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Success Stories

by Alun Rees


ISBN 0 86243 783 0
Y Lolfa, 2005
62pp, paperback
Retail price 4.95

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Alun Rees of Merthyr is one of the so-called "Red Poets", a group of South Wales radical writers. He has won several awards for his poetry, but, like most poets, is an obscure name to the average person. Herbert Williams, in his introduction to Yesterday’s Tomorrow (a title you need to think about, but not for long), puts Rees’s work in context.

Rees has been writing since the 1960s, but the earliest of the poems in this collection dates from 1984, a time when the South Wales valleys were hitting the deepest depth of their decline, courtesy of the Conservative government. The tone is pro-Socialist rather than anti-Capitalist, but it is bitter, all the same. Taffy is a Welshman, an ironic twist on the old rhyme, makes painful reading if you remember that era. Rees can go further back than the 1980s, much further, and looks critically at himself and his kind, chiding them for their failure to fight their corner.

Taffy is not, however, the best of Rees’s work. Junk reveals the helplessness he feels when faced with the dilemma of whether it is better to make a nuisance of oneself or simply accept the inevitable. His Eight-and-a-Half Million Death Question is so reminiscent of Sassoon that it made me blink:

I might have been a hero

or first time out shell-shattered to a zero

or branded coward by some braided prat.

Many of the titles mark these poems out as a defiant cry against the system, and against the oppressor who is so often nominally on our own side: Rorke’s Drift, Dic Penderyn’s Farewell, Working-Class Song. Yet there is another side to Alun Rees, and we hear it and see it most clearly in works like Daughter. The savagery of instinctive human love is something any parent, indeed any mother, would recognise, even if they didn’t share his political opinions. I would love to have found a greater proportion of such verses in this volume; but perhaps that would be asking too much in the way of a change of direction.

Overall, I prefer the specific barb to poems like Fish, where Rees gets all anthropomorphic but doesn’t really get to the point. After all, who are these poems meant for? Not the intelligentsia, I think. Valley Boy defines the audience if anything does.

This is, I understand, the first full-length poetry collection from the Red Poets to be published, and it comes out under the Dinas poetry imprint of Y Lolfa. Astonishingly, it is Rees’s first published collection since 1973. Furthermore, his last publisher was my own first publisher, Christopher Davies. There’s good taste for you.

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher