Vol LII: Keyways
This text is:
A commentary on every poem in Owen Sheers’ Skirrid Hill
Written with revision for A-Level exams in mind
Geared towards students of A-Level English Literature
Meant to enhance the reader’s understanding of some of the ideas in Sheers’ poetry
As much for the sake of developing my understanding of Owen Sheers as it is for developing your understanding.
Partly designed to save you having to Google some of the more obscure references in the collection.
This text is not:
A substitute for reading all of the poems in Skirrid Hill many, many times… in fact, the only way to get anything out of this commentary is to read the poems a couple of times first, then read my commentary, then read the poems again.
Exhaustive – of course there are lots of points I missed.
Finished – as time goes on, I’m sure I will want to add to this little project.
An essay – you will not do well in any exam by simply reciting any of the opinions or readings from this commentary. It is written for the sole purpose of pointing out a few things in the poems that you might have missed.
Written for any other reason than to help you – make sure you take advantage of that fact.
The Title – Skirrid Hill
‘Skirrid Hill’ takes its origin from the proper Welsh name, ‘Ysgirid Fawr’ which roughly translates as ‘shattered mountain’. ‘Skirrid’ can also be interpreted as meaning ‘divorced or separated’ – the common theme here is that the word ‘skirrid’ carries connotations of something that has broken down in some way – which leads us to suspect that one of the overlying themes of this collection is the natural deterioration and breakdown of things.
Those of you feeling brave, if tackling the ‘key to the collection’ question may want to argue that the key to the collection is actually the ‘note on the title’ (page v) because themes of separation run throughout all of Sheers’ work. It can be separation through death, separation from one’s family (Stitch in Time) separation of a body part (Amazon) or the literal physical separation that takes place in the mountain itself.
Divorce (if we can also take ‘divorce’ to mean the breakdown of things) and separation are absolutely crucial to this collection and, as a result the title and the note on the title are vital to the book’s meaning.
What’s this? We haven’t reached the main body of the collection yet, not even at the contents page, we still have roman numerals for page numbers … and what do we find on page vii? A poem! How controversial.
It is an unusual structural choice to preface a collection with an entire poem. Sheers’ choice to have this poem separated from the rest of the work suggests that this is perhaps a key or a map with which to navigate through the rest of the collection, similar perhaps to how some editions of Lord of the Rings have a map of Middle Earth before you even get to the text of the novel.
It is also an interesting, almost paradoxical, decision to begin things with a poem called ‘last act’. This is perhaps our first clue that Sheers wants his reader to feel uncomfortable and show us that he will be breaking conventions with this collection.
We might perhaps link this with his TS Eliot Four Quartets reference on the next page. The most famous line from Eliot’s Four Quartets sequence is the line ‘in my beginning is my end’. It seems as though Sheers may be making a subtle reference to this by literally putting an ‘end’ of sorts at the beginning of his book. This is the first of many references to the work of TS Eliot that you can find scattered around the collection if you look close enough.
So, what is the poem telling us? Unlike the rest of the collection, the poetic ‘you’ can be assumed to be the reader. The lines ‘Don’t be surprised it has taken so long to show you these’ may be indicative of the time gap between Skirrid Hill and his previous collection. If we take this to be the case then ‘the actor, bowing as himself / for the first time all night’ could be taken as an apology of sorts for his dissatisfaction with his debut collection, The Blue Book, which received a lot of criticism. This may well be a proclamation that this is Sheers’ first genuine collection of poetry – the last one was just a warm-up.
Last Act also serves as a manifesto of sorts for what Sheers’ sees poetry as being. Whereas theatre is based entirely on seeing human beings ‘in-role’ right until the very end, Sheers begins with the bow so that we are left with the honesty of an actor stepping out of character throughout the collection.
This later turns out to be easier said than done however, as Sheers shows us that in our day to day lives, we are always playing roles in some sense.
I see there to be a very clear case for arguing that this is potentially the ‘key poem’ in the collection, especially as we see the explicit role of actors in this collection come into play in a very important way towards the final few poems.
‘As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living.’
T.S. Eliot, East Coker
It is highly conventional for modern poets to begin their collections with an epilogue – T.S. Eliot did this all the time. There are a number of reasons for doing this. Firstly, by linking to a famous, established piece of writing from the past, the poet is showing that they are fitting their work into ‘the poetic tradition’ and that their work is fit to sit next to the canon.
Sheers is a poet who achieved a lot of success from a young age – sky-rocketing to the top of the ladder very early on. This was partly through the support of his peers and the favour shown to him. There are plenty who, perhaps through jealousy of his youth and good looks, are eager to write him off as somebody who needn’t be taken seriously. For this reason, prefacing his collection with an Eliot quote shows that he is not simply a fatuous young upstart who got lucky – he might actually know his stuff too.
This may sound like a tangent but it isn’t… think about it, we’re talking about the struggle for identity in Modern Literature. What could be a clearer example of this than a young, handsome poet desperate to prove to his older academic peers that he is just as intelligent and worthy of a place in the literary world as them? By placing himself in the tradition of TS Eliot, a well-established poet who also began writing at a young age, Sheers is establishing his own identity as a serious poet.
The epigraph itself however, has been chosen most judiciously, for there are at least four obvious thematic paths it can lead us down, and several more subtle. Line 1 indicates a theme of age/youth, line 2 indicates a theme of modernisation and the breakdown of society and line 3 indicates a theme mortality and spirituality.
Taken as a whole, the epigraph touches upon all of the important aspects of this collection. With the line ‘as we grow older’, Sheers is not merely thinking about people growing older, although there is plenty of this in the collection, he is also thinking about the development of society. He is referring to a principle that the French Philosopher, Charles Péguy summed up in the phrase le monde moderne avilit (the modern world corrupts everything).
Choosing this particular poem holds a variety of possible meanings also. T.S. Eliot himself was born in America and then chose to move over to England – so this idea of transatlanticism is sewn early on. The poem itself is also the result of Eliot’s battle with writer’s block (link back to ‘last act’) and so could be seen as a comment on why it has taken five years to produce a second collection.
We also have the sense of the British landscape being a record of past, present and future.
So here we have the first proper poem in the chronology of the collection. Similarly to ‘Last Act’, we begin with an aftermath. In this case it is the aftermath of the First World War, a subject that has been the subject of many of the world’s finest poets of the past hundred years.
It is significant that Mametz Wood is where the Welsh Division fought during the Battle of the Somme – with regards to the struggle for modern identity, this is a key fact for establishing the importance of the Welsh role in British history. One of the many themes of this collection is the rise and fall of Welsh importance in the identity of Great Britain, and the poet works hard to remind us of key historical moments where the Welsh have helped build the nation as we now know it.
