Alan Morrison on
(Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 2013)
Austerity Merthyr Tydfil-Style
Mike Jenkins is a prolific and award-winning Welsh poet (born in Aberystwyth, currently living in Merthyr Tydfil), former editor of Poetry Wales and current co-editor of socialist poetry journal Red Poets. He is author of several prose works, short story collections and novellas, such as a Welsh dialect children’s story Barbsmashive (Spells Trouble; 2002), and over sixteen poetry collections for adults and children spanning over thirty years, including The Common Land (Poetry Wales, 1981), Invisible Times (Seren, 1986), A Dissident Voice (Seren, 1990), Graffiti Narratives (Planet, 1994), Red Landscapes (Seren, 1999), Moor Music (Seren, 2011). Barkin! is Jenkins’ fourth collection of poetry and prose from Welsh-dialect press Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, following Laughter Tangled in Thorn (2002), The Language of Flight (2004) and Walking on Waste (2007).
My understanding of the use of the term ‘dialect’ in the case of the linguistic style of Barkin! is to indicate that the poems, mostly anecdotal monologues from various Merthyr ‘characters’, are presented in a form of accentual vernacular which is comprehensible to English readers whilst visibly stressing the phonological aspects of the Merthyr idiom through pseudo-phonetic inflections. These aspects, coupled with a lively and humorous tone, though not one which precludes social and polemical comment, or meaningful meditations on the human condition, remind me of another contemporary Anglo-Welsh pseudo-dialect poet, Gwilym Williams, in particular his Mavericks (2005; 08) and Genteel Messages (Poetry Monthly Press, 2008 –both previously reviewed on TR); and, to some extent, perhaps inescapably, Dylan Thomas’s iconic benchmark for all subsequent Welsh-inflected English poetry, the phantasmagorical bucolic Under Milk Wood (1954), which still throws such a profound shadow sixty years on.
But Jenkins’ particular metier is the Merthyr Tydfil dialect, and he presents it, as mentioned, with a phonological tangibility on the page, as opposed to Dylan Thomas’s more rhythmic evocation of the undulating sounds of the Welsh accent (in his case, from Carmarthenshire), Alun Lewis’s similarly musical ‘valley’ adumbrations (Abadare), or, again, Gwilym Williams’ phrasal emphases. What to the English eye and ear might seem a faintly old-world, quaintly Celtic and parochial idiom in the village-gossipy presentation of Jenkins’ speakers, is nicely juxtaposed with the impersonal auspices of contemporary consumerist society in what feels almost like a clash of not only cultures but also histories, attitudes and, most particularly, regional relationships with language.
Although my own ancestry is mostly Scottish and English, with only distant adumbrations of Irish and Welsh, I have for some time now been quite captivated by Wales' rich cultural -artistic and political- heritage, being a big admirer of many of its influential figures of particularly the past century or more: David Lloyd-George, Aneurin Bevan, Alun Lewis (one of my very favourite poets), Dylan Thomas, and the Trajan-faced, flintily-toned Richard Burton, whose unforgettable voice -in my view, far more spell-binding and evocative in its delivery of Under Milk Wood than Thomas's more affected and declamatory acoustics- was a near-divine fusion of windswept Pontrhydyfenian and clipped RP: the sharply inflected and highly distinctive 'elocuted Welsh' (and I also might add to the list other Welsh actors: Stanley Baker, Anthony Hopkins and Philip Madoc -the latter of whom, coincidentally, both played Lloyd-George, on film and TV respectively). I am also a huge admirer of the enduring strength of Welsh classlessness and solidarity, so glaringly against the English grain, and am ever impressed by the spirit of Welsh socialism, epitomised by Nye Bevan, but also, I think, well represented today by Plaid Cymru's Elfyn Llwyd and its Leader Leanne Wood.
The Welsh –like their fellow Celtic Irish, and to some extent the Gaelic Scots– have continued to cultivate a very ‘lived-in’ vernacular, an intimate and highly expressive engagement with their dialects/languages; more songful, melodic, intuitive, brimming with feeling, compared to the long slow Anglo-Saxon linguistic disengagement, the English arguably being the only monoglot regional group in Britain, albeit with some startlingly varied colloquial nuances (particularly in the North-West, in cities such as Liverpool –where, however, the accentual distinctiveness of ‘Scouse’ is, of course, of mostly Celtic influences, being a combined absorption of both Welsh and Irish locutions into a Lancastrian coastal community).
Rather ingeniously, Jenkins also uses his dialectal idiom to play on homophonic –and often ironic– serendipities, as in the first line from the first poem in the book, ‘Posh Pirate’, where the speaker mentions ‘a newclear scientist’ who ‘lives up Dowlais Top’, and later in the same poem, ‘ee knows ow to ambush poetree’. ‘Posh Pirate’ dips us straight into the Merthyr ‘dialect’ that dominates Barkin!, and there’s something immediately reassuring in reading/hearing contemporary memes of consumerism couched in perennial Welsh phrasing and the elongated monophthongs singular to the region:
there’s a trolley stuck in-a river,
Taekwondo at-a Leisure Centre…
from ower very best Pound Shop…
picks arguments with minin engineers,
leaves nex day soon as ee can;
posh pirate leggin it to Englan’.
