Nerys Williams’ new collection questions what makes a Republic? Machinations of power? The speeches of politicians? The broad sweep of official histories? This sequence of 80 prose-poems, each constructed in 20 sentences, has arisen from the author’s need to tell a more intimate history, to commit an untold oral history to paper. Williams returns to the meaning of “republic” in its Latin origins which meant “wealth of the people”.
The poems tell the story of a young Welsh woman growing up and coming of age in the 1980s and 90s, a time that culminated with new devolutionary powers in Wales. The explosion of the arts and culture looms large, through bands from New Order to my bloody valentine, but it is explored specifically through Cwl Cymru’, and the power of Welsh-language bands like Datblygu. This story is also about class, as we explore a family history of hard work in jobs from retail to caregiving. The poems introduce us to family influences, from a father who urges the narrator as a child to ‘own the stage’ in an early school Eisteddfod, to a grandmother who worked long hours in her rural shop, and a mother who was the local midwife.
There are stories told, overheard, handed down, sometimes translated from Welsh. Together, they create an expansive portrait of the era, including the challenges for women, Welsh-speakers, and other marginalized groups. Ferocious remarks about the Welsh in the popular media are dissected with satirical humour and appalled fascination, while other poems describe being a token woman and political outsider on a TV current affairs show panel, tolerated but ostracized.
From her more recent home, the republic of Ireland, Williams poses the possibilities of a nation looking at itself and its history from afar. Wales has not been allowed to be a republic, but is subject to a state that has military claims on its landscape and a second home explosion which has a severe impact on its communities. There is rebellion to be found in the older meaning of “republic”: since the wealth of the people is a wealth of sounded stories, culture, art, and history.