Writing against music I try to find the momentum of days. The sound of a political poster being unfurled and put into my hands. I could be three, could be four. The banner is neon green and reads Gwynfor. I am smiling, is it from understanding or looking to the background? I am held on either side by parental hands. Look they say this is you. This is what it is to know a language that is presently dying. This is the language that we use, that we speak when we put on the immersion, unpack our Christmas presents. This is the language we use when sorting out clothing on the line. This is the language that tells me what I have done wrong. This is the language hummed at night. Later, I would know Gwynfor as a man who was prepared to go on hunger strike. But for the moment, Gwynfor is the man with the benign smile thanking me for reciting a poem about a small boy and a stinking fish, during a political benefit night. I have memorised the poem and feel smart in my black and white striped rayon dress with its pussy bow. The poem is humorous, but I am thrown when adults laugh at the punch line. Did I do wrong? “Make sure that you own the stage” my father whispers. “Don’t start until everything is quiet. Own the stage.”
A time of open season on anything different, if you dressed differently, spoke differently to what was “expected”. This was the time of homogeneity and “England” was as mystifying as it was unapproachable, a monument in the mind of others. Your language drains our resources, ruins our businesses, fills our supermarkets with bilingual nouns, the insistence of Welsh first on your signage. Yes, indeed sir/madam I nearly crashed the car on that roundabout. In short, you are an anarchist language which threatens my possibility of a) getting a job b) getting money for the services I demand c) achieving a worthwhile and idyllic monolingual life ch) sanity, your language talks about me. Did I just enter ch) instead of d) see you have infiltrated my alphabet? I wanted to write a volume that was a) not nostalgic b) offered a document in its time c) would make people understand.
In short, I was hoping for the magic of C.D. Wright and listened to her interviews while writing, hoping something might enter, a sense of responsiveness. To fill in the time delay between perception and its evocation, listening and its resounding. More than anything listening was the agency I craved most. As a philosopher once said that to listen “will always then, to be straining toward an approach to the self.” The philosopher adds once one is listening “one is on the lookout for a subject, something (itself) that identifies itself by resonating from self to self.” I am at ground zero in this argument, having to explain what it is to live in a language. Our language that shyly reverberates and shines yet is questioned by @newsnight @sportsdirect: can we afford your language, are you not harbouring terrorism? I taste the word diaspora willing Welsh speakers in the world descend on the institutions that treat them shabbily, holding their Mr Urdd Gonks, waving placards in red paint, singing primary school songs and generally being a nuisance in the Welsh language.
I will that “listening” becomes a signature to a movement of thinking, an attempt to exceed the self. To overcome images which mean more than poor Tom Jones licking the last resonance of “Delilah”. I will that our language becomes a buzzing in the ears of the tribe. The six year old in me who looked in disbelief as the Royal cavalcade sped through our small town. We were marched early that jubilee morning, waving union jacks, a friend thought we saw somebody raise a pale hand.
There comes in your 30s the urgent need to… Become a rock star, a performing poet, a somebody who can handle a wardrobe, speak to crowds without falling prey to your own ego. It is an indescribable need, not for fame, but the need for something that exceeds the self. You always associate exceeding with Levinas’ words and this awareness as altruism. You see this “exceeding” all around you, dormant in the lives of women who have played it right, worked the rules, conscientiously filed the documents. Then POW, they want to become rock stars. They want to play bass like Kim Gordon, bare legged in a long striped t-shirt. They want to smile beatifically into space like Kim Deal interjecting “Your bone’s got a little machine”. They want to be held in ultramarine and fuchsia light and scale the octaves like Elizabeth Fraser. They dream of contorting their stiff bodies into a playful touching of fingers against lips, then scream as if Bjork was their voice coach. Or, looking into the future, slide into noise with Bilinda Butcher and no earplugs.
This sound in your heart, makes it difficult to attend meetings, look at spreadsheets, write references, fill in applications for funding, answer questionnaires on how infrastructures are helping/ loving / killing the “power” of literature. Young women that come to your office leave in disbelief. You urge them to buy an amp, forget their PR postgraduate course and pull off their shellac nails. You tell them it is right to have callouses on the tips of their fingers, that PVC trousers could help them think about their gender conditioning. You urge them to leave the trail of making on their life. To go to scrapyards and haul home car parts, use metal as a way of beating the percussive heart out of the system. It is another language you speak; one lost some time ago on the sticky floors of spent ballrooms. It is you shouting against time. Wishing you still could slip into all those hurriedly made dresses, strap on your army boots and wander down the corridors of power, whistling.
- Dada in Pontardawe
You are watching your favourite band Datblygu sampling a hairdryer. David R. Edwards is making the audience wait, sound looped back to the synthesizer creating the backing track for “Cristion yn y Kibbutz”. It has taken 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 agreed to chauffeur you to a community centre in Pontardawe. Screams of laughter, twice round a roundabout: you reflect on how young women arrange events, but never play. Preparing for gigs is cabaret, taking up the hem on 60s psychedelia, marshalling the confidence of a red plastic 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 haunting Welsh culture. Finding albums requires research, you explore music through political pamphlets, posting your SAEs with Liz’s head upside down. During ‘O’ level revision the doorbell rings, “a friend” is ushered in, it is Pat, Datblygu’s bassist on her way to Thomas’s Boathouse delivering an LP. Shyly, you both sit on the patio, trying to find words to tell how much music means. Dark humour against raw guitar and insistent keyboards, how you chant on a daily basis: “Rwy’n 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 music’s allusions open up a new archive. 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.
‡ Translates as “I feel like the Welsh Language Society/or a blind man seeking work.”
Republic is available from Seren now.
Nerys Williams’s first collection Sound Archive (Seren) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection and won the Irish Strong First Collection Prize. In 2017 she was a Government of Wales-Literature Wales poet in residence at Passa Porta, Brussels as part of the Literature of Loss programme. That same year her second collection Cabaret was published by New Dublin Press. Nerys is an Associate Professor in poetry and poetics University College Dublin, a Fulbright alumnus and is originally from Carmarthenshire. She lives in Kells Co. Meath. Her third collection Republic was published by Seren in 2023. Twitter: @archifsain