mind of creation/The ocean washing
/The bowl of a dream.’ What he has lived through, this month of May 2010, in that “cabin on Big Sur” is
total Existence in microcosm, yet an anchor to keep him afloat.
And finally, we are back where we began our journey, in ‘Thoughts on the Way to San Francisco Airport.’
We find in the poem’s final line, what is to be the volume’s sought-after truth, Peter’s very passacaglia
through ‘Time-Space: Crystallizations of God,’ simply that, ‘…And being is believing.’
After meditating on life’s inherent mystery, how, ‘The mind is a sky/At night, teeming with stars./
Creation’s abandoned dream?/Or cells replicating hope?’, his conclusion, is then this synthesis: the voice
of the boy wandering under Kilvey Hill, the man, late in his fifth decade in that Big Sur cabin, above the
ocean’s eternal sea surge, as “God grew and grew, and the universe unfolded in all its amazing patterns
of glory.” And now we read full text of the final stanza of this remarkable volume by the poet as courage-teacher:
No stone-built place can
Bring you to your knees.
Time is a shadow of you;
Aeons are moments,
A mere one pulse
To the slow mathematics
Of your each movement;
And being is believing.
And how I pray I have fulfilled my promise to poet Peter Thabit Jones, asserted in my July 21, 2010
letter, after receiving the manuscript in which I promised to write a long, critical piece, “sharing with
you the Yeats notion you are wed to, how, ‘Words alone are certain good.’ And it is all here in such a
volume of verse, the poet, Peter, as wordsmith, as visionary vessel of faith, as “being is believing:” the
poem, always this ideal cage of form, of braiding of selves, of the very sea surge that is Life’s sacrosanct
© Vince Clemente 2011