A small bottle of almond oil caught my eye in the Asian foods section of the supermarket last week. I lingered over it, pulled by two memories. The first was of a boyfriend’s sister telling me that she soaked her hair in almond oil overnight. The second was of a midwife at the hospital where Dylan was born asking my mum to bring almond oil with her next time she visited.
Shops did not routinely stock nut oils in the early 90s so I was impressed when mum turned up with a bottle the next day. The midwife showed us how to massage the baby with the oil. He had been born with skin flaking like tissue paper from his body. It was sometimes a sign of post-maturity, the midwife said. Was he an overdue baby? But Dylan had appeared more or less on cue, his birth only slightly delayed as if (I reflected later) to coincide with a high tide and full moon. His skin was a mystery. Mum and I rubbed the oil into the tiny soles of his feet and the palms of his hands with our finger tips. It’s nice for baby to be massaged, a passing midwife commented: he’ll like that.
When Dylan was diagnosed one of the things I fastened on in my search for cause was his difficult birth. I have written elsewhere about my long labour and the way Dylan’s head was born but then withdrew. Later I would read in African folk lore that magical spirits can obstruct a birth. I would also recall that it is magical, in English folk lore, for a baby to be born in its caul. My brother’s had been intact at birth and Dylan’s might have been had a midwife not broken my waters. My poem Ways of Drowning opens with these births.
It had felt like an ordinary birth
(my mother’s third) until she heard
the midwife’s urgent voice: Forceps quick
her astonished words: This one will never drown
at sea – he’s one in a million, love, born in a shroud.
My brother does not swim in freshwater,
cannot relax in the bath.
My waters would not break: I laboured three days
with membranes intact until a siren midwife stuck
a sort of crochet hook up my vagina – wriggled it around
between the ebbing contract of my womb – tore the sac.
The head bore suddenly down on me: flaking and wrinkled
in sloughing skin, he beached reluctantly to spend his life
in search of underwater – wait for me to falter, let him slip.
The first stanza of my poem ponders a darker side to the caul’s charm; as the protection is specifically against drowning at sea, I imagine my brother reluctant to enter water where he isn’t protected (a lake, say, or bath). A suggestion implicit in the second stanza is that by breaking my son’s caul, I not only destroyed the protection he might have had, but made him vulnerable: my baby’s arrival with flaking feet signalled an affinity for water, his desire to be under it.
Only after I had named my baby did I realise that I’d called him for the sea. I had intended it as an homage to Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan, not the waves. Still, as Dylan had been born in a seaside town it felt appropriate; I’d held him to the high window so the first thing he saw, after me, was the sea. The serendipity of Dylan’s name soon became apparent. Before I noticed the symptoms of autism I’d puzzled at the pull of water; not only was Dylan soothed by it, he could sense its presence. I describe this in my poem Into The Blue.
He is a diviner:
his body shakes at the prospect
as he veers swiftly from my side, flapping and trembling
to silent springs bubbling from underground.
He has led me to still fountains, hidden wells and troughs;
searches through his picture books for lakes and lochs.
The poem goes on to describe my urge, in sea, to ‘loose my grip, let him go’ believing that he ‘would skim easily/across the water’. I use the image of a butterfly to suggest transformation; in imagining such a re-birthing, I make the sea more of a mother to Dylan than me.
It wasn’t only Dylan’s first name that turned out to be appropriate; years later, on hearing Dylan’s full name, a child would ask why I had called him after a girl. But I haven’t, I replied, confused. Ariel, the child told me, was the name of the little mermaid: she was a girl. I had intended Dylan’s middle name to refer to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and to Sylvia Plath, not a Disney film.
For years I fielded questions wearily. No, Dylan’s name was not because of The Little Mermaid: I had never seen the film and knew nothing about it. And actually (by the way) Ariel was a male name. But then out of the blue, on the run-up to Dylan’s 20th birthday, he developed an interest in The Little Mermaid. A year later, Ariel the mermaid is Dylan’s heart’s delight.