The idea of farmers tending the land ‘back into itself’ connotes the idea of the war being an unnatural act from which the countryside is striving to recover. ‘Like a wound working a foreign body to the surface of the skin.’ This is the first of many allusions to the negative role that human activities play in the world.
‘Bird’s egg of a skull’ and ‘nesting machine guns’ are also the first instances of the symbiosis of the world of man described with imagery of nature and visa versa.
The line ‘they were told to walk, not to run’ is a comment on the emotional reserve often attributed to British people, particularly of the upper classes. The idea of these brave men being lead into battle by leaders who do not care for their safety becomes key to the meanings of later poems such as ‘Tea with Dr. Hitler’ and ‘Liable to Floods’.
Sheers is aware that much poetry was written during the war itself and no amount of empathy could move him to write something which would transcend existing accounts of the experience itself. However, by writing about the aftermath of the war, he is able to convey the profound grief and injustice caused by the event and its ongoing effects.
The description of the ‘china plate of a shoulder blade, the relic of a finger’ puts the fallen dead in line with historical artefacts creating an uneasy emotional distance.
It is also interesting to consider that Sheers was taken under the tutelage of Andrew Motion early on in his career. Motion also writes frequently of the war and it is interesting to see how the two poets have influenced each other’s writing.
Here we have our first hint of the uneasiness in male/female relationships in the collection. It is important that it is a female horse – use of the pronoun ‘she’ encourages us to extend the horse as a representation of all females.
The farrier is an archetypal masculine, manual labouring figure, creating a contrast with those we see in the industries of service and entertainment later on in the collection (see ‘Services’ or ‘L.A. Evening’. The fact that he is smoking a roll-up suggests an extension of the values of working with hands as well as a rejection of modern innovation and the ubiquitous health warnings on the dangers of smoking; in ‘Wake’ we see a man dying of lung-cancer, as if to create a book-end to this disregard. There is nothing modern about his attire or his physical appearance, the sideburns for example.
The fact that he is ‘careful not to look her in the eye’ may suggest that the farmer is initially guilty at the un-natural way that he is about to alter the horse’s physicality. It is also indicative of an emotional reserve – there is no sense that the farmer wishes to comfort the horse and put her at ease before he does what he does to her, but rather treats her like a ‘knackered car’, another archetypal male image.
There is however, a suggestion of growing intimacy between horse and farrier during the act of hoofing with descriptions such as ‘a romantic lead dropping to the lips of his lover’ and ‘cutting moon-sliver clippings’.
By the end of the poem, the care and delicacy with which the farrier performs his work leaves him in an almost emasculated role, described as ‘a seamstress pinning the dress of the bride’.
This transition we see in the role of the farrier is an interesting one and could be used as an illustration of ‘masculinity’ being just another ‘role’ or pretention that does not stand up to interrogation.
By the end of the poem though, we feel sympathetic toward the horse who feels discomfort at walking on unnatural ground in unnatural shoes. This works as both a comment on man’s alteration of nature as well as the ways that women’s lives are effected by men – the awkward sound of the horse walking reflects the high heels of Sheers’ lover later on in the collection – high heels being a representation of women’s need to dress up for their men?
The poem begins with a reference to RS Thomas – again showing the importance of Welsh identity to Sheers.
It is interesting that his father’s contributions here are weaknesses, a ‘stammer’ and ‘a tired blink’. His mother’s contributions seem to be the more positive attributes; the blue eyes, introspection and his compulsion to write. Things from the natural world, especially ‘Skirrid Hill’ itself is often referred to by female pronouns, creating the indication that nature and its strength are a female quality, whereas the male character is a weaker and more destructive force.
The blacksmith imagery of this poem, again, corresponds to stereotypical male roles from the ‘blue ore’ through to the ‘red hot core’. It is strange that this image is not begun until his father is out of the way though – almost as if it is inappropriate to attribute this archetypal male metaphor in the same stanza as describing his father.
We also have the sense here that Sheers grew up admiring and loving the horse in the stable, and so may impact upon the perceived cruelty done to it in the previous poem.
The collection's first ‘love poem’ of sorts is also the collection’s first sonnet.
This is a deeply sexual poem in which Sheers describes a vigorous love-making session with a partner which resulted in a carpet-burn scar upon her back. Again, this gives us a sense of the destructive nature of men upon the natural world.
Make a note of the fact that spines and backs are important to this collection and are a recurring image when describing people, places, rock formations and many other things.
This, in many ways, mimics the farrier, in that it is an intimate physical act between a male and female whereby the female comes off permanently scarred. We might link this idea to that of childbirth in the way that Sheers writes ‘we worked up that scar’ – a thing that the two of them did together that left its mark on only her body.
The image of the loose flaps of skin being like ‘two tattered flags flying from your spine’s mast’ may also continue the running themes of national pride. It may also connote the phrase ‘tie your colours to the mast’, giving the impression that this was a moment of his permanent attachment to this partner. The ‘mast’ creates an image of sailing that is followed up later in ‘Valentine’.
By likening the scar to ‘lovers who carve trees’, Sheers is continuing his theme of comparing that world of nature to the world of man – in this case ‘skin’ and ‘bark’ are tenor and vehicle.
The title here clearly gives us connotations of insincerity and role-play, echoing the ‘Last Act’ of the collection’s start.
The models echo the horses in their high-heels, but are also likened to ‘curlews’ (a type of long-beaked bird)– an image which is later picked up when the women ‘flex the featherless wings / of their shoulders’.
By likening the models to birds and the photographers to a ‘crocodile pit of cameras’, Sheers is increasing the sense of men being a controlling, negative force in the world of women.
Back to the idea of cinema/theatre (see ‘L.A. Evening’), Sheers describes his lover applying makeup in front of the mirror in a way that echoes the ideas of playing roles by using semantically cinematic words like ‘scene’ and ‘focus’.
The female has clearly mesmerised the male in this section, but Sheers gives us the sense that it is not a genuine attraction, as she has only achieved it through make-up, jewellery and a nice dress. It sets ‘the room about you out of focus’, but it is described as a magic trick, therefore something that can ultimately be explained away and debunked.
Sheers is clearly not sneering at the woman in this poem though. Because of the previous section, we do not criticise the woman for her ‘hocus pocus’, but rather the male-driven society of ‘crocodiles’ that forces women to act in this way to get attention (this theme is picked up later in ‘Drinking Tea With Dr. Hitler’).
The final quatrain is one of the few examples of full rhyme in the collection and is deployed as a reflection of the trite, insincere effect of the woman on his affections.