Jenkins tends towards the shorter line and shorter stanza, and most commonly employs tercets, a succinct form which has been fashionable in contemporary poetry for the past three or more decades in particular. ‘The girl oo become Blonde’ is a deft anecdotal lyric which manages to be both conversational and poetic at the same time, not something easily pulled off, but Jenkins has a real ability to bring different linguistic dynamics together for best effect –a kind of sing-song slang:
Sittin on a bus t-Cardiff
nex to the mingiest person as always,
windows shut an i’m gaggin.
then this girl, just by Whitchurch,
does this really weird thing
(bout 16, dressed in Chinos an Converse);
she puts a back cap over er air,
short black air an simple
not like er fren’s purpley steaks an spikes;
is it some disguise, or t make er
look a lot older in a bar?
On a bus fulla baldies and silveries
an the mankiest person in-a universe…
‘I’m A Dead Man’ is a powerful lyric-monologue, in short haiku-like tercets, relating a marital or relationship breakdown from the point of view of a man left behind –that Jenkins can draw out such raw emotion, even despair, from so few words, is quite remarkable:
to er I’m a dead man.
We lived close by,
an now Aberdare
might just as well
f’r all she cares
I paint, do collages,
end up turning em black,
end up burning em up
all them years
no kids, no nothin!
And then some hints that the absconded wife suffered some form of schizophrenic illness:
that Clinic turner er
‘gainst me an I even
paid f’r er t be there
too many voices
when she shoulda slept:
er father fucker her up
now I’m left t regret
I couldn be er child an usban’:
I’ll have a fewnral f’r myself
drink till my ead’s a canvas
stretched an ready f’r-a brush,
but my ands shake, I carn raise it.
The final line is particularly powerful. This is pithy but potent stuff, almost like a Welsh version of the similarly succinct urban lyricism of Tyneside’s Tom Kelly (published by Red Squirrel Press). In ‘Las Person on-a Planet!’ there’s some more additions to the Jenkins Merthyr dialectal idiom, such as ‘yeard’ (heard) –and it’s also noteworthy that Jenkins even manages at times to draw half and full end-rhymes out from his vernacular verse, ‘crisis’/ ‘roses’ and ‘transfer’/ ‘counter’/ ‘splutter’/ ‘in yer’.
It’s a mark of Jenkins’ tonal confidence that the following poem, ‘In Memree of ‘Toilet”, is markedly lighter-hearted, albeit in a reflective way, the narrator remembering a departed busker friend of his who was a big Beatles fan and was nicknamed, inexplicably, ‘Toilet’ –it’s the first poem of the collection to divert from tercets into quatrains. The next two poems are back to the swifter tercets, ‘Las Person on-a Planet!’ is similarly anecdotal and humorous, while ‘Smokin the Torch’ is particularly amusing, recounting an episode where a local livewire imbiber of various chemicals (alcohol and drugs) called ‘Scripo’, while ‘Arf pissed, arf stoned’, unknowingly sabotages an Olympic torch ceremony in the village, seizing on the flaming totem assuming it to be ‘a giant spliff’:
As cops catch old of is coat
ee yells out –‘Ardest joint I ever smoked!’
ee singed theyer eyeballs with a-flame!
It’s almost like a Welsh-punk version of Last of the Summer Wine. It closes with another deft homophonic play:
In-a ‘Merthyr’ nex week wuz the eadline
REPUBLICAN DRUNKARDS RUIN OLYMPIC RELAY!
an I made Scripo a Yew-tube sensation.
‘Ewman Advert’ is a curious, almost surreal piece about a man stood for waiting for a bus outside a KFC, who appears to be overcome in the heat and fumes of the fast food restaurant, until he feels as if he’s metamorphosing into a Kentucky fried chicken. But the poem’s subtext, playing literally on the adage ‘you are what you eat’, or in this case, ‘you are what others eat’, seems to be an olfactory- gustatory satirical take on the depersonalisation of consumerism, when the man finds his very body and apparel (read identity) transmuted into a KFC advert, though more for the battered comestibles of a ‘Field Marshal’ than ‘Colonel’ –Kitchener Fried Chicken:
A sign across my t-shirt read –
‘Colonel Sanders Needs You’
like an army recrewtment poster.
