What It’s Like to Be Alive: Selected Poems

Deryn Rees-Jones

New Titles

New titles from across Wales
Publication Date: 
Monday, September 12, 2016
No votes yet

Deryn Rees-Jones’s new book, What It’s Like to Be Alive: Selected Poems, marks a mid-career milestone in the life of this highly-acclaimed writer. From the poems written in her teens and early twenties included in her exciting debut The Memory Tray to her most recent exploration of time and grief, we see the arc of development in her writing over twenty-five years as she visits and revisits the concerns that are the mainstay of her writing: memory, love, desire, and heartbreak in all its manifestations.


In her second collection Signs Round A Dead Body she continues to explore love and loss with praise poems and elegies that draw as much on Walt Whitman and Neruda as they do on a tradition of Welsh writing. The long-poem turned murder-mystery ‘Quiver’ is represented by a number of poems in the sequence, that see her playing with genre to explore the nature of female creativity, motherhood, and belief.


The author’s T.S. Eliot prize-nominated, Burying the Wren, features largely in the second half of the book. Rees-Jones here consolidates and concentrates her powers with poems that confront personal tragedy: the loss of a husband to cancer. Continuing to develop her use of the poetic sequence, Dogwoman, inspired by the pictures of the Portuguese artist Paula Rego, explores how we can be fully alive in language even in the depths of sorrow.

With this knowledge of grief, Rees-Jones assays the life of Helen Thomas, the young widow of the poet Edward Thomas, exploring the complexities of marriage and the relationship between the body, perception and memory in And You, Helen.

The book concludes with a brand new long poem, ‘ i.m.’ an elegy which explores the power of memorialisation while testifying to the power of hope. This substantial volume is a tribute to the maturing voice of an essential poet.  


Review by Jane Blank, Planet

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

After spending time with a collection that spans decades, the reader forms a greater intimacy with a poet than with a novelist. Ranging through key stages in a poet’s life, a distinct voice emerges speaking directly to the reader, creating a unique and unfiltered intimacy.
In a novel, the writer operates behind the characters; it is their voices that resonate in the imagination, that dominate the reader’s relationship with a book. In Tess, it is not Hardy but his heroine that we remember; in Wuthering Heights not Emily but Heathcliff and Catherine we carry in our heats. It is different, however, if we read Hardy’s or Emily Brontë’s verse. There the dominance of the characters they created in fiction – that filter of personae a novelist sneaks behind – is replaced by a powerful relationship directly between the poet and the reader.
This collection, What It's Like To Be Alive, is no exception. It is dominated by a first person narrator, often addressing a ‘you’ figure, which makes the book intimate, even when the poems are not overtly personal.
There are a number of recurring motifs that include the stars, space and the cosmos, as well as birds, references to mythology, books, poetry, and plants. Motif-spotting in itself can be a powerful inducement to go on reading, but there is always the risk of it becoming a distraction from a more profound study of the collection.
I found short, succinct poems such as ‘My Grandfather’s Tattoo’ particularly effective:

On sunny days, his shirtsleeves rolled,
he’d cover with a sticking plaster –
like the wound of Welsh he wouldn’t give
   his children –
the blue-green inks of an anchorage, the

Like all the best similes, the process here is complex – the ‘shameful’ tattoo used to symbolise the grandfather’s discomfort at his linguistic heritage. He hides it, covering it with a plaster – thereby, of course, drawing attention to the very thing he wishes to obscure.
Though presumably he once paid for the tattoo, seeking admittance to come ‘club’, this voluntary branding has ended up as something to be ashamed of in front of his young grandchildren. Even more ironically, the tattoo in question is an anchor, for he is ashamed of that unique cultural ‘anchor’, his mother tongue, which he consequently withholds from his own children and so from every succeeding generation. He has chosen to deny his descendants access to their heritage and thus the family’a linguistic chain – stretching back to the Iron Age and beyond – can never be whole again. Sadly, as we’re finding out across the world, no amount of legislation can make up for the tragedy of a parent choosing not to pass on an indigenous minority language to his or her children.
Another short gem in this Selected is ‘Burying the Wren’:

I kissed you at the corner gate,
our breath warmed with whisky and ale
and thought of that small brown bird
the Wren Boys brought:
soft as the hairs behind your ears –
so cold – the wren on the pole in her little
   box –
the fluttering breast you longed to touch.

This poem, using the bird motif, is particularly successful. On the surface, the wren is a tender image representing affection. Yet the wren box and the Wren Boys are a strange and disturbing tradition, the bird most often killed before being mounted in a specially crafted container and taken from house to house in the festive season as a type of wassail. What now does this poem suggest of love?
The publisher’s blurb informs the reader that ‘Rees-Jones consolidates and concentrates her powers with poems that confront personal tragedy: the loss of a husband to cancer.’ The experience of reading the collection is, for me, dominated by these later poems which deal with her grief. The sense of devastation is made all the more poignant by the poems’ ordinary, domestic setting, as when Deryn Rees-Jones describes watching her husband reading a book as she stands, unseen, looking in through a window. Even as I write this, there is a stinging behind my eyes.
In poems such as ‘The Story of a Life’, ‘Sky Canoe’, and ‘My Husband, Will’, their love is portrayed so keenly – physically, even viscerally – that, on reaching the poems of loss, among them the superbly resonant ‘And You, Helen’, and ‘I.M.’ with its phenomenal self-control, the reader is unequivocally with her. She is bereft:

Your body’s ashes drift...
Now here’s a longing for my breast
To meet a mouth, for you again to slip your
Inside my heart.



User Reviews

Sorry there are no reviews yet for this book