A clear narrative follow-on from ‘Show’ – the lovers have had an argument which links in with the idea of ‘skirrid’ as divorce.
The woman leaving in high heels making the sound of ‘water torture’ serves two purposes. Firstly, there is the link back to the heels of the models in the previous poem and the heels of the horse in the farrier. Also the idea of ‘water torture’ (as in dripping water on someone’s face until it becomes unbearable, creating the sensation of drowning) reminds us once again of the horrible things that humans do to each other. ‘Water torture’ is a suitable image because it is a form of psychological torture – perhaps like love. ‘Water torture’ is also a metaphor for crying, suggesting that maybe this woman deliberately cries as a way of torturing the poet.
The ‘wet lashes’ here signifying the slipping off of the mascara that was applied in the previous poem, a sign that things are moving away from the sexually charged trickery and towards an unhappy honesty.
By the end of the poem the lovers have a reconciliation of sorts, but an uneasy one that leaves them physically together but emotionally very uncertain of what the future holds for them. This idea of lovers sharing a bed whilst drifting apart is reused in ‘Four Movements in the Scale of Two’ later on.
By describing them as ‘wrecked voyagers’, Sheers paints a cynical view of love as being as a survivalist co-dependence and calls back to his image of ‘flags on a mast’ from ‘Marking Time’.
Note: Sheers’ preferred stanza-structure is triplet. He writes in triplets here but they are interrupted by one-line stanzas as if to deliberately interrupt the progress of the poem itself. You will find other examples in this collection where Sheers interrupts his natural triplets to create a break or sense that something has stopped working.
A continuation of the lovers’ tiff story arc and some obligatory bird imagery.
By mentioning that swans ‘mate for life’, Sheers includes another parallel between animals and humans and allows for he and his lover to model their behaviour on that of the birds. The birds swim apart but eventually return to each other, just like the lovers’ hands.
Whilst you could technically argue that any poem in a collection is the ‘most important’, you’d be an idiot to do that with this poem… there just isn’t enough going on in it.
The sexual encounter of ‘Marking Time’ is contrasted here by a far less intimate and enjoyable experience.
It is important to note that it is her physically on top of him, symbolising the shift in dynamic between the lovers – ‘you lowered yourself to me’.
Whilst this act is taking place however, the poet is concentrating on the lights that are beginning to be turned off outside the window and seems practically oblivious to the sexual act that is being performed on him.
The poem ends with ‘you rose from me / and walked into the lit hallway, / trailing the dress of your shadow behind you’. Neither partner has been sexually satisfied by the encounter – he was distracted and she feels the need to leave immediately afterwards.
If we are to look at the interconnected nature of all of these poems, you will find in the penultimate poem, ‘Wake’, a depiction of death’s imminence being realised before the actual death of a human being. A similar effect is produced here with the realisation that this relationship is not long for this world.
It is of some significance that this is occurring in August, yet the previous poem was Winter… a subtle device for showing the passage of time. Also perhaps the suggestion that in the colder months we are motivated by romance, whereas the warmer times of the year are more carnal and lust-fuelled if we are to take on board the image of a ‘mating season’.
Whilst animals are able to mate and reproduce without emotion, Sheers is showing us that this is not the natural way for humans to behave and creates a distinctly un-natural feeling.
This poem stands out against the rest of the collection in terms of imagery. He uses the extended metaphor of keys and key-cutting to describe the nature of their relationship, which has the obvious sexual connotations but also the idea of things fitting together and being made for each other.
The image of the lovers stood waiting to get an extra set of keys cut so that they need never speak to each other, whilst the poet considers how he once thought that they had been like a perfect fitting key and lock is sustained throughout this poem, to the point where it outwears its welcome and becomes a fairly lifeless conceit (in my critical opinion).
The only cleverness that I will credit this poem with is the way that it develops the paradox of ‘Last Act’. Sheers gave us an ‘ending’ right at the beginning of the book, now he is giving us another ending in a situation which is usually the mark of the beginning of something (getting new keys cut).
It is also entirely incongruent with the collection in terms of imagery, because it is one of the few pieces that draws relations between people and man-made objects – in the rest of the collection, most parallels are drawn between the world of man and the world of nature.
Note on structure: notice how the last three poems have built up from triplets, to quatrains to quintains, almost like a slowing down or building up to the end.
Still with me? Excellent… this is where the collection starts showing off just what Sheers is capable of.
The title of this piece serves a variety of functions. Firstly, it makes an allusion to the Welsh novel of the same name by Raymond Williams. The novel is about a Welsh academic in London returning home when his father suffers a stroke. This ties in with the poet’s dealing with family loss.
The ‘border’ in the title also serves two semantic functions. Firstly, we have the sense that Wales is ‘bordered’ from the rest of Britain and therefore separate. Borders also represent a moment of transition into something new, and in this sense, Sheers is suggesting that Wales is crossing the border into a new age – as is symbolised in the fading away of the car quarry.
The ‘elephant’s graveyard of cars’ is a potent image within the collection as it reminds us of Mametz Wood. The ground is gradually purging itself of the manmade impositions (it was dead bodies and their uniforms in the first poem, now it is ‘dead’ abandoned cars).
The elephant’s graveyard also gives us an interesting comparison between nature and industry. Because elephants are known for seeking a quiet place of solitude, away from the pack, when they are about to die, Sheers gives an otherworldly sense that the cars have gone to this quiet quarry of their own volition.
‘The commas and apostrophes / of minnows’ is our first example of birds being compared to typography in this collection – this motif will be picked up later in Swallows – ‘the swallows are italic again’. We may also link this with the ‘ink dot cows’ at the end of the poem.
The tension of this poem is in the playful, carefree nature of the young boys with the funereal, morbid imagery to describe the place. We almost get the sense that the ‘buzzards above’ the children are waiting for the right moment to scavenge the passed remains of their very childhood.
Sheers compounds the comparison of this place with Mametz Wood, when he describes his friend’s passed father as ‘a poppy sown in the unripe corn’. The clear semantic links between poppies and the First World War, along with the car-names being described as the ‘names of the dead’ give us the sense that the War is an unshakeable image for Sheers and its effect on Wales extends far beyond the Somme. It also heightens the tension between man and nature as being almost warlike – the ongoing battle between the two is a key theme here.
The loss of innocence caused by Sheers’ early encounter with mortality is also telling. He is unable to enjoy the simple act of playing with the abandoned cars anymore. This is partly because he has returned to the cars by himself, which may give us the suggestion that things can only be enjoyed in company. The fact that the cars seem ‘smaller’ to Sheers now suggests that the vastness of death has overshadowed his ability to engage in innocent play and he can now only see the cars as further corpses.