‘All Poetree’s Gay’ is a tongue-in-cheek monologue by Merthyr male suddenly finding his masculinity being called into question following his entering and winning a poetry competition; almost as a statement of his uncompromised machismo, he sells the book tokens he wins to his ‘ol man’ in return for some money. The title poem appears to be about an eccentric local, ‘Dave’, who, almost Mr Ben-like, normally alternates his appearances in various themed costumes of ‘Fancy Dress’, but who is observed on day out shopping and looking relatively conventional in a ‘a grey suit’, with ‘is silvery air…/ plastered down/ in thick, greasy strands/ tryin t ide is baldin…/ ung in a wiry web’. In the next poem, ‘Itchcock’s Brother’, we encounter ‘Dave’ again, this time posing as Alfred Hitchock’s lesser known (fictive) brother –this is an individual with a multitude of assumed identities alternately sported for the amusement of his fellow Merthyrites:
Coz I seen im loadsa times:
‘MEXICAN DAVE’ down Tescos
with is floppy sombrero,
‘COWBOY DAVE’ in is stetson
an ‘POLICEMAN DAVE’ down-a presinck
Again, the theme of identity is being examined by Jenkins, and it’s significant to note that these characters –‘Toilet’ and dress-alternating ‘Dave’– sublimate their senses of identity vicariously through popular cultural icons, while the ‘Ewman Advert’ has his identity seemingly decided for him simply by the propinquity of a KFC, and Scripo chooses to amplify his personality through chemical means.
Without wishing –or intending– to sound at all patronising, the impression I get through this ‘Jenkinsian’ ventriloquism is of a subtle polemical comment on the inauthentic senses of identity cultivated by so many people in anarcho-capitalist society, whom inescapably come under the ubiquitous influence of commercialised and consumerist memes and symbols –popular idols, celebrities, fictional film and TV characters etc.; as if the only way they feel they can express their sense of individuality is vicariously, through the introjection of famous others’ accomplishments, as if they are their own personal accomplishments; to try and become what or whom they admire, like wearing badges or t-shirts branded with the images of their icons –to be living symbols for other things or other people, rather than simply being, or rather, discovering themselves.
But being or discovering ourselves are particularly slippery pursuits in the labyrinth of malls and shopping centres that is the Peacock and Primark-kitted kultur of capitalism; in most senses that truly matter, this is a type of society which is, less obviously, every bit as inhibitive of individuality and expression of personality as Soviet Communism once was. Most of our ‘choices’ -even appetites- are superimposed by hypnotising spiel and sales pitches, and variations in ‘ways of being’ are reduced to symbols, logos and brands, mostly indistinguishable from one another in terms of their actual products. As Karl Marx argued in Das Kapital -and Edmund Wilson extrapolated in To the Finland Station (1940)- capitalism serves up for us merely the symbols for things (money being the ultimate and most fetishised of these), but not the things themselves ('things' being meant both in terms of authentic essences as well as more metaphysical experience and opportunities).
But more particularly, in this parochial context, these poems and their various picaresque characters seem to portray a quite tragic case of a Welsh working-class community (ex-coal mining?) seemingly gutted of its authentic heritage to a de-industrialised cultural relic of its own past character, where old comities and camaraderie are replaced by commercial mimicries, and human exchange is reduced to a game of incognito charades. In this scenario, then, these various characters appear to represent individual attempts to invest such commodified anonymity with aspects of spontaneity, even if, perhaps inevitably, these subversions are themselves victims to the all-pervasive influence of commercial advertising; so that even ‘Dave’’s wardrobe is fimbriated with prefabrications, he only being able to express his restless itch for a true identity through various disguises that signify other people’s identities.
Indeed, capitalism almost implants in many of us a sense that the only way we can become ourselves, express our true personalities, is through acquisition –in this case, acquisition of wealth and fame; aspiring to be rich and famous is essentially aspiring to having an identity or a fully explored personality –something so fundamental to being and yet something so many feel is only obtainable through essentially material means, when it’s actually anything but. Hence the deplorable term ‘wannabe’, which basically means someone who ‘wants to be’ something or someone else, largely due to a sense of personal inadequacy (‘status anxiety’), and a reassurance-seeking narcissism (actually a sublimated deep sense of inferiority), which capitalist society, with its social Darwinian emphases on competition and hierarchy, instils in almost all of us. But by aspiring to wealth and fame, to ‘celebrity’, we are not, in truth, aspiring to an authentic realisation of our personalities and identities, but simply to the opportunity of feeling superior to others and/or reaping the applause and admiration of others; an egoistic reassurance-seeking –which is itself a synthetic substitute for true self-actualisation.
(One of the typical psychical tricks of capitalist society, amplified by the false familiarity and phrasal casualness of tabloid red-top prose, is the phoney personalising of the rich, powerful and famous, particularly celebrities and royalty, by speaking to us about them in first name terms, or even slightly more intimately phrased nicknames, in order to try and cultivate a public sense of vicarious intimacy with them and thereby make the elites seem more informal, approachable, hospitable and accessible. A classic example of this today is in the over-familiar moniker of ‘Wills’ (i.e. ‘Wills and Kate’), which tabloids apply to the second direct heir to the throne, 'Prince' William, 'Duke of Cambridge ',who couldn’t be more removed and partitioned from ordinary people’s lives in terms of his hereditary status and formidably aggrandising titles. Nor do contemporary politicians miss this trick of affecting synthetic casualness by abbreviating their Christian names in order to try and sound more down-to-earth and ordinary: ‘Nick’, ‘Danny’, ‘Ed’, ‘Tony’ etc. -all, of course, completely undermined and contradicted by the grotesquely anti-egalitarian, anti-democratic and anachronistic absurdity of titles and honours).
