Review: Onward / Ymlaen! is an angry, feisty volume which shows that the spirit of Chartism lives on in Wales
This righteous anger-stoked anthology takes its title from a long poem by Patrick Jones called ‘Guerrilla Tapestry’ which first appeared almost a quarter of a century ago but has now been updated ‘to bear witness to today’s world and the new threads.’
The hallmark staccato bark, looping repetitions and searingly honest anger of Jones’ work still crackle on the page just as they do when he performs them, but the updated references serve to illuminate a struggling society which is possibly set even more adrift:
The temporary fragments of a capitalist master plan
Family credit beggars
Starving asylum seekers
Zero houred slaves
Praying for meaning
Dismay at the failings of politicians informs and animates many of the poems herein, such as Tim Evans’s ‘Who Killed Grenfell?’ which runs out a ticker tape of people who deny culpability, namely council leader Nick Paget-Brown, Housing Minister Gavin Barwell, the Kensington and Chelsea tenants management organisation, the 72 Tory MPs who voted down the amendment ‘to make rented properties safe’ and Boris Johnson who ‘closed 10 fire stations’ and removed 27 fire engines and fittingly closes this dark roster of shame.
Perhaps the most powerful poem in the anthology is ‘The Cull of the Humans’ by former journalist Jackie Briggs who presents a litany of people who were crushed by the system. People such as
Elaine Christian drowned under the strain
of the ‘work capability assessment’.
She was found dead in an English drain.’
Christelle Pardo and six-month-old Kayjah
They cut her benefits and left her destitute.
She jumped with her son. They died under a car.
The eleven named victims of society are, the poem suggests, representative of ‘many more who have elected to die…who see no other way to live with this Government and its lie.’ If one reads the poem and then searches for the newspaper accounts of these suicides you are confronted with a dread and sorry account of heedless neglect and heartless bureaucracy.
This is poetry as journalism, distilling so much real suffering into stark and unsettling lines. So we are reminded of the death of Jo Cox, MP and the bomb-falls of Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in Abeer Ameer’s ‘The Social Worker.’ This depicts a woman weaving to forget wartime horrors and the sequestration of her home, even as she deals with cancer and the ‘cyclophosphamide vomits clumps from her hair.’ This is a poet unflinching in her gaze at the world, even as it fills with black smoke after the mother of all battles.
The spirit and splenetic satire of poets such as Harri Webb and Herbert Williams (who sadly passed away earlier this year) is present in many of the book’s offerings such as Jonathan Edwards’ very fine lyric ‘Anatomy’ which dissects a Wales where
These shoulder blades are Snowdon, the Brecon Beacons.
Walk gently on them. This spine is the A470;
these palms are Ebbw, Wye, Sirhowy. This tongue
is Henry VIII’s Act of Union, these lungs
pneumoconiosis, these rumbling guts
the Gurnos, this neck Dic Penderyn.
This manner of speaking is my children/my children’s children…’
It’s there too in Red Poets’ stalwart Alun Rees, who harnesses a simple, martial beat in ‘Taffy Was a Welshman’ to change a nursery rhyme into a scathing account of someone ‘who likes to be oppressed/He was proud to tug his forelock/to a Crawshay or a Guest.’ The blistering continues…
They give him tinsel royals
so he has a pint of beer,
and sings God Bless the Prince of Wales
as he joins the mob to cheer.
Elsewhere poems such as ‘Benefit Fraud’ and ‘Another Bun in the Oven,’ written in a jaunty and humour-filled demotic by Gemma June Howell, pulse with vim and raw energy, depicting life as a Caerfilli job seeker accused of cheating the system or a single mother’s travails to stay afloat on an estate such as Graig-y-Rhaca:
My muvva wun elp me,
cuz I nict er tellee.
An my ole man iza preck.
Ee puncht er in th’bellee.
Nutz in school, I wuz.
Chucken chairz un sellen fags.
Expelled ut fifteen, I wuz,
f’robbin uh techuz bags.
Yet despite the welter of social unfairness being highlighted and the skewed political system being critiqued, the poems in Onward/Ymlaen! also pulse with defiance, a sense that the downtrodden still have the resolve to get up and stand up.
As Mike Jenkins notes in his introduction ‘…it has to said that the emerging and enthusiastic independence movement , which many of these poets are part of and which is led by non-partisan groups such as Yes Cymru, has created a sense of hope more akin to Scotland in recent years… and… there is still plenty of room for optimism and these poems are sure indicators that the spirit of 1831 and the Chartists lives on.’
The red-flag moment of the Merthyr Rising is very much present in poems such as current archdruid Myrddin ap Dafydd’s ‘Chinatown, Merthyr’ which depicts the endless funerals and streetfighting of what was one of the poorest areas in the town and even more explicitly in Phil Howells’ ‘Merthyr Rising’ with its simple, martial beat and defiant lines such as ‘Fight for your rights, unite in the hope/Of better things, together we’ll cope.’
It’s there in National Poet of Wales’ Ifor ap Glyn’s poem in support the 86 strikers at Caernarfon’s Friction Dynamex plant, and which marks the loss of their long battle which resulted in their winning at tribunal but ultimately losing their jobs.
It’s there throughout this angry, feisty volume which presents poets much as Shelley described, or wished them, as ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world.’ If only that were true.
Onward/Ymlaen! is published by Culture Matters. You can buy a copy here.