Issue 25: Nerys Williams

from Republic


It has to be of the place. It has to retain movement, not be nostalgic nor indulgent. It has to write itself, the process of making, whether that might be the taste of orange spilt on the chin, or explosive coke cans showering children in the back of the bus. It has to tell the truth about speaking a language that is constantly under threat, first from its own people, then the quangos and finally by a lack of conviction and hurt. It has to tell more than a story of an individual, a community, not the saccharine loss found in mediocre memoirs.  It has to tell of the feathery feeling that once met as life, becomes love. It has to tell of the small vial of tears that you keep on a shelf, its cut glass catches the sun. It has to tell the story of oil and sweat and broken-down things repaired, remastered then sold. This might be the story of smoke, how smoke curls into the lungs to be blown into punctuation marks in the sky. This might be the story of small things becoming bigger and punctured by a lack of insight. This might be the story of an old record player that crackles, it is painted a deep blue, its speakers drop in and out. The music becomes a background noise of feed in and feedback. Can you complete the loop of a disturbed song? This might be the telling of more than one life, how lives intersect, are borrowed, are tried on like big mothballed fur coats in boxes on cupboards. This might be the big striptease, a series of a life in objects. The pen you found on a dresser. The woman with a swimsuit once turned, her breasts slip out as the ink slides down. The woman’s expression is the same. A forced smile of tedium. Please dear reader, let this not be me.

Dada in Pontardawe

You are watching your favourite band Datblygu sampling a hairdryer.  David R. Edwards is making the audience wait, sound looped back into the synthesizer creating the backing track for ‘Cristion yn y Kibbutz’. It has taken time and persuasion to get here, a road off the M4 to Swansea. Zipping past new industrial estates (post miners’ strike), opened by a Conservative Minister in the Welsh Office, flanked by Labour councillors. Too young to drive, too young to drink your friend's sister has agreed to get you to a community centre in Pontardawe. You all scream with laughter, round a roundabout twice: you think how young women arrange events, but never perform. Preparing for gigs is cabaret, taking up the hem on 60s psychedelia, marshalling the confidence of a red PVC mac, or borrowing a father's choir tux, before vintage became a knowing word. No mention of cigarette smoke or whiskey breath on the pickup. This experiment is part of the fabric of keeping Welsh contemporary. Datblygu pen a song ‘Bar Hwyr’ / ‘Late Bar’ to taunt a hostile, drunken audience. Dadaism and anarchy: the pertinent challenge to a respectability that haunts Welsh culture. Finding albums entails research, you explore music through political pamphlets and post your SAEs (Liz’s head upside down). During ‘O’ level revision the doorbell rings, your mother ushers in ‘a friend’. It is Pat, Datblygu’s bassist on her way to Thomas's Boathouse delivering an LP you ordered. Shyly, you both sit on the patio trying to find words to tell how much music means. The dark humour of West Wales against raw guitar and insistent keyboards, how you chant on a daily basis ‘Rwyn teimlo fel Cymdeithas yr Iaith, neu dyn dall yn chwilio am waith’.  Testing these assertions against your tongue. Reviews in the NME littered with analogies to Tom Jones and male voice choirs. But bands’ allusions open up a new archive. Framing opportunities hungered for: anger as bassline in Public Image Ltd, ludic riposte in The Fall, combative drone in The Jesus and Mary Chain, lyrics as agitation for Patti Smith. That shift from the solitary I to a shared possibility born in the language you love, but resent.

Score for the Voice

Getting a musical education is not hard where you live. Although your reference points are eclectic. You cannot read music but read sol-fa. You know your Bach but not your Rachmaninov. The local postmaster is called Handel, which makes your best friend, a seventy-year-old jazz pianist, crease his eyes in laughter. You have been trained by your Sunday school and father to enunciate lyrics, to place inflection. This colouring of the text is emphasised in a small book inherited from your grandmother The Reciter’s School. In Welsh, it shows you the declamatory nature of recitation, each picture with arms and legs in various poses. How to maintain the rhythm of breath. You realise the relationship between body and text, the poem offers musicality in itself. So, when you read 'Projective Verse' at twenty, its focus on breath and writing, breath as a unit of measure, a unit of thought comes as no surprise. Performance and the musicality of words were always inseparable. Memorising poems, performing them on stage reading the judges' comments: ‘She was going well until she stumbled over the word vainglorious’ ‘she shook her head too much:’, ‘at times I felt this child misunderstood the poem’. You became familiar with critics’ tongues. Adults stating ‘you were swindled’. At seven, the obligation to recognise injustice, felt as a child but reiterated by grown-ups. At nine you rebelled, no longer wanting a competitive stage for poems. What you wanted was a microphone. The poem is a score for the voice, you were looking for a jukebox and a bass guitar.