But to return to Barkin!, which at least has more verisimilitude in its tone of familiarity and casualness. ‘Yew’re Gonna Pay’ is about that most impropitious slap-in-the-face of industrial capitalism: the redundancy notice just before Christmas –no doubt a fairly common annual vicissitude under the present State-cutting government:
The debt’s so ‘eavy
slike cement on ower backs;
money runs through us
like-a Taff in flood.
Christmas’ll afto be cancelled,
my, kids won’t get nothing
on theyer Santa lists:
the future’s a wall, no endin.
Me an my famlee below
an starin up, no cracks o light,
the shadow of-a wall
always blocks-a sun out.
‘Owlin at-a Moon’ is a lively verse about the resilient comity of outside smokers in the backyard of a pub, who take a prompt from one of their number, Mark, who starts to ‘owl like a werewolf’ at a full moon above them ‘bright ‘n’ round/ as a promised coin/ to a young child’, and all howl together:
An somebuddy from over-a wall
in-a bus station close by
owls a really loud reply
an we piss owerselves.
That’s what I like about Merthyr:
this town’s full o nutters.
In these gentrified, smoke-free times, it’s almost as if social camaraderie is relegated to a kind of courtyard lycanthropy –smoking is one of today’s frowned-on social taboos, an ‘elephant-in-the-patio’ of pub life, and takes its place, metaphorically, alongside sports-apostasy and republicanism. From howling wolves to tuwit-tuwooing owls in the next, rather gloomier poem, ‘Too Far Gone’, in which a narrator recounts the accidental death of an old school friend fond of pranks, who found ‘Everythin’ borin’ “cept art’ but whose doodling during lessons was tolerated by teachers ‘long as ee kept is mouth shut’. Tanked up on that cheap liquid opium of the masses today, ‘White Lightnin’, a kind of battery-fluid white cider, the prankster ends up tightrope-walking along ‘an ol pipe’, tempting fate by deliberately wobbling and flapping ‘is arms’ and shrieking ‘like a loopy parrot’ until he slips ‘onto solid boulders stickin out:/ down like a bird shot/ landin on is ead’, then not moving. Then, in a darker tone:
We panicked and done a runner.
Never even called a-cops.
Left im there t rot.
The narrator is subsequently plagued by nightmares of his old prankster friend ‘crawlin up-a banks/ an draggin at my legs’ –this rather gruesome anecdote of youthful fatal high jinks reminds me of the genuinely unnerving, almost macabre 1977 Public Information Film (PIF), Apaches, which depicts several typically lank-haired Seventies kids playing at ‘Cowboys and Indians’ in a dilapidated farmyard, each picked off one by one by various inanimate hazards –a falling sheet of rusty corrugated iron, impaling farm implements, a bog-like vat, the raking blades of a tractor etc. – in a kind of agricultural Grand Guignol (like an episode of The Famous Five directed by Sam Pekinpah), or a rusticating Resistentialism (the latter ‘jocular’ neologism coined by humorist Paul Jennings in 1948 to mean ‘seemingly spiteful behaviour manifested by inanimate objects’, a kind of spoof on existentialism with attaching slogan, “Les choses sont contre nous” (“Things are against us”); though Jennings was prefigured by M.R. James’ 1933 horror short story, ‘The Malice of Inanimate Objects’).
The next poem, ‘Settin Fire t Tescos’, was one of Jenkins’ contributions to The Robin Hood Book – Verse Versus Austerity, and was, I think, written in part-response to the August 2011 riots and arsons (the theme of shoplifting in Tescos echoing the Dickensian episode in said riots when a youth who pinched a bottle of water from a supermarket was handed a six month prison sentence). In this poem, it’s a Merthyr petty shoplifter who, while ‘on drugs n booze’, accidentally perpetrates the felony of the title while trying ‘t burn off-a tags’ from some shop products in order ‘t scurry through a-securitee’, and is then pounced on by security, his ‘ead a Waltzer spinnin’. His confessed defence at the end is perhaps not the best advert for most shoplifters’ motives of impoverishment (ever more common no doubt today in our stripped-down ‘food bank Britain’), a very candid slice of social realism:
I was liftin clothes tha’s all
coz i carn afford none:
arf my benefit goes to-a dealer
an the rest is jest f survivin.
But Jenkins’ sociological cogitations are undoubtedly well-intentioned, and more on the side of the transgressing underdog than the punitive and disingenuous ‘justice’ system that criminalises him; while there’s also a nice double-play on both perennial auction and penal phrases:
What ope f the likes o me
when there’s fuckall opportunities:
sirens blarin all ower town,
theyer message – ‘Goin… goin down!’
‘Soopermarkit Drama’ continues the theme of parochial shoplifting with a more humorous episode in which some customers in the local ‘soopermarkit’ suddenly take part in a spontaneous incipient Bacchanalia, one ‘bloke’ clearly –by way of pun– ‘off of is trolley!’, who starts ‘strippin off’ ‘jest by-a frozen peas n carrots’, and another ‘young fella, beard an long air’ who climbs up on top of the ‘Wines an Beers’ (not completely sure how this is practicable) and starts ‘slurpin’ from cans while performing a striptease, only to be ‘dragged down by eavies’ before he’s had a chance to get ‘down to is goolies’. The Merthyr narrator concludes, as if by cut-price dialectic:
What a protest against shop-liftin,
ee wuz pissed with all ee’d bin nickin.
