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Exhibition Evokes Daughter’s Memories of Welsh Poet

April 4, 1995

SWANSEA, Wales (AP) _ Words stand in columns covering a page, tiny rounded letters betraying the labored poetic craft of Dylan Thomas:









They go on and on, words that auditioned for a place in ``Poem on His Birthday,″ a brooding meditation on turning 35. The last line, ``As I sail out to die,″ was prescient: Thomas was dead within four years.

The work sheet caught the eye of the poet’s daughter, Aeron Thomas, who came to Swansea for the opening of a year-long exhibition of memorabilia associated with the city’s most famous son.

``It reminds me that he rewrote more than 500 times `Fern Hill.′ If he changed one word, he would rewrite the whole poem. ... And seeing these painstaking lists of words you can understand why .. . it took him three months to write a poem, flat out,″ she said.

Dylan Thomas died in New York City on Nov. 9, 1953, five days after lapsing into a coma following a binge of drinking.

The enduring image of Thomas _ ``a pubber of genius,″ in the estimation of his old Swansea friend, Mervyn Levy _ is of a man too thoroughly at home in a bar, brimming with talk and spirits, the smoke of a cigarette curling up through disorderly ringlets of hair.

One of the more surprising exhibits in the newly opened Dylan Thomas Center in the city’s old Guildhall is a newspaper clipping recording the 11-year-old Thomas’ triumph in a mile race at Swansea Grammar School.

Visitors also can stand inside a replica of the shed in the Welsh village of Laugharne, where Thomas lived in his last years. The replica has a video screen above the desk; in the original, freshly painted and still in place in Laugharne, a window looks out at the mouth of river Cynin, ``the full tilt river and switchback sea where the cormorants scud,″ as he described it in a poem.

From a night on the town in New York, the exhibit includes a stained tablecloth covered with pencil drawings _ faces, cartoons, two stick people dancing on a table, a third figure flat on his back underneath, holding a glass.

``I thought some of those doodles were probably done by my mother, Caitlin _particularly that one on the left,″ Ms. Thomas said, pointing to a sketch of her father. ``My mother always used to make this profile of Dylan and make the profile wavy. ... That looks pure Dylan on the right, the waiter coming on with the bottles on the tray.″

Dylan and Caitlin both liked to doodle. ``Sometimes they would sketch on the walls, to their host’s annoyance,″ their daughter said.

Caitlin did caricatures to ``while away the time,″ Ms. Thomas said. She spent endless hours in bars with Dylan, and was ``deathly bored.″

``She stuck with him. She considered it an endurance test,″ Ms. Thomas said. ``She said you never ate; there was nothing to do. Dylan was always sounding forth, always taking the center of attention.

``I don’t think that was strictly true. Because my mother would always make a scene if people weren’t taking any interest in her.″

Jeff Towns, who runs Dylans Bookstore in Swansea and owns all the books, manuscripts, paintings, posters and photos in the exhibition, bought the tablecloth from Loren MacIver of New York City, who was at the dinner with her husband, Lloyd Frankenberg.

Towns said MacIver initially denied that Caitlin had been there. Strange, because people tended to remember her.

She was said to have stormed into the dying poet’s hospital room shouting, ``Is the bloody man dead yet?″

Caitlin was the daughter of Francis MacNamara, son of a Protestant landowner in western Ireland and a would-be poet; she wanted to be a dancer, and one of her first lovers was the painter Augustus John. She met Dylan Thomas at a London pub in 1936.

``One day I shall marry her very much _ (no money, quite drunk, no future, no faithfulness) _ and that’ll be a funny thing,″ Thomas wrote to a friend in January 1937.

It was fair summary of the marriage they embarked on later that year: They drank, they fought, they carried on affairs, they sponged and ran up debts. Sometimes they battered each other.

``She had two sides to her,″ Aeron Thomas said. ``She was enormously passive. ... In fact, that’s why there’s so many portraits of my mother, because she was always sitting around reading a book. And she tended never to take the initiative. She let things happen to her.″

But there was another side.

``Whenever things get too dull, she would make a scene. She did that for years to the family, shattered nerves of all _ I mean none of us have recovered from it still.″

Caitlin Thomas died last year in Italy, where she had lived since the late 1950s with actor Giuseppe Fazio and had a son. But her body was returned to be buried with Thomas in the churchyard at Laugharne.

Thomas’ grave is marked by a white wooden cross. The only memorial for his wife is a hand-marked stone on which you can just make out the words ``disturbing presence.″

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