Emma Schofield delves into the story of a young woman growing up in west Wales in the 1980s and 90s, told through a series of prose poems in Republic, by Nerys Williams.
There’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of nostalgia every so often and Nerys Williams’ Republic has it in spades, but there’s so much more than just nostalgia going on in this evocative collection which twists and turns easily with each entry. The years twirl past with each prose poem, with Williams ably steering the ship through a second person narration and a heartfelt exploration of the formation of political, national and cultural identity.
It’s difficult to describe just how good Republic is at times. Music, memories and words collide in what should be a tangle of recollections; it should be chaotic and confusing and yet, it works. Williams is light in writing and her tone, moving with ease between reflection and amusement in a way belies what a tightly written collection this actually is. Dive into the collection and you’ll soon find Williams unpicking these very themes herself within the actual pieces. ‘Facing It’ is a powerfully delivered exploration of the boundaries between nostalgia and memory, weaving the two together without straying into sentimentality.
Just when you’re beginning to feel like you’ve got the measure of the collection, the rage appears and the frustration at the political decisions of the time explodes out onto the page. No subject is entirely safe from scrutiny here. I loved ‘Happy in Language’ which neatly captured the complexity of the way in which we perceive language and identity and was a reminder of just how little has changed in some of our debates over the past thirty years.
Questions over identity also rear their head in pieces such as ‘C90: Boxes of Culture’, which opens with the line “you realise that being a female music obsessive renders you a minority” and ends with the assertion of “a hope that culture is not a war to be won”. Yet what happens in between those two very cleverly crafted sentences does, in fact, feel like a war. Williams hones in on that internal struggle within the collection as a whole; it’s that oh-so-familiar wrestling with your own identity and what it means to be a Welsh woman, but situated against the backdrop of a time of transition from pre- to post-devolution Wales. The role of women in an evolving society is one of the pillars of Republic, supported by Williams’ reflections on her own mother and her work as a community midwife.
There’s no denying that the numerous musical references scattered through the collection will land best with those who actually remember the era and recognise the names of artists and the many lyrics strewn throughout the pieces. Those references ground the collection firmly within its context, but they also lend the collection a sense of variety. Musically, there’s a little of everything in Republic, from post-punk to electronica, Welsh-language music to 80s pop, there’s a hedonistic mix of songs which add another dimension to Williams’ recollections of life at the close of the twentieth century.
With around eighty prose poems in the collection, most around twenty lines in length, it’s worth taking the time to really sit with the pieces in Republic. Williams has spoken previously of her desire to create an “anti-memoir”, writing which maintains distance between itself and the material it covers, Republic achieves that. An extraordinary collection which pitches the personal against the political and lets neither off the hook.
Republic is available now from Seren Books.
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