‘The On’y Way’ is one of the more intriguing of these anecdotal poems, its narrator recounting how an evangelical Seventies schoolteacher –presumably of Religious Education?– and reformed alcoholic converted him to ‘Born Again’ Christianity and put him off all literature other than the strictly Biblical, but by doing so, at least in the ephemeral sense, ‘saved’ him:
It wuz-a worse time f me,
Parents always arguin,
Fren’s inta drugs n drinkin.
I coulda gone either way,
My ead like litter in the wind,
Coulda ended up in-a drain.
Ee tol us Jesus wuz the on’y way,
To follow is life ev’ry day,
The bible ad-a truth of ev’rythin.
‘I’m sorry, but gays…’ ee’d say
‘…ull all end up in ell
With anyone oo’s disbleevin!’
At-a time when-a boyz
Wuz inta glam, when bands
Dressed up like women;
I knew ee’d saved me
An I’d leave my parents fightin
Whenever the Rapture come.
We done disgustin stuff in school:
‘Of Mice n Men’ all swearin an blasphemin,
This woman Angelou with scenes o rapin.
We ad meetin’s ev’ry week at lunchtime,
Ee tol us these wuz Satan’s work,
The bible the on’y book of education.
We wuz the promised ones, ee sayd,
Ee’d bin through it, drunk an misled:
English, I sat like a gravestone, an never read.
There’s an intriguing suggestion of juxtaposing alcohol and evangelicalism as two types of ‘intoxication’, though the latter, to a degree, a less debilitating coping strategy for life, albeit one morbidly empowered, so it would often appear, by a certain ‘damnation-happy’ disposition almost antipathetic to the basic charitable purposes of Christianity. It’s interesting to note the once almost standard use of John Steinbeck’s un-intimidatingly slim and accessibly allegorical Of Mice and Men for the State school English curricula, which I also remember studying at around fourteen at an archetypal Brutalist-prefab comprehensive which was a breeding ground for right-wing and/or evangelical pedagogic dogma. Fortunately my English teacher, one Mr Armer (the first person who ever encouraged my creative writing), was unapologetically left-wing at a time when it was almost requisite to apologise for being so, or at least exhaustively ‘justify’ one’s socialism (this was the ultra-Thatcherite late Eighties); Mr Armer also took us for R.E. as a side subject, and, being himself an evangelical atheist, singularly innovated in tossing the Bible aside and turning our attention instead to unsolved mysteries of alien visitations (something I found quite diverting, even if I wasn’t myself an atheist, though more at that age an agnostic).
‘The Bloody Snow’ is more quotidian but no less quaintly entertaining in its colloquial idioms –‘my ol rag n bone body/ worryin down t the bus-stop’, and:
Tha’s all ‘ey talk about in-a queues,
yew’d swear we woz Eskimos,
it’s snow this an ice that
an ow it’s warmer in Vladi-bloody-vostock!
(Ivor the Engine meets The Savage Innocents…?). Again, the Welsh-inflected poems of Gwilym Williams spring to mind, which also often have a sprightliness of tone, are slightly tongue-in-cheek, quirkily anecdotal, but which are not ‘dialect’ transcriptions as Jenkins’ poems, but play more on parochial turn-of-phrase and expression, as well as on rhythm –here’s an example from Williams’ witty ‘Telling Directions’, from Mavericks (2005):
R S Thomas is it?
We’re chapel here…
Well my husband is.
‘nglish he is, that man Thomas;
Lived in Cardiff I believe; once
Painted a church as black as night.
I can’t say I liked him very much;
Mind you, I haven’t actually read him,
But I’ve heard things you see.
Welsh, you say? And lived here?
We’re Chapel here…
Here we can see similarities between the two poets’ styles, but Jenkins’s, also highly rhythmic, is, demonstrably, more phonologically presented.
The rather bizarre ‘Diego Maradona Come t Merthyr’, which begins with an apparent visitation from the aging Argentinean football star ‘with is air totalee grey/… is beer gut/… gone all bigger’ on the Merthyr ‘Igh Street/ goin on bout-a play-offs/ an ow Cardiff blew it’, then suddenly diverts into a phantasmagorical polemic on the contemporary upsurge in CASH FOR GOLD STORES, basically flimsily disguised Pawnbrokers:
The day ee lifts is And o God
an points down-a arcade
t where a new shop ave opened,
doubts ee’ve got any gold.
Slike some buildin society
on’y with-a name of a butcher;
in is blue n white stripes,
carn bleeve it’s a pawnbroker!
With is face pale as lard,
with is worn out trainers,
numero 10 couldn elp wonderin
if is shirt ud bring any fuckin money in.
