Review: Seams of People and Igh Sheriff o Merthyr by Mike Jenkins
There is not much sign of Mike Jenkins easing up on his creative activities. During the last 18months he has continued to edit the feisty and redoubtable Red Poets magazine, organise readings, plan and edit an anthology of dialect poetry from Cymru, Yer Ower Voices (Culture Matters 2023) and publish two collections of his own poetry – Seams of People (Carreg Gwalch 2022) and Igh Sheriff o Merthyr (Carreg Gwalch 2023).
Future of Wales
The title of the 2022 publication hints at a number of Jenkins’s concerns – a ‘forgotten history’ that needs to be uncovered and shared, the stories of individuals, inclusivity, politics and the future of Cymru – and Cymraeg. There are poems here set in Ireland, Scotland, the US, Japan and Greece, India and London.
This curiosity and respect for other places and cultures is reflected in the group of poems about refugees where perceived difficulties are turned into opportunity ‘here are refugees/ from war and famine:/ Eritrea, Sudan, Syria. /Arabic, English, snatches of Cymraeg/ swirl around as we set off/ to discover each other.’ (The Refugee Walk)
How effective are those last few words which hint at a tentative move to mutual understanding but also subvert the arrogant baggage of imperialist connotations of ‘discovery’.
There are celebrations of his home patch – of the community choir, again connecting with the wider world ‘we travel by song/ from land to land/Zimbabwe, Mexico, Slovakia/ returning in our hiraeth/ to Cymru and the river:/ changing keys of water’.
But in a savage, bitter poem listing the apparent failings of the inhabitants of Merthyr, voiced by someone who ‘got away’, Jenkins itemises the vicious, harmful and cheap cliches which are still perpetuated about post-industrial communities.
Some of the poems hark back to his teaching career with sharp satire on the change in attitudes in schools towards literature and the arts – ‘WBD’ and ‘Educating for Results’ are appropriately acerbic – but there is humour here, ‘Class K’ is a delight. A short sequence of poems about residents in a care home is poignant but not patronising or exploitative ‘Each one of you has lyrics/ but gone the power to write them/ and scribes can only guess.’
Other poems celebrate friendship and family – a particular favourite ‘How to Skim’ will evoke memories for many who have taught children to bounce pebbles across water. The poem ends with a beautiful reflection on being a parent or grandparent and the fleeting nature of childhood, I will teach you/ something eminently useless/ to hold you there longer/ with the sun’s lowering,/ something you too/can grip, pass on/ and, you never know, remember.’
The first part of the collection deals with poems about Cymru, some referencing historical injustices but Jenkins does not leave it that. In ‘Cymru, this house’ he uses the three feathers with its German motto ‘Ich Dien’ to shame us into discarding our subservient role, too long gweision (servants) /down in basements and cellars/scullery maids and butlers / deferential and bowing.
The collection ends with three poems set in Corfu, the last, ‘The Singer at Nimfes’ is well chosen. A different and ancient culture is simply presented but the echoes with the opening poems on Cymru are strong. The singer of the title has Songs of history and mourning/songs from a time/before the tourists came.
The last verse has him calling children to join him and suddenly/ his past in these mountains/meets with present renown/and hesitant young voices/ splash in shallows of song. This last verse pulls the poem and the collection together beautifully.
Mike Jenkins’s language and style in Seams of People is uncluttered and lucid, some people might find things a little different in ‘Igh Sheriff o Merthyr. Covers of poetry collections often fail to reflect the contents, they can range from twee and/or bland to the incomprehensible.
This collection of Merthyr dialect poems however is exceptionally well served by the cover – a monochrome picture of a man wearing a clown’s mask and a child’s cowboy hat. The first reaction is to laugh but read the collection and you realise how appropriate this image is.
Yes, there is humour but it is often of the grim, self-knowing kind. The wide, slit mouth of the mask could be equally ready to turn up into a smile or down into a grimace of sadness, pain or contempt and the black blank eyes are a challenge – so it is with the poems.
Town centre decline
There are poems about Covid nobuddy clapped f Boris/ not even them racists opposite; the decline of Merthyr town centre When I found-a bran’new bus station/ arf the services woz cancelled; a royal encounter I adto go back/ t my blydi freezing flat/ with fuckall t eat -/ buh f a few seconds/ felt like a celebretee, me… im… royalty -/ such a proper gent, but first and last, these poems are about the people of Merthyr and the language they use.
Monarchists will not find comfort here; a number of poems present the activities of members of the royal family as if they were local people – ‘Ol Phil Remembered’ Ol Phil was quite a character/ ewsed t be in-a Navy ;‘Charlie Boi’ bangin on ‘bout is lovely trees/ an ow ee cares f’r animals; ‘Wharra Boi!’ ee lost is virginity/in-a field near The Abersarn Inn/ t this older woman/ (ev’ryone knows er round town).
The effect is not just funny but reminds us of the absurd indulgence (and prurience) that the media has towards royals.
This collection conclusively demonstrates that dialect poetry has moved a long way from being confined to the ‘humorous monologue’.
It is as effective (sometimes more so) at dealing with serious matters and serves as a reminder that BBC or ‘received’ English is not the only way to explore ideas and emotions.
There are a number of examples but perhaps it is the optimism of ‘Ower Voices’ in which a young student embraces education and involvement in politics and the vision of ‘Wasted Years’ (the last poem in the book) that looks forward to an independent Cymru which stick in the mind.
In these two collections Mike Jenkins, an accomplished and skilful poet, not only holds up a mirror to the present day but suggests what could be a better, fairer more compassionate world.
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