In this sense, ‘home’ represents the innocence once felt by the poet as a child – he is ‘trying once more to find his way’ towards the feeling of uncompromised, innocent enjoyment he was once able to feel among the wrecked cars, whereas all he is now able to think of is mortality.
The image of ‘the tractor writing with its wheels’ is also quite pivotal in this piece. Writers, especially writers who do not come from writing families, will often try and find aspects of the lives of their friends and family that are analogous to what they do. If a tractor’s primary task is to till the soil – that is to stir it up, overturn it and make it ripe for the sewing of seeds, then Sheers is suggesting that this is what he does with his writing. He takes what is there and makes it ripe for vital things to grow, perhaps, if we are to extend this metaphor, for things that can be exported and therefore increase the power of Wales.
This is clearly a link with Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘digging’ in which the poet likens his pen to a spade.
The title here is an obvious aural pun on ‘father’, suggesting that there were still things left for the father and son left to do together.
This poem refers to the myth that Skirrid Hill was formed at the moment of the crucifixion by God’s grief. Sheers deliberately imbues this with ambiguity however, as he simply refers to the crucifixion as ‘a father’s grief at the loss of his son to man.’ By describing it in such broad terms, Sheers encourages us to see it as being analogous to the situation between him and his own father, or the situation between the father and son in ‘Hill Fort’
So, in what sense has the poet become ‘lost to man’? It could be argued that this is the implication that by leaving his hometown and going travelling, he is ‘lost’ to the myriad vices that lurk beyond the safety of the small rural community. ‘Lost to man’ could simply mean that his father is saddened that his son is no longer the innocent child he once was and has been subjected to the various evils of the world.
Perhaps we are merely being given the father’s grief to create a certain symmetry with Sheers’ grief over his father’s mortality. It is important that the poem occurs directly after ‘Border Country’, as we are still left with the impression that the poet is unable to engage with any seemingly enjoyable activity without having it marred by his knowledge of death.
It is also a strange tension that they are going to a place that carries connotations of Christ’s death on the day of his birth. This symmetry of life and death is picked up further in the next poem.
This is also a fairly important moment in the collection with regards to generation gaps. At most other moments in the collection, we see a chasm of miscommunication and apprehension between the generations, as if the old and young are of different species trying in vain to understand each other. In this poem, we see the cross-over point; ‘ I felt the tipping of the scales of us, / the intersection of our ages’.
Sheers is presenting this as the turning point where he has become the man of the family and his father is the weaker one – although ‘Inheritance’ gives us the depiction of the father as quite a weak figure from the start.
Structurally speaking, this poem is one of the few to appear in one unbroken stanza, with uneven line lengths. This could be seen as a reflection of the long, uneven walk to the top of the mountain, or could also been as a rare moment between Sheers and his father where they do not feel any sense of separation.
Structurally things are broken up into couplets now with the final line being isolated and alone. This can be seen as symbolic of how the ‘couplet’ of him and his father has now been whittled down to one.
The parallel is drawn here between his father’s use of tree-planting to mark both life and death and how sometimes a sunrise and sunset can look the same. We can link this with the death of Christ in the previous poem marking the birth of Christianity, or in the fact that he rose again.
The idea that the poet feels that he ‘should have known’ what his father was trying to say by planting the oak further highlights the gap between their personalities. Sheers, a man of words, is likely to be less oblique in his communication, yet he accepts that his father is a more taciturn character, less likely to share his grievances.
There is a quotation from the medieval writer, Geoffrey Chaucer at the beginning of this poem. Why has he done this?
T.S. Eliot (we are going to be hearing a lot about him as we move through this collection) began his most famous poem (The Waste Land) with a quotation from Chaucer. By following in Eliot’s footsteps, Sheers continues to put himself in line with the poetic canon.
The quote is from the prologue to The Pardoner’s Tale. This is a story about men who go out with the intention of killing Death, who they blame for their friend’s passing. They end up killing each other in the end as a result of their own greed and so have found ‘death’.
In The Pardoner’s Tale, Death is said to be waiting underneath an oak tree – this echoes the oak tree that his father planted in the previous poem to mark his own passing.
The Pardoner’s Prologue involves the ‘Pardoner’ speaking directly to his audience before telling his tale. He tells his audience of the sins that he has committed and what a depraved life he has lead. It shows us that the sort of stories that are told are always influenced by the person telling them (ie. bad people tell stories about bad people). This clearly links in with Sheers’ tone in this poem, as he is telling us ‘just how dark he runs inside’.
We have yet another link with Heaney here – in that one of his most famous poems is about blackberry picking and mortality. Sheers almost makes himself the anti-Heaney here however. In Heaney’s poem, he filled his bath up with the blackberries that he picked, hoping that they would stay fresh and delicious forever, despite the knowledge that they could not be preserved (as a symbol for life or the innocence of youth, perhaps). Sheers does the opposite – he crushes the blackberries in his palm and feels immediate guilt, or at least a loss of innocence at becoming aware of his ability for nihilistic destruction.
There is an interesting link of imagery drawn between ‘hoarding’ and the upper-classes in this poem. When he hoards the blackberries, they become ‘caviar’, ‘the bubbles of just poured wine’ and a ‘coiled black pearl necklace’. The implication here could be that rich people are hoarders who hang on to far more than they need – his hoarding of the blackberries shows that there is an innate upper-class instinct in him, and perhaps everyone in the West. We see this idea developed fully in ‘Stitch in Time’ later on.
Keen readers may have spotted that this is the second use of the word ‘cupped’ in the collection – the mixture of delicacy of touch and evil of intention in this poem reflecting that of the farrier earlier on.
This is one of the few moments in the collection where we get the sense that the poet is sneering or looking down at his subject. It feels in the same vein as Philip Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings – an intelligent sophisticate looking down his nose at simple small-town characters.
Should we detect a tinge of jealousy at the fact that Joseph is well-built and sexually successful?
Joseph Jones is depicted as an arrogant, over-bearing misogynist type of character, and by describing him as ‘the making of a small town myth’; Sheers paints a negative view of small town life and the sort of people that thrive in it.
The crudeness of the ‘red wings’ image also shows us that much of the poem is being told through the anecdotal wording of the Jones character himself. We imagine that the image of the ‘umbrella blown inside out’ is Sheers’ poetic interjection, rather than a quote from Jones – the contrast between the two types of description shows us how different Sheers feels from this small-town man.
What saves this poem from being a simple bitter swipe at an old acquaintance is the fact that it comes directly after ‘Hedge School’ in the collection. Because Sheers has given us such a self-deprecating poem that alludes to Chaucer’s writing of a corrupt teller of a corrupt tale, we get the message that the poet does not see himself as any better than Jones.
