What It’s Like to Be Alive: Selected Poems

Deryn Rees-Jones
Publication Date: 
Monday, September 12, 2016
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What It’s Like To Be Alive is a chance to reflect on the depth of Rees-Jones’s poetry to this point, and to see the growth of a fierce poetic intelligence.’
– Poetry Ireland Review


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 Colin Graham, Poetry Ireland Review

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Deryn Rees-Jones’s What It’s Like To Be Alive begins with ‘The Great Mutando’ who ‘Pulls rabbits out of hats / ties up the day with handkerchiefs in silk’. The Great Mutando’s skills, his ability to knot handkerchiefs in secret places or make a dog from balloons, seem to be an easy metaphor for the poet as maker, magician, puller-off of linguistic tricks. Rees-Jones initially offers Mutando as an aspirational model, but in the midstof her poem tempers the effect. Of Mutando’s six hidden doves, ‘Five fly,one suffocates. / A little drop of shit // runs down his sleeve’. Mutando’s incapacities define him as much his skills. The undercutting of metaphors of airy possibility with a reality that is more viscerally compelling than the flight of fancy it punctures is a perfect start to this ‘Selected Poems’, beginning with poems from The Memory Tray (1994) and ending with a new elegy, ‘I.M.’.
The title poem from The Memory Tray, included here, gives a strong sense of Rees-Jones’s early work – the language is direct, controlled, persuasive, and yet inquisitive. ‘The Memory Tray’ is a conceit on the parlour game, an extended metaphor circulating around the things and voices that memories are hinged on to, and which ends with an amalgam of a list and an ironic act of catalogue of the untameable memories which are dreams. As with ‘The Great Mutando’ there is an underlying desire here to lift the weight of the material world out of its ordinary gravitational pull. ‘Blue’, an unusually free-wheeling poem, slipping in and out of references to American poets and inhabiting their voices, is a joyful act of memory which also feels like a preparation, a poetic voice testing its possibilities and realising its capacities.
Rees-Jones extends the strength of the voice she develops in The Memory Tray in subsequent volumes, particularly in her exploration of how sensuality, sexuality, and love can deepen a sense of both the life lived and the poem written. Poems in this ‘Selected’ from Signs Round a Dead Body (1998) show how Rees-Jones shifts towards eroticism as a way to invoke a stronger, more affective sense of a worldly reality, as if the magic of Mutando was something of a dead-end, a strategy with no place to go. This turn to the body and sensuality does not attempt to elevate the worldly beyond itself but instead intensifies perception and the phenomenological evidence of being-in-the-world. The sequence ‘Song of Despair’, written in a sparse and distilled verse, is by turns affirmative and tentative about love, and, in its fifth section, epitomises Rees-Jones’s sense that the (erotic) body may be the actual and metaphoric site of meaning:

So I raised you from the dead.
So I washed you, licked your armpits, the soles of your feet, untangled
the spidery lines of your matted hair,
picked leaves and insects from your well-shaped limbs,
blew life into your mouth
and sang to you.
So I suckled, promised, fed and enfolded you.
So I hated, loved, scorned even myself,
was tenderness, a body to you.

The lover’s body and the persona’s own here are hardly idealised – it is their palpability and corporeality that is the foundation for the resonance they have. When the persona says she ‘blew life into your mouth’, it is exactly this possibility (that one comes properly and fully alive in the bodily presence of another, and that this being alive gives consequence to everything else) that the poem moves towards – not transcendence, but somatic intensity.
Rees-Jones’s Quiver (2004) is a clever amalgam of her previous modes of poetic voice with a murder mystery narrative – inventive, funny, gorgeously confusing, it picks up on traits within the genre and detaches them from narrative logic. (‘Clone’, in style, dedication [‘after PM’], and –tongue-in-cheek – in title, recognises the volume’s similarity to the narrative poems of Paul Muldoon).
What It’s Like To Be Alive culminates in poems from Burying the Wren (2012), a raw, piercing volume trying to comprehend the death of her husband from cancer. In poems such as the fractured sonnet ‘After You Died’, grief and absence are confronted full-on; the moon, once a metaphor of the flightiness of romance, is now ‘there, her face full with a fierce singing’. And this poem ends with a hint of rhyme (‘cohabiting’ with ‘singing’) and disquiet:

And the dark again became a place
of sleep, a wild thing cohabiting.

It takes not only strength of character and thought but a strength of poetic voice to enter into grief in poetry and to channel the chaos of the overwhelming forces of loss into poetic form. In Burying the Wren Rees-Jones shows an extraordinary ability to comprehend her own mourning with utter self-awareness and lack of emotional compromise. What It’s Like To Be Alive ends with a previously unpublished poem, ‘I.M.’ which re-visits the grief of Burying the Wren in a more reflective way, in a sequence of systematically controlled poems – each is thirteen lines long, as if she were still not quite ready to write complete sonnets. What It’s Like To Be Alive is a chance to reflect on the depth of Rees-Jones’s poetry to this point, and to see the growth of a fierce poetic intelligence.