So, presumably, this is another of the ragged-trousered Merthyrites who expresses his personality through a ‘popular’ (sporting) icon, and who the narrator playfully depicts as the actual icon himself, now somewhat over the hill, casually wandering around a Welsh town in his Argentine kit, as if he’s just strayed off a World Cup pitch.
‘Surjree Talk’ plays ironically on the common phrasal emphasis on sanguinity and wellbeing in casual daily greetings by using the demonstrably un-salubrious setting of a GP Surgery –the joke of the poem is encapsulated in the first and last stanzas, interpolated by a series of verses listing all the various symptoms and ailments that might have brought one there, including ‘an throat like a clogged chimley’:
Funny ow, in-a surjree
Ev’ryone always sayz –
‘Yer owright ‘en?’
Yew could ave all o these
An yew’d still bloody well reply –
‘Not too bad, ow about you?’
There are potential problems –at least, for more purist poetry readers– in composing poems around everyday ironies in the manner of jokes or ‘gags’, which can give the impression of a poem as a comedy routine, ending not in an epiphany but a punch-line. In the main, I think Jenkins succeeds at conveying more than mere observational comedy in most of his poems in Barkin!, but I feel ‘Surjree Talk’ is perhaps an exception in that it doesn’t really appear to be imparting much more than a humorous irony. Fortunately the following poem packs more of a polemical punch again, ‘A Big Party’, a satirical take on David Cameron’s nebulous concept of the Big Society, in mock-tribute to which some Merthyrites gather for a boozy celebration, replete with a token appearance from a khaki-clad Afghanistan casualty (Wootton Bassett meets Merthyr), and, more disruptively, ‘them Thomases Welsh-Nat’s/ Welsh-speakers’; but the party is brought to a crashing standstill when one ‘Alan up-a road puts a dampener
On the whool bloody evening,
stan’s on-a table, one foot in-a cake remains
an gives off t ev’ryone –
‘Big Fuckin Party!’ ee shouts is ead off,
‘yesterday I gotta Big News,
the Council’s on’y laid me off
an now I feel like a nobuddy!’
‘Nodbuddy’ being the operative word here: if one loses one’s job in the ‘Work’-fetishising Big Society, then they also, at least in economic terms, lose their sense of identity. ‘In-a Bus Shelter’ is a narrator’s candid encounter with a Cockney transvestite (‘She woz an ee’) who speaks ‘in a voice deeper/ an much oarser than mine’; it also includes a spot of Welsh self-mockery: ‘Which is the one f Llan’illeth please?’/ I sayz, careful not t gob over er’. After repeating the phlegm-churning name ‘Llan-hill-eth’, the transvestite replies curtly:
‘Well, you can go to Aberbeeg an walk!’
Ee chwtshed at a baby in a pushchair,
Never stopped knittin till is bus come.
Fuckin ell, Ebbw Vale’s weirder ‘an Merthyr!
‘Nothin Lager’ is a monologue of a seasoned beer-drinker bemoaning the acidy substitute tipple of the title, which sends the narrator gushing on various types of the genuinely brewed drink:
I kept thinkin o Rhymney brews
made in a Dowlais micro.
I kept thinkin oppy an barley:
golden summer, bitter autumn, dark winter;
Spring in Belgium, with Trappist ales
t get any monk boppin.
It closes on an apposite aphorism, which might also serve as a metaphor for the synthetic comity of consumer capitalism:
But it tasted of all them chains
o the Igh Street, of metal links joined.
‘Passin Facebook Frens’ is a deft satirical take on the ironic pseudo-solipsism of social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter. Continuing in the vein of exploring some of the Huxley-esque dystopian pastimes of contemporary capitalist culture is ‘Fish Foot Clinic’, tackling one of the more bizarre types of consumer decadence, and in this instance, depicting an inebriated Merthyrite demanding not guppies but piranhas as ‘On’y piranhas are ard enough’ for his tattoos. In ‘Int Goin Out’, a fearful narrator verges on agoraphobia when considering all the potentially fatal hazards of travelling anywhere, whether to Al Quaeda-stalked London, or Tenerife, after the recent grisly incident of an English woman tourist getting ‘er ead chopped off in a soopermarkit’. ‘Mormons on a Mission’ is the Merthyr take on the white-teeth and tanned American religious cult, apparently doing a spot of evangelical outreach in Wales with their ‘rucksacks fulla scripture’, ‘badges like executives’ and ‘shirts white as virgins’, in ‘pairs like salesmen:
Get yewer soul sealed with double glazing,
get a tidee conservatree in eaven.
In ‘Criminal Fence’, the narrator lambastes some cowboy builders for constructing a ‘Bamboo Curtain’ in their absence, and struggles to find ‘words t describe ow I feel’, settling for a combination of the surnames of three notorious prime ministers for an ultimate expletive: ‘CAMERONBLAIRTHATCHERS’. In light of the recently mooted –though swiftly aborted– Tory proposal to make the vaguely phrased ‘annoying behaviour in public’ a future offence in our post-ASBO society, as well as the increasing intolerance of social attitudes towards the unemployed and incapacitated, and the welfare cuts, bedroom tax and other punitive social policies creating something akin to a penal atmosphere for the poorest sections of the population, the penultimate stanza of this poem might now be more apposite than perhaps the poet thought at the time of writing them:
No, this wuz about ‘abusin the builders’.