Having a crush is mesmerizing, an illness, memorialising encounters. Staring in the mirror half-smiling.  Its attractive impossibility. That nothing happens is a key pleasure. One wills the beloved into being, walking across the street, you hold your head to avoid it tumbling. The thought cloud which might disclose its full frame of reference.  A pain so scarlet it fills the head and heart with shame. Do I own the crush, or does the crush own me? It might be the making of a gesture, the holding of one’s chin, the satisfaction of admiring the way a beloved walks, or smiles, or touches the side of their face thinking. And how to disguise it? Never tell your friend. Avoid your crush with friends, they will make you wince with self-consciousness. Never take a big-mouthed Yorkshire man to a poetry reading if your crush is performing. He will draw attention, refusing to pay eating all the artful hors d’oeuvres and talk loudly about the frail, anxious listeners. The delicate sensibility of the crush bearer, willing other worlds into being. You go to a thrift store and buy a red dress with a flurry of scalloped layers, it reminds you of Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera in canvas. You might accessorise this dress with army boots and a rucksack. There might be the desire to perform your curious hybrid: breathing in Welsh speaking English. Because of poetry you take a broken violin case and make a H.D. memorial, a bricolage of dried grasses, seashells, spent pesos. Superglued also is a mirror with three dead wasps nesting into a dried rose.

Ty Haf  [*]

This story starts the year the Cocteau Twins release Heaven or Las Vegas. You saw Grangemouth’s colours, the chemical plant an inspiration for the 4AD record cover. Though you never shared this information until now. The year you get to know the owner of the second home near your village. She is researching a PhD, has made friends with your grandmother, walking down to the shop between periods of writing. Your grandmother tells her about your A level results, how you are studying English with Film far away. The woman is surprised that you go to university. She is not patronising, she was a housewife, the good wife of a somebody who worked in a global auction house and a mother of three. For a smoker the daily journey to your grandmother’s shop is ritual. Back one summer, this time about to fly to study in California. Before the interview, your friend told you not to look at the man in the middle of the panel, he was astigmatic. Swearing not to use the word ‘invigorate’ and promptly did. You are invited to an afternoon party at the second home. Walking close to hedgerows, to the farmhouse once home to a doctor’s skeleton that is now buried in the field. While you are hungry for discussions of Akhmatova, you are spectacle in a cabaret of curiosities. These people mean well with their cheese, biscuits, wine and olives. But it seems derisory that the milking parlour is now a games room. They are polite, tell you things about a California you have yet to see. Something however screams inside, throwing imaginary typewriters against the newly pointed lime stoned walls. You want to cut the green baize of the snooker table with a sturdy kitchen knife.

Bring back British Leyland

You think that if you listen to Ludovico Einaudi that it might make things seem a little better. Although his music underscores the most unlikely of programmes. Some time ago the album had been sent to you by a beloved friend, who unknown to you, was dying. One Morning, you listened, and thought of your friend’s hands at the piano with a hammered gold ring on his left small finger. The music that he played since giving up performing. Tired of pop covers in bars, he preferred a small audience at his baby grand. He was not looking for international success. Einaudi began appearing in the substrata of radio features, a shorthand to a poignant moment, becoming a symbol of nostalgia, awareness, breath, spots of time. So popular now you feared that it was a sonic wallpaper. His music as counterpoint to skinhead culture in This is England. Fuori Dal Mondo not of this world, Nuvole Bianche white clouds, which move us so far from the cement and spray paint of Thatcher’s jackboots. Or, does it punctuate the brutal beauty of that time? Kicking against nostalgia - keep calm, democracy exercised in public school debates? Is nostalgia an exercise that can only be entertained by the affluent? The poor buy a cheaper present?  What does it mean for politics to trade in nostalgia? Retrofitting ourselves. Inserting adjectives into names, repeating ourselves in the process. A constitutional conversation which never takes place in public space. Buy the present, fix the future, bring back British Leyland.

Happy in Language

While we walk the estuary, dull January, my friend tells me, in a recent UK poll our accents are considered the unsexiest. The same poll notes that they are also the ‘happiest sounding’. The country that I now live has the most attractive accent, who cannot resist a ‘little Irish brogue’. On this trip another friend tells me that Cymdeithas have lost the campaign to retain University halls as a Welsh speaking environment. ‘But it is being reported a victory’ I say. He shakes his head, explains the intricacies of funding, renovations have been given to a global consortium, who will sell this capital asset to the highest bidder. ‘Who knows which corporation will own the building, once the heart of political action, certainly not the institution’. Near the estuary I reminisce how we were introduced because of our shared language. Laughing because we both feared that initial meeting, done out of politeness to English friends. Normally we did seek out exilic communities. We wondered at the homogenisation that ‘accent’ in the article implied- she has words for objects and I have other words. Can the monolingual ear not discern a shift from region, area, north, south, east to west? Possibly it relishes that deafness, yet is able to discern the blend of a coffee, a wine’s vintage, a sample on a dance track but hears us as all as same, in our unsexiness. My mentor could discern the difference between the most intricate of literary theories. But was surprised that trains travelled to my market town. Showing little curiosity about spaces of linguistic difference on that small island, off the European mainland. We chatted eagerly about the group of linguistically innovative poets who challenged the status of public language. Never speaking of my own bilingualism as a way of understanding ‘ideolectical practices’. I dreamt of the complexity of my languages acidic in their enunciation. To create a language whose very difference inspires revolt.


