With Mike Jenkins’ Igh Sheriff o Merthyr, Caitlin Jones enjoys a collection that grounds itself in the familiar to offer a scathing critique of the powers that rule our everyday.
Mike Jenkins’ third collection in Merthyr dialect arrives in the form of Igh Sheriff o Merthyr.
Jenkins cocoons his audience in his discursive, swishing subject matter with a tongue that sings to the local reader from the mouths of friends, family, and colleagues. With this latest effort, Jenkins transfigures standard dialect and themes into a secret garden of the colloquial. Within it, readers find the re-establishment of the Welsh local-scale following the COVID-19 pandemic, within which the surrounding environment and community of many poets fell to the wayside.
By using Merthyr dialect, Jenkins effectively ‘shuts out’ the government from his criticism, supplying stable poetic ‘space’ for him and his community to speak, without condemnation or restriction.
Jenkins interrogates issues of a political nature and draws pooling light on taboo subjects, all the while doing so in an immersive and melodic narrative voice. In WHILE THEY WOZ PARTYIN, Jenkins condemns government action throughout the Partygate controversy:
‘While they woz drinking wine in number 10 –
workin see, jest workin;
I woz sittin outside Dandelion Care Ome
wavin t my ol marn.’
Jenkins is an authority of the dichotomised. Within many of the collection’s poems you can expect the encounter of two extremes – or, of the extreme and the familiar. This side-by-side laying of facts is simple but powerful, and at once sets an emotional anchor inside an audience. We are overcome with sadness, anger, betrayal, at a poet’s simple statement of a reality. This is the collection’s bearing point. Jenkins possesses a literary immediacy that flays and exposes all illusions. The poet continues:
‘In Downin Street theyer glasses raised.
Me an-a misses eld is wake in-a kitchen.’
It is in this instance we begin to see the meaning of Jenkins’ use of local dialect as being not only for narrative, but for political purposes. By using Merthyr dialect, Jenkins effectively ‘shuts out’ the government from his criticism, supplying stable poetic ‘space’ for him and his community to speak, without condemnation or restriction. The poet spits in the face of Tory possessors and Cymraeg-denouncers.
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Jenkins also enunciates the power wielded by the government using physical space: the imagined contrast between Downing Street’s raised glasses and the poet’s home kitchen is profound, and again, speaks for itself to the self-indulgence of the Westminster government. Jenkins has an ineffable ability to extrapolate from the local scale to the national, and then to tread the path back to his front door.
Jenkins sheds a light on his community and demands that we look, but more importantly that we see, and that we see through the dialect of those he summons – and often, resurrects – in his poems.
The diversity of Jenkins’ subject matter yearns and expands throughout the collection. In the titular poem, IGH SHERIFF O MERTHYR, Jenkins parodies a high sheriff, exposing the comical nature of monarchy in a Wales which struggles with generational poverty and lack of spending. In FLEEIN A MONSTER, Jenkins reveals and retells the experience of a victim of domestic abuse by her partner on Halloween. She remains unnamed throughout the poem, as a quiet reminder from Jenkins of nameless and silenced casualties of violence. Here are poems of condemnation, of empathy, of intense grief, of systemic maltreatment. In its final poem, WASTED YEARS, this collection of many trades is tied up with a singular theme that rethreads its every aperture: class. Jenkins admits to us his inner wrestling with class structure, but through the tangles of stanzas that are consumed with the material – the monetary – the poet discovers a way to make amends with his own wants. His environment, his country, gives back in palmfuls in the form of the final lines:
‘We look out on ower small garden
an see wha’s growin.’
Despite its amiable humour and witty stanzas, this is inherently a collection of vulnerability: Jenkins sheds a light on his community and demands that we look, but more importantly that we see, and that we see through the dialect of those he summons – and often, resurrects – in his poems. The poet summons us to appreciate. Igh Sheriff o Merthyr is at times sardonic, but is in equal measures tender, and it remains a heartfelt, glittering token to its titular community.