I have written elsewhere about the impact of film on Dylan. While Disney has been the trigger for some positive learning, Dylan’s love of Disney also has its challenges. Given his passion for the sea, for example, Dylan likes to copy the underwater sequences. I can understand why he would do this; the action tends to be exciting and lead to narrative transformation. Unfortunately, however, Dylan’s attempt to copy the underwater antics of his favourite characters is potentially disastrous.
As a non-swimmer Dylan is at high risk in water. Lacking awareness of its dangers, he has been known to leap into pools and wade out to sea. Dylan would, I am convinced, simply keep walking into the ocean. I have had to yank him up from the bottom of the bath and from swimming pools repeatedly. After an incident when Dylan had to be rescued from the deep end of a pool where he had leapt, fully-clothed, after a lesson, staff at Dylan’s school decided they were no longer able to take him swimming. Supervising Dylan at the edge of water – beaches, harbours, river banks – makes me nervous.
That torn caul could not possibly be the cause of Dylan’s vulnerability in water. Still, I think about it sometimes. It’s strange that I prefigured the way Dylan would ‘spend his life/in search of underwater’ in a poem written years before. This, of course, makes me even more nervous.
Years ago a Medium told me I should always live by water. The simplicity of it appeals; that I am the best I can be by water. There is some truth in it I think. I have always been a swimmer. Walking by water soothes me. I am in awe of the sea. Perhaps that is what distinguishes my simple love of the sea from Dylan’s more elemental need. Dylan isn’t in awe of the sea: he wades in as if it is home.
The Sea Boy
It is the sense of exile strikes me; being away from the sea is represented, in literature, as estrangement from self. This idea is in The Little Mermaid as well as the great sea poems like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner and Masefield’s Sea-Fever. Could Dylan’s identity as a human being – his sense of self – depend on his relationship with the sea rather than people?
‘One of poetry’s jobs’, Ruth Padel writes, ‘is to transform real life imaginatively so we understand our lives more pointedly, more fully.’ (Padel, p.18). It is in the close observation of a poem that we feel the thrill of the familiar made strange and the strange, familiar. Poetry helps us to recognise ourselves but with fresh eyes; such recasting of experience changes the way we think and feel about our lives.
Some of the poems which influence us this way, Neil Astley notes, are encountered by accident: ‘That short poem we stared at, read and re-read, on the underground or subway train. Or the one photocopied by a friend, now a personal talisman pinned to the kitchen noticeboard or kept in a wallet’ (Astley, p. 19). Last week I re-encountered a poem which, years ago, I pinned to a noticeboard.
Peter went — and nobody there —
Down by the sandy sea,
And he danced a jig, while the moon shone big,
All in his lone danced he;
And the surf splashed over his tippeting toes,
And he sang his riddle-cum-ree,
With hair a-dangling,
The bubbles and froth of the sea.
He danced him to, and he danced him fro,
And he twirled himself about,
And now the starry waves tossed in,
And now the waves washed out;
Bare as an acorn, bare as a nut,
Nose and toes and knee,
Peter the sea-boy danced and pranced,
And sang his riddle-cum-ree.
Walter De La Mare
It isn’t one of De La Mare’s more renowned pieces and reading it today there are things about it I don’t care for. But at a time when I was struggling to come to terms with Dylan’s diagnosis the poem helped me. What it did was offer me an affirming mirror; the boy in the poem, I realised, was like Dylan. Was he autistic? I remember asking myself. I wasn’t sure I’d encountered such a representation of autism in literature before.
I kept the poem on my noticeboard for years. I found Peter both strange and familiar; while I recognised Dylan in him, it made me rethink what I knew. Peter and Dylan, I realised, were sea boys; they had an essential connection to the sea. For me, I think, this was part of the process of seeing Dylan for who he was instead of who I’d expected him to be.
Neil Astley [Ed] (2002) Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times. Bloodaxe
Elizabeth Barrett (1998) ‘Into The Blue’ in Walking On Tiptoe. Staple First Editions
Elizabeth Barrett (2005) ‘Ways of Drowning’ in The Bat Detector. Wrecking Ball Press
Ruth Padel (2002) 52 Ways of Looking At A Poem. Vintage
The photographs were taken by me in Brittany, Pembrokeshire, Saltburn, Norfolk, Kent and the English Channel between 1996 and 2013.