May 4 2023
Poetry review – REPUBLIC: Pat Edwards reviews an unusual and original collection of prose-poems by Nerys Williams
The title of this collection feels hugely significant so perhaps I should start with a definition of the word ‘republic’. Most of us would understand this to mean a state ruled by a representative voted for by the people. The poet, originally from Wales but now living in Ireland, expresses and explores serious misgivings about Wales as a republic. She does so using some eighty prose poems written in English, setting herself the challenge to use twenty sentences in each, and also seeking to reflect some of the post-punk music prevalent in Wales during the 1980s and 1990s. This seems quite a task, so let’s see how she did.
The collection opens with the poem ‘Accordion’ which is rooted in childhood memory. The poem describes an old instrument like “the breath of a dead man encased in a trapezium coffin”. It struck me as maybe being a powerful metaphor for the Welsh language, often frowned upon and discouraged in certain quarters, yet struggling to be heard, “battling for breath.” My feeling about this poem was strengthened by reading the one that comes next, which references the politician, Gwynfor Evans, who once said he would be prepared to go on hunger strike over the need for a Welsh language TV channel. Further poems at this early stage of the collection depict a young woman trying to find her poetic voice, looking for new music that expresses her life and its frustrations, and also struggling to understand why her language isn’t front and centre of everything around her. There are other struggles too, environmental, political, personal, many of which are described in astonishing detail, resonating particularly with readers who may have lived through these decades.
Not all the poems emanate directly from the poet’s lived experience; some come from gathered stories and other sources. I must admit that I found the experience of encountering prose poem after prose poem, more like reading a language-rich novella. It was a first for me, as I’m more used to other poetic forms with the variety and texture they bring. I think, once you embrace this, you stop looking for the expected line breaks and other common poetic devices. Maybe the narrative takes on more importance, but the vocabulary, rhythms and metaphors still need to sing, and certainly do in many of the poems. At times, the handling of the subject matter did feel quite intellectually challenging for me at least; and on occasions I was a little lost as reader.
Poem 29 ‘Memoir Motif’ and poem 30 ‘Protest’, returned me to more specific consideration of the Welsh language and here I was in more familiar territory. Poem 37 ‘Auxiliary’ struck me with the rather beautiful:
Forever, she will recall the wife bleached white by anaesthesia, shaping her lips in magenta before visiting hour. Her squat husband came to her bedside each night to hold her hand.
Poem 38 ‘Smallholding’ again stands out for its beautiful turn of phrase and powerful argument:
In time the earthworm population decreases. Soil loses its small tunnels, capillaries of air. Balding land appears framed by dock leaves and nettles. The price of emptied land.
In poem 43 ‘1991’ the poet has a sort of epiphany and asks
Why bother reading a fragments of the lives of others in this rule- governed way? … Is the alternative to become the curator of texts, to sculpt with words?
There is often a strange disconnect between the ‘stories’ being told and any sense of whether or not these are the poet’s own experiences. This ambiguity is unsettling but also perfectly fine. In a way, it doesn’t matter if they are ‘borrowed’ since the themes are universal, such as teenage difficulties, boyfriends, hassle from parents, relationships with friends. For example, the poet might write “the child, now a middle-aged woman, questions her mother”, and the reader can’t assume this is Williams; in fact, it could be any woman, any mother, any child.
It is interesting to read in poem 53 ‘Happy in Language’ that the poet is by now residing in Ireland, a country which also has its own language other than English:
The country I now live in has the most attractive accent, who cannot resist a “little Irish brogue”
The poet reminds us that accents, dialects, languages are not one and the same and that sharing the use of English is to miss the fragility, history, special quality of a distinct and separate home tongue.
The book also includes what feel like more personal poems of family and of loss in general, but the writing jumps around, covering pregnancy, plenty more music and politics. It was good to see Welsh words and phrases incorporated into the core of some poems giving, as they do, a raw embodiment of the language, a celebration of Cymraeg (Welsh). For example, poem 63 ‘Dada in Pontardawe’, is littered with Welsh and it feels like a love poem to the language, “that shift from the solitary I to a shared possibility born in the language you love.”
I won’t hide the fact that, at times, I found this a difficult read. That’s no bad thing. The concept, the trope, for this collection was quite different from anything I have ever come across. I love that poetry can do that, take you right out of your comfort zone and make you re-examine just what poetry is, how it can be exploited to educate, to ignite ideas and to enrich. Williams is clearly passionate about music and its place in social history; she has a formidable knowledge of bands and lyrics. She has used this as a vehicle to take the reader on journeys through coming of age, through what home and belonging feel like, through the impact of political movements on the lives of ordinary people. Republic is an ambitious, thought-provoking, very clever and utterly contemporary take on the poetry collection. I think anyone who cares about poetry and who is interested in form, voice and the so-called accepted ‘rules’ of writing, should read this and feel emboldened.