If ‘abusin’ is such a crime,
They could arrest arf the population,
Or make the whool countree a prison.
The verse ends on a triumphant and wholly appropriate half-rhyme:
There are limits t bard language:
If I could really describe ower neighbours,
If I woz ever in-a dock
I think I’d call em VILE MURDOCHS!
‘Em’tied Lives’ is a deeply poignant and moving monologue about ‘working poverty’ which in this instance leads to debt and repossession for a family simply trying to scrape by in employment, lamenting the years of hard unforgiving labour which seem to have all been for nothing. In aspects of tone and theme, it’s a kind of modern day Welsh equivalent to John Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week’ –though that magisterial pastiche-Kipling poem-monologue by a poverty-stricken Cockney clerk is a formidable template to summon up for comparison with any contemporary poem (and given said poem was penned in the 1890s, shows just how much modern British society has stagnated in terms of social progression and improved wages in over a century). Nonetheless, Jenkins gives the perennial theme of the soul-destroying diminishing returns of poorly waged employment a good stab in this powerful and heart-wrenching poem which needs to be excerpted in full:
I done it all frmyfamlee,
I worked all owers
an didn ardly see
my two little ones.
My missis workin on-a tills,
we paid f r nursree.
It gutted me
t come ome late
an find em in bed orready;
I kissed theyer cheeks
an promised all-a olidays
we'd ave eventually.
Itwoz jest a letter,
I even joked t Debbie -
if issa bill
put it where it b'longs ...
I couldn bleeve it,
on y a coupla months
we adn paid up:
wha with the eatin,
foodgoinup ev'ry day,
scrimpin f r value stuff;
we don' even smoke,
go out on Sat'dys down-a club.
All tha talk bout 'negative equity'
'it me slap in-a face
like I’d bin mugged,
'repossession' a word
never thought I'd read
in a letter to us.
All-a thin's we'd done t the ouse
and I int even andy, conservatory
an a combi boiler. Issa tidee area
an all, the kids cun play safely.
Don' know where we'll go: my
mam's is a small terrace. She'd
ave us tomorrow but Deb is so cut
up she stares inta distance an
lissens when I rant -'Whassa
fuckin point? Why ave we
bothered? All 'ese yers workin so ard!'
It's easy f them politicians an
them experts on-a telly, sayin
thin's ull turn agen, sayin it's on'y
tempree. F'r us, it means ower
lives 're em'tied, ower futures
stole like the bailiffs come an took
Wish now I adn toiled
my bollocks off doin overtime
an put the presen' first,
played with Shane an Faye,
read em stories till they slept.
An when Deb sayz
we'll afto start agen
I glare at er like she's crazee
like she aven learnt nothin.
Thus is the ever more common crie de Coeur of the ‘working poor’ of Tory society, those very families who “do the right thing” and “want to get on” but who are prevented at every turn from reaping the tangible rewards promised them for such sacrificial industriousness. The ending packs a particularly profound punch, a kind of ‘kitchen sink’ aphorism which imparts its own philosophical point, though it’s slightly ambiguous as to what that ‘point’ really is: is the husband saying that starting again would simply be to repeat the same mistakes, or is he saying that they should learn from this betrayal by a system which promised them things their labour couldn’t reap, that they should prioritise the things in life that really matter, like family time, over any slavish and fruitlessly sacrificial ‘work ethic’? The final emphasis on the word ‘nothin’ also seems significant, since ‘nothin’ would appear to be, in material terms at least, what their years of profitless hard work have gained for them, while robbing so many of their days and opportunities for familial nurturing –and time cannot be reimbursed (pensions cushion retirement but they can’t extend it).
The gloomy ‘On-a Bridge’ is a strangely downbeat ending to the main poem section of Barkin! (which is followed by a further twenty-odd pages of prose vignettes, also in dialect, but I confess I’m not particularly keen on poetry-prose combination collections –I personally find little point in continuing switching the medium from verse-narratives to prose-narratives in what is fundamentally a poetry collection, but this is not peculiar to Jenkins, such mixed medium is becoming more common today in poetry volumes, blurred even further by the contemporary fashion for prose-poems or what I call ‘prosetry’), and is quite possibly depicting how the husband and father of the previous poem has ended up: homeless and without anything to tout in return for spare change. It’s a moving and succinctly lyrical piece and, given our society’s rapid return to mass street-homelessness courtesy of Tory policy, an appropriate close:
Pass me by
I see yew go
with yewer bags,
come back full.
Yew don’ see me,
I squat so low;
like dogshit on yewer shoes,
later scrape it off.
Walkway over a-road,
ev’ryone’s goin somewhere,
but I go nowhere.
Carn offer no mewsic,
don’ offer magazines.
I got nothin t please.
An emptee can
waitin f coins.
Yew turn away yewer eyes:
presen’s t be bought
an ice on-a streets.
