SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today issue 94, September 2005

Red Poetry

Yesterday’s Tomorrow

By Alun Rees

Published by Y Lolfa, 2005 (in conjunction with Red Poets) £4.95

Reviewed by

Kate Jones

A SOCIALIST poet should be more than a poet who happens to be a socialist. If poetry is art expressed through words, a socialist poet must write poetry that expresses his or her socialist ideals, attacks capitalism from a socialist perspective, puts forward a socialist alternative. But, first and foremost, it must be poetry. Alun Rees from Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales aims to be a socialist poet – not just a socialist, not just a poet.

Does he succeed? There is a strong thread of radical and socialist writing running through Welsh literature in both our languages – in poetry, the most well-known being Harri Webb in English and by TE Nicholas (Niclas Glais) in Welsh. Alun Rees has been writing poetry since the 1960s and is active in the Red Poets, a group associated with socialist and radical movements in the South Wales valleys.

South Wales, birthplace of the industrial revolution, has a tradition of working-class struggle going back to the Chartists and beyond. But when our coalmines and steelworks were destroyed almost at a stroke by Margaret Thatcher, whole communities were abandoned to hopelessness and poverty. This is the world that Rees addresses in this collection - poems very varied in subject and style, moving from bitter parody to agitational humour, to a powerful celebration of the Welsh working class and its history. The poems are accessible rather than academic, and address real contemporary issues.

If I have a criticism of Rees, it is that he relies too much on parody and pastiche to get the message across, including the title poem of this work. Many of his more serious poems are more powerful and therefore more effective, for example, Outcasts:

"Across a landscape bleak and spare

the tattered shadow-figures march

to congregate in ragged groups

beneath a crumbling railway arch,

where one, more fortunate than most,

may raise a bottle in his hand

and put it to his lips and drink

a toast to life in Shadowland".

He returns again and again to the theme of the outcast, the socially excluded - whether today’s homeless, or the Jews in 1930s Germany. He describes them living in a shadow land, another country, excluded because society, humanity, we ourselves, make them different:

"Through dampness and decay observe

the stunted Shadowchildren crawl…

We will not let them share our world

because they cannot pay their dues".

And in The Dispossessed:

"They do not move

in true straight lines;

they exist

at right angles to living…

You see them de-evolving

day by day,

undeveloping, regressing, slipping

downscale towards the point

where we can feel at ease

regarding them as a lower species".

Jews in Nazi Germany or asylum seekers today?

Rees reminds us of working-class struggle worthy of celebration but too often forgotten. He turns to the holocaust, to war, to satire and to anti-Tory and anti-New Labour agitation. His is a Welsh voice but also a working-class voice, speaking of universal concerns. Here he speaks of seeming helplessness in the face of the system:

"From the four corners of a littered world

we see junk lives, lives junked amid indifference".

In Valley Boy we hear the voice of the abandoned working-class communities of South Wales:

"You think my life is worthless. Well, it is.

You think my head is empty. Well, it’s not.

You’ll find there’s rage and hate in there,

enough to fill the gaps between

the stars that hang like hope beyond my reach".

Rees is not afraid to use rhyme and rhythm, and to powerful effect. Here is protest in the form of a crow:

"A grim spare shadow of a bird

so grim, so spare it seemed no bird…

it seemed to say

that there was hunger in the dark

so fierce, so wild it would not take

a whole world’s alms to go away".

Rees is not in the Dylan Thomas league, by a long way (and Thomas was a socialist too) but the publication of this collection of 38 poems, spanning more than 20 years, is certainly very welcome.


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