The title carries some degree of irony, as Spring is ‘mating season’ for most animals, yet these lambs are about to lose their reproductive organs. This irony continues into the opening stanza – Sheers feels like ‘a man’ by taking away the testicles of something else. Does this make him any better than Joseph Jones?
The ‘manliness’ he describes here is derived from the fact that he is doing manual labour with his grandfather – a male role model. There is the sense that each generation passes down to the next a perceived idea of what it is to be a man, and so toiling with his grandfather is not simply aligned with his perception of masculinity, but also with his own father’s.
Quick lesson in farming – the type of castration that Sheers is describing here is called ‘elastration’. This involves stretching a very tight round elastic band around the scrotum of a lamb and letting the skin wither, die and drop off over the course of a couple of weeks. The exact same process is used for docking the tails.
Similarly to the farrier, we have man altering the body of an animal for his own purpose – in lambs, castration occurs to increase their size and improve their taste. Man’s interaction with nature in this collection is always almost entirely self-serving.
However, the removal of the tails provides something beneficial to both lamb and farmer. The tale is removed to prevent a build-up of dung and subsequent fly-strike. This is technically a self-serving act, as the farmer does not want his stock to be spoiled by disease, yet it is also beneficial to the lamb. This leads us to the question ‘can any act of kindness be anything but self-serving?’
Again, note the delicacy with which the animals are mutilated ‘a man milking / two soaped beans into a delicate purse, / while gesturing with his other / for the tool, a pliers in reverse.’ The symbolism of delicacy carried out with one hand, whilst the other hand brings in an instrument of self-serving damage can be read as a metaphor for humanity itself – we are a species capable of unparalleled care, affection and finesse, yet we will destroy anything needed to preserve our way of life.
Just as it began with an ironic title, the final line, ‘a strange harvest of the seeds we’d sown’ has the intended semantic link with robbing the lambs of their seed.
The ‘strange harvest’ has the obvious reverberation of Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ which reminds us of the horrific things a man will do to preserve their way of life and makes the visual link between the elastic ‘O’ and a hangman’s noose.
This is the second mention of ‘magic’ in the collection – the first being in ‘Show (ii)’. We may assume, due to the sequencing of the collection, that this is his grandfather being described – ‘a magician whose tricks are just the way of things’. If we contrast this with the ‘hocus pocus’ of his lover’s make-up, we could perhaps see this as a subtle piece of chauvinism.
What I mean by this is that Sheers could be accused, in making this link, of suggesting that women’s ‘magic’ is the bewitching effect of making themselves look more beautiful than they are, yet male ‘magic’ is in practical, useful things, such as harvesting eggs.
Could it be suggested that Sheers stops one line short of fourteen because it would be seen as inappropriate and unmanly by his grandfather to have a sonnet written about him? We know that he wants to feel like a man with his grandfather from the previous poem.
The most important word of the poem is ‘soft’. The ‘softness’ has connotations of chalk and perhaps a certain level of comfort. But it also has associations with easiness and lack of resilience – the ‘soft option’, as it were.
So it is important that the grandfather is able to say that after these ‘soft’ afternoons as a teacher, a man whose trade is in knowledge of mathematics, he was also able to go home, change into the attire of a manual labourer and tend to the chickens.
Again, we have this combination of expert delicacy and care taken to alter the natural course of the animals’ lives – in this case taking away their eggs. This is perhaps the least harmful example of this however.
In ‘Border Country’ we saw Sheers comparing the work done by the tractor to ‘writing’, creating a link between his life and that of his ancestors. A similar thing is done in this poem, where Sheers sees the flight-paths of the swallows and describing it as ‘dipping their ink to sign their signatures / across the page of the sky’.
Other than moving from one side to another, how does the metaphor of ‘birds flying’ and ‘writers writing’ hold up? There is the sense that both acts are beautiful, and both things allow a better perspective on things. There is also the reading that Sheers sees the act of writing, to him at least, as being just as natural as the flight of the birds.
There is the possible thematic link with ‘valentine’ in the sailing connotations that swallows have – swallows being seen as a good omen as they indicate a nearness to land.
This poem stands out in the sequence of surrounding poems, as it does not directly follow the family narrative that has been accumulating in the past half-dozen pages. The key to its role in the sequence is in the second quatrain;
‘Their annual regeneration
so flawless to human eyes
that there is no seam
between parent and child.’
The description of the swallows here serves as an allegory for the constant departures and arrivals of his family, the sunrises and sunsets, the trees planted for births and deaths, and the way that the different generations ‘fly’ together. The birds flying in unison is a reflection of him and his grandfather performing castration together in the field, or he and his father climbing up Skirrid Hill together.
In the preceding poems, Sheers has iterated that life and death is a continuous cycle across the species. The subtle play between ‘On Going’ and ‘ongoing’ reflects this convectional cycle between life and death.
The grandmother in this poem stands out against other figures in the collection, as she is rejecting the support of the various medical instruments which could help prolong her life. All the other characters we encounter seem all too happy to let manmade artifices improve their quality of life, yet Jean Sheers chooses the ‘natural’ path.
The ‘paper temple’ in this poem is reminiscent of the ‘page of the sky’ in the previous poem, which kindles the idea that by kissing Jean, the poet is ‘writing’ his love on her.
(the Hill Fort)
These next two poems form a diptych on the subject of grief. The fact that the titles are reversed, turned on their head, is perhaps a reflection on how the grieving process is turned on its head by having the son die before the father. This also connotes the mythology behind Skirrid Hill itself, as a site formed by God’s grief at his son’s death.
We have here, yet another image of the creation of men worn away by nature. In this case it is the ruins of a Roman battlement – a symbol of nature’s prevalence over the artificial. Erosion has worn away the fort, in the same way that illness wore down the woman in the previous poem.
The poet travels on horseback, clearly wearing out his horse, to a place where he knows a man comes to grieve for his dead son. The man will only come here to grieve during ‘bad weather’ as a reminder that people can not defeat forces of nature.
The progress of the metaphorical triplet is the key to this poem – we have ‘the wind’s shoulder’, ‘the rain’s beating’ and ‘the hail’s pepper-shot’. Whilst the first two are images of the damages that humans can do, it is the final one that gives us the key to Sheers’ philosophy in this poem.
‘Pepper-shot’ is used as a defensive weapon, usually by women being attacked by men. The idea that the hail is used by nature as a form of rape-defence creates a distinct mutuality between the harm done to nature by humans and visa versa. The poet is reminding us that he is putting un-natural strain on the domesticated horse and the fort is placing un-natural demands on an otherwise unbroken landscape. This evokes a certain equilibrium with nature’s attack on people with aggressive weather and death.