Ev’ry day I wonder
if the river an the weir
would take me further.
The cold an damp
got steel-capped boots;
theyer the ones oo stop,
an give me a kickin.
And today it’s not just rogue Droogs who give the homeless ‘a kickin’: it’s also the well-heeled shoes of pinstripe Tories through the remorseless jabs of their toe-capped rhetoric; even those street homeless who show some ‘enterprise’ and ‘initiative’ (to pick from the Tory lexicon) by, for instance, pitching on behalf of the Big Issue as street vendors, aren’t spared the broad brush-tarring of the Big Boot Society, even in the subverted slogan of the very magazine they tout: ‘Not a handout, but a hand up’. I once stopped to chat to a dishevelled, coat-hanger-shouldered young man brandishing his clutch of Big Issues at his street pitch, who almost apologised for the fact that he was a street vendor, saying to me that he felt like he was begging even when he was, demonstrably, working, and merely for some tiny percent of the copies he sold (supposed to pay towards what precisely for him? A couple of quid day isn’t going to lift someone out of homelessness!), which at best would only get him a snack and a hot drink each day while he stood out in all weathers for several hours.
More recently, I chatted to a young Scotsman sat in his sleeping bag near Covent Garden –when I expressed my sympathy for his predicament and sense of solidarity with his all-too-common plight, he almost seemed slightly evasive, muttering quite calmly about “it not being so bad”, and, when I asked him if he had anywhere to sleep, proudly informing me that he did have a shelter to go to at night: the corner of a disused car park. It’s at times such as these that one comes to confront the ultimate attitudinal victory of anarcho-capitalism, which seems almost magically capable of making some its most abjectly impoverished victims seemingly in denial of their own destitution, or at best, accepting about it, as if it’s just par for the course in capitalist society, and therefore somehow acceptable; there’s even a sense of complaisance detectable sometimes, as if they still feel, inexplicably, given their often involuntary situations, some sense of obligation towards the very society that has abandoned them to the pavements.
In my view, this is nothing noble, but something deeply depersonalised and disturbing. It’s as if the Cameronian Big Society rhetoric has, in some cases, succeeded in indoctrinating its very scapegoats into some masochistic sense of ‘debt’, or penniless will to ‘contribute’ –but contribute to what? To an iniquitous culture which not only cultivates the grotesque economic inequalities which inescapably inflict destitution on the most defenceless sections of society, but also actively victimises and stigmatises said victims. Certainly the rhetoric of the “undeserving poor” has worked its ‘unsympathetic magic’ on the likes of the street vendor who apologises for his labour as if it’s beggary, and for the street-homeless Scot who seems to feel almost grateful that he has a car park to sleep in at night and is almost puzzled by the expression of concern from a member of the public as they pass by him sat on the pavement. It’s not even a case of how far we’ve come, but how far we’ve gone, backwards, in a century, from a nation of ‘ragged trousered philanthropists’ to one of ‘ragged pavement apologists’, pauperised penitents, some of whom even see their poverty as something of a ‘privilege’, when in fact it is the one and only ‘entitlement’ permitted the un-propertied and dispossessed of the population.
But off my soap box, and to sum up on Mike Jenkins’ Barkin!: an accomplished collection of monologues in Merthyr dialect, with some apposite polemical comments made throughout, and a rewarding mixture of tones and themes, from the comically picaresque to the grimly urban, a patchwork depiction of the resilient spirit of a small Welsh community cultivating its own very distinctive version of modern living. Barkin! might also be broadly read as a survey in verse of contemporary Welsh working-class memes, attitudes and behaviours, albeit in many cases consumerist substitutes for a more authentic cultural past. In many ways, with a mixture of colourful characters expressing themselves through anecdotal monologues in a provincial context, Barkin! has something of a modern day Chaucerian mummering about it –say, Merthyr Tydfil Tales, or the Wyf o Taff…
Although I normally prefer poetry which a marked metaphorical and descriptive use of language, it would in any case be disingenuous in the context of dialect-‘poem monologues’ to pick up on this too much; moreover, considering the linguistic challenge of this particular idiom, and also the need to keep the locution colourful but at the same time reasonably authentic (where highfalutin metaphors might appear implausible), Jenkins does as good as a job as one could expect. His insistence on an almost phonetic representation of Merthyr dialect –and in every poem, which, personally, I’d be inclined to restrict to a sequence rather than an entire volume (though I know Welsh dialect poetry is Gwasg Carreg Gwalch’s chief remit)– is where he tends to differ from his closest comparison (to my own mind), Gwilym Williams, whose own poems, however, lay more stress on the dialogic Welsh turn-of-phrase as opposed to more directly (or phonologically) representing the idiom on the page, and this allows Williams more scope for poetic language, and focus on image and description.
But, as said, considering the meticulously linguistic template Jenkins employs for a whole collection, his ability to imbue many of the poems, nonetheless, with a cadence, musicality and rhythm, is impressive. Barkin! makes for a divertingly irreverent read, and one which is also, in places, deeply touching.
Alan Morrison © 2014