Winter evening, your mother has taken over the kitchen table – calligraphy pens in red, green, yellow and black, rolls of paper. She sits sketching the curve of a woman's body, the full roundness of pregnancy. Above the curved line is the title BREAST IS BEST. Below is face of the mollusc baby. The poster gives the benefits of breastmilk - it shows how ducts are filled giving instruction. This poster will be placed in the small Laugharne surgery next to others warning against alcohol, one featuring a pregnant woman with a cigarette. Decades later, you remember this evening of careful pencil curves, tracing a line, the lucidity of arrows on the woman's breast.  You are at a breast-feeding prenatal session with fourteen women. All shuffling their bottoms on hard chairs, trying to get comfortable. Thighs slightly apart. The first video, an Australian women breast feeding, clothes and hair dated, the emphatic positivity charming then grating. A box full of babies is passed around to cuddle. Then another of knitted breasts, at first you think it is a mistake. Each breast is different, the size of the aureole shifts, nipple shape alert to race and difference, wool changes: damask pink, beige, arabesque, tanned brown. With light woollen breasts you are taught to express imaginary milk – no mention of mastitis. These teaching aids knitted by a nurse from a pattern, she varies the size for credibility. In your mother’s kitchen, even the fridge became a pregnancy workshop. A small box with glass slides next to farm eggs. An early pregnancy kit for those wanting confidentiality in a small town. How natural it seemed, jam jars of urine of the back step awaiting your return from a family event.

The Waistcoat

‘Poetry was the wrong art for people who love justice. It was not like dance music

-  Anne Boyer

Violence inscribed in a garment, the tale of making, blood soiled, lessons of being home, awaiting terror from the tyrant. Inside the binding of seams are the stains of sweat, a high-pitched buzz sutured in thread. Confrontation generates a loop in the body, your face flushed. Look directly ahead, features neutral and inert. At sixteen you embrace an old man’s waistcoat found hanging in a wardrobe that smells of dust and insects. Its multiple pockets allow you to carry keys and money, offering spaces of freedom, you pretend independence. Self-possession is what you seek, unknowing you have this already. A hidden pocket hides the stub of a pencil, the possibilities of words as yet unwritten. A faded green Rizla packet, FIVE LEAVES LEFT. The garment remained hidden for years, a remnant of a patriarch who bit his way through the world, speech stopped by a stroke. Books remain: correspondence classes, guides to building motor engines, a treatise on what a husband might expect from a wife. Library of facts, contemplation through music, copies of anthems and a Latin primer, religion and matrimonial guides: ‘The one true and only test which any man should look for is modesty in demeanour before marriage, absence of both assumed ignorance and a disagreeable familiarity, and a pure and religious frame of mind.’ A grandmother responds to exhausting questions ‘I burnt his letters of early love’. Waistcoat as talisman, worn through countries, over dresses, at interviews, at funerals, repossessed (you thought). Until it tightens, seams impinge the post pregnancy body, breasts rub against the striped fabric, more brace than a becoming. Patterns of interrogation, witness the violence of white anger. A binding that marshals pain, breaking a cycle in Autumn, tree on pane. A day spent listening to interpretations of poems, colleagues with problems, strategic planning, shoulders stiffened by a waistcoat restricting each gesture. The door closes easily on the fire, fuels a hologram, a chest burning to black cinder, holding its shape breathing in and out. Wind tearing through the cavity, leaving only a steel buckle, once harnessed to silk.

[*] Translates as “summer house”. It is reported that almost 40% of properties sold in Gwynedd (North Wales)  between March 2019 and April 2020 were purchased as second homes (figures from the Welsh Revenue Authority

Nerys Williams (b. 1971), originally from West Wales, moved to Ireland in 2003. Her first poetry collection, Sound Archive (2011, Seren), won the Strong prize; her second is Cabaret (2017, New Dublin Press). She is an Associate Professor in Poetry and Poetics at University College, Dublin and has written widely on contemporary poetry in journals and single authored books.

Of late she has been researching and writing on poets and producers at the BBC’s Third Programme. Nerys has been a Fulbright fellow and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley (2007, 2019) and in 2017 she held a Government of Wales / Literature Wales residency at Passa Porta, Brussels. The prose poems given here are from a draft volume, Republic, which examines bilingualism, West Wales of the 1980s and 90s, midwifery, mental health and Welsh independent music.

Copyright © 2021 by Nerys Williams, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.