The Hill Fort
This poem serves as a counter-point to the previous one, and so it forms a symmetry in mood, imagery and argument. We begin with wild, ‘long-maned ponies’ to counter the domesticated horse of the previous poem, and we see that it is ‘a clear day’ to counter the rough wind of ‘Y Gaer’.
This serves to create a level of calm nostalgia for the days before the son’s passing, but also to show that this poem is serving to give a more calm, level-headed response to the passing of the child.
‘it isn’t the number of steps
that will matter,
but the depth of their impression’
This is a pivotal stanza in the collection, for Sheers deals with the passing of loved ones regularly and is hereby offering some consolation for the loss.
The poem ends with the father scattering his son’s ashes ‘against the tongue of the wind’ by the fort they once went to together. This idea of making ‘the circle complete’ is yet another reference to the tree-planting ritual of Sheers’ father.
The symbolism of forts can also be placed in congruence with the ideas portrayed in ‘Border Country’. If we extend the metaphor of forts being able to ‘protect as much as they defend’ to a comment on Welsh identity, we might see this as a comment that Welsh culture can benefit from stemming the influx of modern, homogenising influences as a means of protecting its own identity.
This idea resonates with the fact that the Welsh name is the title of the first poem, yet the English name is the title of the second – the transition shows that Wales is gradually losing its identity and being eroded with the spread of modern society, much like the fort itself.
The title serves a dual purpose here – by occurring near the middle of the collection it falls in the place of an intermission in a film or play, ie. a short break between halves. By having the poem about a powercut however, the ‘intermission’ has a heightened meaning as an intermission in their lives.
Because intermissions are a ‘break’ in the action of a storyline, the implication here is that the ‘action’ of their lives cannot continue without electricity so the characters have to simply take a break from what they would have been otherwise doing. The positive aspect of this is that the two characters are allowed to relax and converse, but the negative extension of this is that people are unable to function without electricity in modern society.
This is another instance of man’s lack of defence against nature – we have here a poem about a power cut caused by a tree in the wind – once again, the work of men is thwarted by forces of nature.
The darkness, a malevolent force, is likened to ‘wells’ and ‘mineshafts’. Again, we have this sense of equilibrium, or even revenge; men tunnel deep into the natural world for water and coal, now the natural world has tunnelled into the domestic setting and taken away its light.
There is a clever parallel here between ‘L’ wanting to learn Oboe before she dies and the fly that was able to make the ‘small victory’ of escaping through the window that morning. The point here is that flies live very short lives, and so escaping out into the outside world will have drastically improved the ‘quality’ of that particular fly’s life.
We also have the repetition of the phrase ‘I think I understand’, which we have already heard him use in ‘Y Gaer’. By re-emphasizing this phrase, Sheers is showing us that his writing is a way to help him make sense of the world, and that the only way to come to terms of the larger issues in life is to draw parallels between the lives of humans and the natural world.
With regards to modernization, Sheers seems almost wistful in this poem that the power outage is the only reason that he and ‘L’ are able to have such a frank, honest conversation about life. The emotional gap between them, illustrated in the phrase ‘from the shore of the other chair’, can be bridged because they do not have the distractions of modern technology to divert them from each other. Sheers gives us an indication here that modern society has robbed us of an ability to communicate with those closest to us.
No prizes for spotting that these are haiku. Sheers seems to have wrestled with sticking to the strict syllable-pattern, but is only able to do so if we generously read the word ‘wires’ as one syllable.
Incidentally, all haiku are supposed to contain something called a ‘kigo’ (a word or phrase which denotes what the season is), so it is almost cheating to name them after the seasons.
The essence of this poem is to evoke the natural world using quintessentially human imagery. The birds on the wire being compared to notes on a stave will become significant later on when I discuss ‘The Singing Men’.
As we progress from Spring to Winter, we are given increasingly negative human images to describe the natural world.
Spring: Birds = musical notes
This metaphor creates the positive link between bird song and the human accomplishment of music.
Summer: Bees = oral sex
The likening of bees pollinating and the act of cunnilingus is a crude one and gives a sense of the lustful, bacchanalian side to human nature.
Autumn: Spider web = fingerprint
Creates the thematic link that both webs and fingerprints are unique patterns, and arguably beautiful things. However, fingerprints also carry the connotation of criminality.
Winter: Nests = blood-clots
With this final haiku we have the thematic key to the poem. The nests are there to remind us of the nesting machine guns in Mametz Wood which represent humanity at its very worst. The ‘passing infection’ is a metaphor for us, or the effect that we have on the land.
In many ways though, this poem could be seen as Sheers’ defence of modern society. He reminds us that birds change their environment and build nests in trees, and nature eventually thwarts their efforts. If humans are simply doing what birds do on a different scale, then maybe our tendency to manufacture and change our environment is a natural thing.
A quick note on Christopher Logue – from whom the epigraph is taken. Christopher Logue is a renowned poet who is best known for modernising the work of classical Greek poet, Homer. By referring to Logue, Sheers is drawing our attention to a type of modernisation that involves paying respect to great elements of the past and revitalising them with modern means. We can link this idea with the medical tools described in ‘On Going’ or various other signs of modern society forming a dialogue with the past.
The quotation itself ties in with the ideas of national identity in this collection – by depicting a flag as a ‘vital organ’ we get the sense that everyone feels the need to belong somewhere, and so it is vital to the Welsh people that Wales retains a sense of national identity so that its inhabitants aren’t left feeling ‘homeless’.
Four trappings of man’s innovation are shown in the opening triplet, ‘a rail journey’, ‘fast-forward’, ‘re-wind’ and ‘seat’. The tone is set very early on that, whilst many will fight to preserve the ways of the past in order to keep their country in the state it once was, man has always thrived on innovation.
The ‘hall of mirrors’ is an important depiction in this poem, as it is a symbol of a distorted self-image. Sheers is looking at Wales from the distant perspective of a speeding train, from behind glass, and he speculates that the Welsh people are unable to see how they appear to the rest of the world. This is further compounded with the description of ‘an old country pulsing to be young / and blessed with a blind spot bigger than itself.’
The image of the painted flag ‘on the flat end wall of a Swansea gym, / fading to the east’ from sun-bleaching has connotations of nostalgia for a former glory. Sheers goes on to describe the faded flag as ‘a bad photocopy’, which may suggest that by trying to mimic the modernity of other countries by having a gym, Wales shows itself up as being a poor imitation of the modern world.
This tension is further explored by conflicting the motorway a symbol of progress and linking all of Britain together, with the flag, a symbol of traditional identity. When Sheers’ depicts the Welsh flag ‘high in the motorway wind, / the beast of it struggling to exist’ we get the sense of tradition and innovation being unavoidably at odds with one another.
