Rock Life: 17 Poems from the Welsh Valleys by Gemma June Howell

Reviewed by Penny Boxall

In Gemma June Howell’s Rock Life: 17 Poems from the Welsh Valleys, we’re immediately surrounded by sound.

He spits –
thick green flob
sours concrete floor.

The fact that I could type those lines from memory demonstrates the sinking-in richness of these poems: that horrid ‘flob’, for instance, is so (wrong it’s) right. These are poems to be spoken aloud, and spoken loud.

This is particularly true as the collection progresses immediately into the titular poem, ‘Rock Life’, which is spelt fonetikly:

Weeyar thuh nex’ up n cumin
Weeyar ow-wah pair-runts:
ow-wah pair-runts’ cree-air-shun.

Creative and mindful of the way people speak – not just the way they sound – the phonetic spelling draws out voice in an entirely successful way. It’s cheeky, too: Howell grasps funny rhyme (‘Cuz weeyar clevah. / To ge’ up thuh duff / wiv a blorke call’d Trevah’). The final stanza plays just the right card, puncturing the lightness of the joke with a perfect point:

Weyall leve on this Rock,
longin’ t’gor –
but fear uv ow-wuh few-chuh
is what tells us nor.

These are angry poems, personal and political. The voices we spend time with are desolate, deadpan or judgmental, but they all breathe and live. None of them feel contrived, even if the form may be. ‘Dirty Pill’, for example, sets up a nostalgic nursery rhythm and rhyme scheme (‘Cun ewe still remembuh / when we ewst tuh play / roun’ by th’ fishshop…’) purposely to detonate it (‘…and in by the flats / ev-ree fucken day?’). It takes risks with the phonetic spelling so that it takes a little time to comprehend, as though sense is lurking behind dark glass; but it always clarifies, so that we can trust in recognising words. (‘Marawarnah’ is brilliantly disguised – even though the syllables are all perfect, it still took several moments to get the sense). ‘Dirty Pill’ quickly turns from play to drugs, all framed with that lazily nostalgic ‘Can ewe still remembuh?’

‘Head Hunted’ visits school, exams, and hostility towards academic achievement:

Wha’ yew doo-in sittin exams?
Yew carn av thah where
wee-yuh frum.

The speaker does their best to puncture the interlocutor’s self-confidence in school, but also tempts with a world in which they make the rules:

The nipper zoo ‘ang round us
Avunt gotta clue.
Cum-mon mun, join me Butt.
Ansuz up tuh yew.
Why dun ewe wanna work fuh me?
Yew’ll see thuh bucks roll in.
Iss bettuh thun bein’ on thuh Dorle
an iss bettuh thun bein’ skint.

And, potently:

Books? Books?!
Fuckin rorch material fuh yah spliff Butt.

This book is much more than that, though I wonder whether a shorter collection might have had more potency. These are good, funny, sad, solid poems, but en masse they can begin to feel a little samey, and increasingly hard work (on the eye and on the mind). However, that isn’t to detract from a noticeably inventive and successful collection, which treads its comic/tragic line with tripping ease.