Review: Gwrthryfel / Uprising: An anthology of radical poetry from contemporary Wales
Uprising is an illustrated firework of protest poetry in a time of overwhelming threat: a third world war, spiking economic crisis and environmental disaster.
Diverse and forceful voices from Wales display the country’s internationalism and demand attention.
Protest as the central thrust of the collection shoots arrows in different directions, which are reflected in its five sections: ‘Uprising’, ‘Origin’, ‘Protest’, ‘Shiver’ and ‘Open your eyes’.
Familiar working class imagery and diction glorify hard labour and reinstate the humiliated human race back in dignity.
Uprising, as a loud form of protest, also places us in close communion with nature when it becomes the only voice against manipulative political rhetoric aimed at separating and dividing us.
As if the power of tornados would strengthen the human voice.
With two poems about the 1831 Welsh hero, Dic Penderyn, the anthology takes you to the local history of brave resistance. But it also connects Wales to the international working class movement.
The mysterious natural world and placenames, such as Merthyr Tydfil (based on a legend about the girl Tydfil who became a martyr in 480 AD) have preserved secrets and ghosts that have always inspired poets and storytellers.
In these poems nature itself is a rebel, as the soil has become barren, mountainous, fruitful in nothing but iron and the shelves in the ground are left by scrapping and scraping for ore and pit coal.
In moments like this natural elements related to human labour, such as iron and coal, give their spirit to the will of the oppressed.
Poetry interprets nature and the rebel when both have been exploited. But where human endurance begins to fail, nature shows that it can endure everything beyond our imagination.
This anthology shows that nature does give its creatures the power to imagine a better world, in which people can have all the things that people must have to exist.
This section produces strikingly diverse messages, most of them relating to the Welsh identity including nature, history and the fate of the people.
A highlight is Anna Powell’s ‘Gwraidd/Origin’, which evokes a world void of human beings, while the six human senses already exist and discern the process of creation:
Flake surface slatescale overlap
dryripple silk, roughrub exfoliation coarse
feels oddly comforting to finger whorls
agesweet dry tonguetip taste of sunbaked clag
‘Wales for Sale’ paints a satisfyingly satirical image of those to whom Wales is only a subject to generate profit from.
In his elegant lyrical villanelle ‘Aberfan and Pontyberem’ Aneirin Karadog laments the death of a nine year old boy, one of the hundred sixteen children who died in the Aberfan colliery disaster in 1966.
Neglect was the reason.
150,000 tonnes of coal waste, heaped too high on a hill, slid down the slope and submerged the school and other houses.
Aneirin immortalises one child as a representative for the others and conducts a choir of trees around his place of rest.
The leaves fall like money meaning nothing at all,
parents watching over a grave as if over the cot
in a corner of Bont where the trees wail
Commemorating the Welsh Miner during the great strike of 1926, this section connects the spirit of those labourers with the modern day working class affected by the same kind of austerity policies. The UK-wide strike at that time led to the defeat of miners who were fighting against wage cuts.
It was a time of division, as the protesting workers were rhetorically portrayed as the enemies of the nation by politicians and the media.
Today, as the idea of solidarity seems defeated, protest, be it for nature, against racism, for the poor, against tax fraud by the rich, all of this is woven into these poems, enough to command crowds to town squares:
Look to your governments,
those who would let all our futures burn.
Let them see your dark staring eyes
your lost and angry faces
your fear and despair.
Hold their gaze.
(Jackie Biggs, p. 94)
Poets voice what happens behind closed doors and make you tremble. T
his section begins with gender oppression and LGBTQ+, violence, prostitution, and all the painful details we don’t see in everyday life if we live without awareness.
Therefore poets arrange words to expose grim truths. They bring the underworld of gender to the surface and command equality and understanding for the victims, and also anger at those who are responsible for such misery.
‘Shiver’ draws an abstract of the burden a good wife and mother carries behind her saintly dignity:
Lips blistered, muscles revved,
she steers her animus—antler tipped
from his entrapment.
Dawn is so liberating
She holds yin, a rising
voice from her pelvis. Rain—
diamonds on every hair and finger.
‘Every 30 Seconds’ is a brutal ballade picturing situations in which women ring a domestic violence helpline in their despair.
‘Behind locked doors’ is the story of a woman who his frequently thrown out of her home by a violent husband. But she always goes back, say the people in the neighbourhood.
But where else could she go?
There are also poems about women standing girt and erect before the oppressor.
‘Goddess Pose’ is one of them, using layout as a device to support the poem’s message.
‘I AM WARMAN’ is another woman’s stimulating and vengeful message written in white on the black silhouette of a drill.
Open your eyes
The collection closes with a rich combination of messages and poetic devices to stimulate our senses, a clear and resonant wake-up choir. No need to say why, because everybody must know by now!
Poets write Notes for an Ecologist, telling them that the Earth itself is a treasure; or that our earth is a tough old bitch, but remember this is not war, this is merely a struggle … of one species who share this planet.
‘Together Stronger’ bespeaks how we as human beings can tear down the old stage of repetitious slogans if only we change our point of view to, for example, that of a seagull. #
The poet tears down the architecture of Cardiff’s legendary places, the National Museum as well as chain restaurants and humans included, only to wake up and observe, now serenely, through the eyes of an old gull, maybe with human experience in its DNA?
And in agreement with Don Quixote, this anthology commands that in the face of too much rationality and smartphone dictate, it is the maddest thing of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be.
©Shara Atashi is a translator and widely published author based in Aberystwyth. Her work has been published at Writers Mosaic, in New Welsh Review and Modern Poetry in Translation.
She was awarded a place by Literature Wales to develop and represent their campaign for writers of colour.
A section of her book ‘From The Claws Of A Long Verse’ is featured in New Welsh Reader’s summer edition 2022 #129, and her short story the Pilgrim is anthologised in Lucent Dreaming’s very first book Maps and Rooms – writing from Wales.
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