Quick history lesson – Ebbw Vale steelworks was established during the industrial revolution in 1778 and became one of the most important steel manufacturers in Europe. Because of its place in the bottom of a valley, the steel plant managed to survive bombardment during the Second World War. It was closed down in 2002 and demolished in 2003 as a result of the decline in steel and coal production.
This is one of the few examples in the collection where the title forms part of the poem itself. I personally see ‘The Steelworks, except it doesn’t anymore’ as a fairly cheap pun, but maybe that’s just me.
The steelworks at Ebbw Vale represents the pride and importance once held by Wales as an ideal site for manufacturing goods. As Britain’s focus shifted away from being a factory nation, the town lost its importance and its identity as an important industrial area.
‘The birds nesting in the breathless vents’ show the immediate way that nature is reclaiming the site for its own, and we are lead to assume that the site could become another ‘Fort Hill’ in years to come.
The ‘Swansea gym’ we encountered in ‘Flag’ is resurrected here in the imagery of the labourers in the lifting bays. Their work is seen as a form of exercise, ‘pressing and dipping’, ‘rolling a bicep up an arm’, ‘lateral pull’ and ‘pumping iron under the strip lights’. The suggestion seems to be here that the men, now they can no longer take pride in their country, have started to take pride in their physical appearance and go about their manual tasks in the name of vanity rather than productivity.
Clearly Sheers sees this as a bleak development in the story of Wales with the harsh depiction of the ‘brushed-metal sky’ suggesting that everything has become superficial.
A Short Introduction to metaphysical conceit…
Once upon a time, around the 17th Century, there was a type of poem being written which has since been labeled as ‘metaphysical poetry’. The most famous poets in the group were John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and they liked to write witty, inventive extended metaphors and similes.
The most famous of the metaphysical poems is John Donne’s The Flea… a poem where a man notices a flea has bitten him and then goes onto bite a lady. He suggests that because their blood has been mingled inside the flea, then they are practically married and may as well have sex.
When you are dealing with a poem in which a writer is taking great pains to draw comparisons between two things often from the natural world and the human world, almost to the point of exhaustion, then this is called a metaphysical conceit.
‘Song’ is a clear example of a metaphysical conceit within Sheers’ work, although it is probably fair to say that most of his poetry could be described as ‘modern metaphysical poetry’. He deliberately labours the ‘what if we were birds?’ conceit, almost to the point where the metaphor no longer holds up to logic.
The mention of ‘bait’ in the second line may also be a reference to John Donne’s metaphysical poem ‘The Bait’ in which he describes a loved one as being like bait to him.
What makes this poem so complex, and not just a pretty piece about a bird, however is the phrase ‘siren in a cage’. As you may know from Greek mythology, Sirens were the evil women with beautiful singing voices who would lure sailors to their death on the rocks with their song. In this sense, the poet is just as trapped as his lover in this situation – for whilst she is caged, he is trapped by the beauty of her song.
As this poem is an extended metaphor, then our only way to truly understand it is to see everything in it as a symbol. Here is my rough map of the poem’s symbolism:
Magpies = attracted to pretty / shiny things
Cage = Something which seems attractive at first, yet turns out to be empty and restrictive – a clear metaphor for lust and emotionally shallow relationships. The cage becomes a situation which keeps the lovers from being entirely together, yet they are able to interact. Perhaps they have agreed to be friends.
The others = Other sexual partners of the lover. Sheers’ reference to the ‘oil spill of your plumage, the darkness of your eye’ harks back to Shakespeare’s sonnets to his ‘Dark Lady’ – a woman he was constantly accusing of promiscuity and writing about how he needed to come to terms with her other loves.
The farmer = fate. If the poet is right and the lovers are destined to be together, then all his lovers’ subsequent partners will be taken away from her, eventually leaving her free to join him.
The idea that the bird is attractive because she looks like an ‘oil spill’ is an interesting modern shadow hanging over the poem – Sheers wrote this poem in a society in which wars were being fought in countries under the basic premise that the USA wanted to take oil from Eastern countries..
If we are to read this poem within the wider narrative of the collection, we might assume that this is an indication of the poet returning to his lover from ‘Valentine’. The implication of this poem is that the lovers’ being together is based on freedom, because their being outside of the cage is an indicator that they have chosen each other’s company.
The complication caused by the ‘siren’ depiction is important though – we have seen Sheers’ skepticism of women’s ‘hocus pocus’ earlier on in the poem. The bird may think that he is free, but he is just trapped in a different way.
The fact that the metaphor between birds and people does not entirely work may be an indication that Sheers does not believe that the natural world and the world of humans is entirely comparable.
The idea of ‘timeless’ to describe a naked man and woman laying having just made love outdoors is telling in this poem. The word has two main readings in the poem. ‘Timeless’ is partly used to describe their nudity, and denote that underneath the ephemera of clothes and jewelry we are just the same as we always were. It vaguely reminds me of the Leonard Cohen lyric ‘everybody knows that the naked man and woman are just a shining artifact of the past’.
The ‘timelessness’ is also a potential reference to the tale of Adam and Eve in Genesis. In this Biblical story we have a man and woman lost their innocence and feel the need to cover themselves up with leaves. The baring this has on the poem is that the act of sex between the man and the woman held them in a moment of innocence and purity, but after the act they begin to regain their modesty and feel the urge to cover up.
The image of a ‘sarcophagus’ to denote the patch of flattened grass where the pair has lain is an interesting reference to the common trope of linking sex and death. The term ‘petit-mort’ (French for ‘little death’) is sometimes used in literature to describe an orgasm, and Sheers is playing on this common pairing when he uses such a funereal image. By choosing an image from Ancient Egypt, Sheers ties back into the idea of the timelessness.
Notice too how telephone wires are a recurring image in this collection. A sign of the shrinking world and the onset of global communication, causing a homogenous society where everyone is the same.
Background information: Robert Capa (1913-1954) is a famous Hungarian photographer of war, and is renowned for having photographed five separate wars. The particular set of photographs being referred to in this poem are the ones taken during the D-Day landings of WWII.
As is depicted in the poem, a worker at Life magazine accidentally destroyed almost all of the negatives from this set of photographs, save for seven. The seven which survived are characterised by their blurriness and frantic appearance. Life magazine issued an apology for the apparent ‘poor quality’ of the photographs, yet they became iconic as a far more honest and perhaps impressionist depiction of the chaos of conflict.
The director, Steven Spielberg, tried to emulate the frantic nature of Capa’s photographs many years later in his opening sequence from the popular film Saving Private Ryan.
