Alun Rees

Alun Rees

Alun Rees is a long-time Red Poet, living in Wales.

Seams of People, by Mike Jenkins
Sunday, 01 May 2022 10:34

Seams of People, by Mike Jenkins

Published in Poetry

Alun Rees reviews Seams of People, by Mike Jenkins (Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, £7.50)

Mike Jenkins wastes no time letting you know where he stands politically. In the title poem that opens this impressive collection he states his position unambiguously. Indeed, the first clue is in the very first word of the title. In the Welsh valleys "seams" points the mind towards the coal industry with its history of blood, sweat, toil and tears and industrial upheaval, the "perfect storm" which gave us Cilfynydd, Senghenydd, Abercarn and other massacres, the epic theatre which meant prosperity for the few, suffering for the many.

The seams here comprise layers which Jenkins urges us to seek between the distorting strata of accepted knowledge:

we are searching
we are searching for
seams of people

where no Queen
no Queen owns us
When we feel the full impact of those largely forgotten truths we can bring it into the open:
not to trade and sell

not for rings
but food and songs -
ideals priceless mineral

This radical republican note is there again in Cymru, This House. A reference to the Prince of Wales feathers and accompanying "Ich Dien" motto tells us squarely what we have become and what we should be doing:

too long gweision
down in basements and cellars
scullery maids and butlers
deferential and bowing.

Let's make this house our own,
not some castle or mansion

Jenkins is no blind optimist, carried away from reality by blind passion. His symbolic train towards independence will have its difficulties, as specified in To A Different Country, but after a reassuring nod to Meic Stephens comes the upbeat conclusion:

There is no guarantee,
no money back or return;
but watch it emerge
at the end of he line:
our hands, our imaginations.

No Longer The Nameless pays tribute to John Hughes and Rowland Thomas, martyred in the Merthyr Rising of 1831, and launches a bitter indictment of Merthyr's grotesque ironmasters. If your taste is for a masterly attack on paternalistic rule designed to infantilise the populace and produce malleable units of labour, it's here in Hearing Water.

Outside the directly political poetry, Jenkins shows an ability to handle a wide spectrum of subjects. There are poems about care-home residents, like So Many Places, a moving portrait of an old man lost in his own memories:

It's morning but the sun
has gone, he's far away
the past the vastest
continent for travelling.

The man recalls his days at the gas works, playing jokes on apprentices, giving flowers to his wife, pushing his daughter on a swing - and then:

So many places to go
and people to be greeted;
wakes with shock at a stranger's tone
landing in bright, unfamiliar light.

There are environmental poems - Studying Glaciers, with a stark warning of an increasingly liquidised world, and The Desert Moves are worth particular study - plus recollections from overseas visits, poems about learning Welsh and others too many to mention here.

The best way to convey Jenkins's tonal range and breadth of subject matter would be to reproduce the whole book here, but I'm wary of copyright laws, so it looks as if you'll have to dosh up and buy it.

Well? What are you waiting for? It's worth it.

Sex on Toast
Thursday, 23 December 2021 14:51

Sex on Toast

Published in Poetry

Alun Rees reviews Sex on Toast, Selected Poems by Tôpher Mills (Parthian, £10)

 What to say of this astonishment of a book? How to encapsulate it in a few paragraphs of analysis? Can't be done. All you can do is hang on to your hat and enjoy the ride, then think about it later. Not thinking about it is not an option. I knew Tôpher Mills was a talented poet, but he proves more than that. For all the fun and frolics he is a considerable presence, well worth nearly 300 pages and 153 poems exploring the bandwidths of style and subject matter with fine controlled energy and generosity of spirit.

And all yours for a tenner!? Yes, it's true. As for me, I thought of stout Cortez (it was actually Balboa, but Keats thought it was Cortez, and I'm ever ready to give Keats a break) gazing upon the Pacific with eagle eye, or even some watcher of the skies clocking a new planet.

Take sheep. Mills has a couple of sheep poems unlike anything you'll find in pastoral poetry. Indeed, pastoral verse gets a kicking in "the Great Rastafari" Anglo-Welsh Sheep Poem. This is a poem proof against quoting a few lines from. It's like Donne's island, entire of itself, and hence indivisible.

However, a taste can be provided. Mills employs a wondrous dialect based around extended use of long "a" sounds to simulate a suitably ovine chorus and shearing becomes, wonderfully, "baaldifies". The resulting apparel turns out to be "terribul bobbul jumpuhs." And "daam aanglow-wellshees" is to marvel at.

I'm not lifting lines from "Putting it Politely", either. Dedicated to Peter Finch, this prose-poem is equally entire of itself. If the first sheep poem is distinctly pro-sheep, this one is pro-underdog (the human variety). Sensitive folk be warned: the language is a touch fruity.

Don't get the idea that Mills is a biff-bang-wallop and shock-effect sort of poet. Thought is always the organising agent. The special effects are administered judiciously, for operational reasons. Mills is a true poet, and as such scorns boundaries. "St. Stanley of the Lights", for example, is a beautifully controlled piece about a "nutcase" who would chivvy cyclists riding without lights. A tragedy, described with awesome simplicity, lies behind his obsession. This is a tellingly restrained portrait of an unsung hero which concludes with quiet dignity.

How many lives did he save
desperately haunted by the one
lost and left forever in darkness?

In "Marie" the ache of lost love and its power to rob the individual world of colour and motivation is observed with stunned desperation. Boy would meet girl in a museum, where they found privacy in the mineral section. The girl disappears:

The gardens were empty without her
the mineral section just so much rubble

"Just so much rubble" - masterly! The sense of grief and loss is profound.

I could go on. Poem after poem dealing with those huge topics across the range of human emotion and interaction is given ballast by unobtrusive but crucial moments of verbal magic which mark the difference between poetry and verse. In "Laura's Saturday Night" for example, a conjunction of opposites ("rainbows of warpaint") emphasises the tension lurking in the situation. They used to call this metaphysical poetry.

Mills is a much-travelled man, has earned his crust in a wide range of jobs, met people from all manner of backgrounds (including plenty of poets given a handy mention by this generous soul) and generally has gone forth into the world with a sense of humour, limitless empathy and a gift for finding poetry everywhere. As Paul Eluard wrote, "To live, only advance. Aim straight toward those you love". Mills is with him there.

One puzzle: "Sex on Toast" comes from a fairly routine Mills poem, "Auburn", and refers to breakfast-time sex. So why is it the title of the book? For purely commercial reasons? I once reviewed an effort called, for no apparent reason, "Rest the Poor Struggler", a pub name. That was a real stumer. Happily, this Mills book isn't.