Review by Claire Crowther, Poetry Wales

Friday, June 30, 2017

What It’s Like To Be Alive, a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation, is a selection from Deryn Rees-Jones’ four previous collections, adding also a sequence inspired by Helen Thomas (Edward Thomas’ wife) and ‘I.M’, a new elegy. The book is arranged in chronological order of publication, so you feel the work gain weight – not that the early poems are light, exactly. They are often larky, sexy and fun like ‘Lovesong to Captain James T. Kirk’:


No one was more shocked than me when I
(the lady doth protest) to find
my bruised and rainy planet disappeared
and me, materialised and reconstructed on
board the starship Enterprise, all ’60s with
my lacquered beehive and my thigh-
skirt in blue, my Dr Martens and my jeans
replaced by skin-tight boots and scratchy
nylons ripping up my less than perfect calves.


That long rush of clauses, constructed round a repeating word (‘my’) and so well managed that the stanza never topples, is one of many glittering devices, a brilliant excrescence of a sort that suddenly shoots out of short and sensible lines – lines often trying to revert to a tetrameter. ‘Dogwoman’ is a tour de force formal presentation of a metaphor: ‘Dogwoman, dogsoul. Breath escaping / the bone cage, faster. Dog refusing to leave her master’.

Much of Rees-Jones’ development from the 1990s to today, foregrounded in this selection, concerns narrative, a mode of poetry she has mastered. Along with her polished narration, Rees-Jones can fresh-pick a simile or metaphor from exactly the right observed detail. Here the protagonist of Quiver, a murder-mystery, finds a dead woman: ‘There at the mouth, carved like a seraph’s, / a dash, a dart, an outpost of blood.’ (‘The Cemetery’)

Death quickly became her major theme, elegy a dominant form (her husband, Michael Murphy, died of cancer) and this naturally breaks the insouciant morning mood of the earliest work. Less than a third of her first collection, The Memory Tray, is included while Quiver leaves out only one poem from its original. I think the book suffers from the loss of many early songs, which were clever and moving. Here are lines from one that is included, ‘Song for Winter’, echoing  Leonard Cohen:


who laughing, who retching, who weeping
who is there to tell how sorrow puts a name
                to sorrow
with language or the body? TV, the radio,
the little gods of noise? For we carry
love like a kind of pain: desire like
a sticklebacked wave…


A bargain at 180 pages, What It’s Like To be Alive is more like a compendium of responses to the inevitable loss of life.



Review by Dilys Wood, Artemis poetry

Monday, May 1, 2017

Deryn Rees-Jones' Selected comprises poems from four previous collections and two recently published long poems. Twenty years' work offers a welcome opportunity to follow the development of this significant, rewarding poet. 

Her work is as much bedded in the classroom as Sylvia Plath's. In her poem Loving the Greeks (from The Memory Tray) she recalls: "the Latin master // apostrophe right from our breathy souls / into the script of the Lexicon Graecum." Even in this lyrical account ("being girls / declining love, writing our lives in pictures") we catch a whiff of her reach for 'mastery', the way she pushes hard for original angles and for eclectic source material - the life of Mrs W B Yeats, the film world.

In the 1990's collections, she's the 'show-piece' poet, taking one word ('snow' or 'calcium') and teasing out dozens of connections. She gives us cultural allusions and intellectual speculations half-quoting from other poets. "And if I cried out in the night, if you cried too...who is there to answer?" (Song for Winter) echoes Rilke's First Duino Elegy, "Wer, wenn ich shriee, hörte​ mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?" ("Who, when I cry out, will hear me among Angel / cohorts?")

At this stage, there are moving personal poems but she hasn't yet pared down to an emotional core. Later Rees-Jones won't dispense with rich connections but the balance will change.


Review by Carol Rumens, The Poetry Review

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Deryn Rees-Jones is a mid-career poet, whose initial splash in the newcomers’ busy pool has turned into a healthy long-distance swim. Her five collections demonstrate a restless inventiveness. Playful eroticism remixed with fragments from popular culture characterised her early work; then a prose genre, the detective story, opened more complex narrative possibilities in her ambitious third collection, Quiver. Subsequently, Burying the Wren moved into the charged lyricism of erotic elegy. In her latest sequence, And You, Helen, the poetry seems newly freed from materiality into music and biography (that of Helen Thomas) informing the longer stride and observational reach. Like John Riley, Rees-Jones releases new energies in her line through innovative punctuation. Series of dashes have striking auditory and visual effect. Sometimes there’s an impression of simultaneity, events in separate lives being spliced together as if on film. As she narrates her own frontline terrors, Helen Thomas seems at the sametime to experience her husband’s death:

There’s blood at the throat. Whose throat?
His body is perfect. Only his heart,
as if caught in the split of a second.

He gives her a look. Pause.
The skies light up. Is this the way she might imagine him?

Poems feather in his pocket.
​Birdsong. Here, is the stillness of --------

Robin or redstart, called palely to his palm.


Where next, and in which genre, are intriguing questions in a poetic career clearly to-be-continued.

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.



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