So, what role does this poem have to play in Sheers’ collection?
As you are probably aware, poetry flourished during the First World War. Literary figures such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are revered to this day as some of the most important sources when studying the nature of trench warfare. Interestingly, there was not such a ubiquitous uptake of poetry in the Second World War, which can be attributed to many factors.
What Sheers’ appears to be suggesting in this poem, is that it was the role of photography and the media to convey the honesties and horrors of war in WWII, that it was up to people like Capa to ‘describe so perfectly / the confusion of that day’. Indeed, that word ‘describe’ certainly puts Capa in alignment with a writer in a way that ‘depict’ would not have done. Sheers’ wants us to see these photographs as something more than simple snapshots.
When we read that Capa had ‘no time to set aperture or exposure, just shoot and shoot’, we are faced with two important concepts. Firstly, because Capa had no time to compose his shots, his photographs are more ‘natural’ and representative of a real experience than if he had time to think of his reportage as an artistic conceit.
Secondly, by choosing the words ‘shoot and shoot’ to describe the taking of photographs, Sheers is aligning the photographer with the soldiers that surround him as if he has joined their ranks and is at one with them. The comment he therefore appears to be making is that group mentality is unavoidable and human beings cannot help but act with a collective consciousness in desperate situations. The atrocities done by and to military forces are simply the result of falling into a ‘trapdoor’ and an unavoidable aspect of human nature.
I also detect a resonance between the ‘trapdoor of war’ and the trapdoor of the cage in ‘Song’ – the idea that men are uncontrollably attracted to things which will do them harm.
This poem links thematically with Sheers’ other depictions of war throughout the collection as a chaotic, upsetting part of human nature. The ‘dance-macabre’ of Mametz Wood and the ‘confusion of that day’ are also fairly congruent pieces of imagery.
It is also important that it is ‘marines’ that are being depicted in this poem. This is not the last time that we will see a conflict between American troops and water (see ‘Liable to Floods’). The poem indicates a growing relationship between British and American culture (Life magazine’s office at the time was in London). This simultaneous tension and mutual support between Britain and USA is something that recurs in this collection later.
Drinking With Hitler
This is yet another poem which, superficially, stands out as being different from others in this collection due to its incongruent subject matter. The fact that Sheers includes poems such as this is a strong indication that this is not a simple book extolling the virtues of old-Wales and mourning the gradual spread of capitalism across the country.
It is not essential to understand a great deal about ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi to understand this poem in the context of the collection, but just in case you’re interested… Chenjerai Hunzvi was a Zimbabwean man who went on to lead an organisation called ‘Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans’. The aim of the organisation was to improve conditions for those who had served in the Zimbabwean army by putting pressure on the President, Robert Mugabe.
Whilst the organisation was successful and managed to get a good amount of money for veterans, Hunzvi took massive advantage of the system and managed to embezzle large amounts of benefit money for himself by fraudulently claiming to be more disabled than he was (he would have to be 117% disabled to justify the amount of money that he was receiving).
As this poem deals importantly with Hunzvi’s views on women, it is worth noting that the man’s wife fled from him, stating that he was a cruel man who took pleasure in beating her. If you are interested in finding out more about him, than I recommend the Independent’s obituary as a good place to start: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/chenjerai-hunzvi-729189.html
So, what has this man and the poem about him got to do with Skirrid Hill?
This poem is very much concerned with the type of people who find attraction and beauty in the realm of artificial things. In the first quatrain we have mention of ‘aftershave’ and ‘fireworks’; both man-made sources of attraction. The fact that the aftershave is a metaphor for the ‘power’ which women find so attractive in him shows that the superficial relationships that are described in this poem work both ways.
The idea that Hunzvi’s smile is ‘a CD selected’ also suggests that there are more CD’s from which he has to choose. By extension, every emotion or gesture made by Hunzvi has been a conscious choice, a role play perhaps, and that he is not capably of having a genuine emotional engagement with anything. Of course, the flipside of this is that, even though he may always be in control of his emotions, he is incapable of innocent happiness.
As the poem continues, we see that there is nothing natural in this man’s world. The women are not beautiful, but rather ‘film pretty’ which further links the poem to the idea of playing roles as well as reminding us of the spreading influence of American culture. The woman is also depicted as ‘dark’ which again reminds us of the dark bird in Song – the one which traps birds with her siren call.
Just as with the ‘hocus pocus’ in ‘Show’, the woman’s beauty is derived from her ‘jewellery’ and her ‘blue-painted eyes’. The difference is that Hunzvi is clearly content with this strain of beauty and satisfied to live in a fake world of ‘asked-for laughter’ having emotionally ingenuine interactions with all around him. In ‘Show’ however, the speaker is clearly not satisfied with the woman who looks like a model, for they have a falling out in the next poem.
Another subtle link in this poem is the way that the woman’s ‘slow blink’ mirrors Sheers’ as described in ‘Inheritance’. The woman’s ‘slow blink’ appears to be a deliberate gesture, whereas Sheers’ ‘tired blink’ is an involuntary mannerism. The comparison we may therefore make is that there is sometimes a convergence between the real and the contrived, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the natural and the man-made.
Four Movements in the Scale of Two
The title of this poem aligns with the musicality of much of the imagery in this collection. We have the birds like treble clefs in ‘Calendar’ and the ‘CD’ in the previous poem, as well as many other instances.
‘Movements’ in this sense can be seen as episodes which follow different emotional tones, rhythms and narratives, but essentially tell different parts of the same story. Music and poetry are often very closely linked, and so this sequence here encourages us to make comparisons between the two. Most noticeably perhaps, the different stanza lengths may well be interpreted as different time signatures.
We have just read a poem about how unhealthy it is to treat life like a movie and how it is the mark of superficial, bad people. It is ironic then that the speaker begins to describe his own life like notes from a screenplay – we may then see this as a superficial pairing of the poet with his lover.
Certain clues indicate that, in the narrative of the collection, this is a sequence of poems about a return to the woman we last encountered in ‘Keyways’. Firstly, we have the image of the couple in bed being like the ‘elegant scars on the hips of a cello’, which puts us in mind of the scar in ‘Marking Time’. The musicality of this image also ties in with the title and various other instances of musical importance in the collection.
The fact that they lay ‘back to naked back’ in the poem, along with the fact that there is a gaping hole between the scars on the hips of a cello, suggests that these lovers are not in the passionate early stages of a relationship, but rather want the superficial intimacy of having a sexual partner.
The final clue in this opening section that seems to suggest that this is about his earlier partner is that they are ‘foetus curled’ in bed. The naïve innocence of this image puts us in mind of ‘Border Country’, a poem which depicts a return to a once happy location, only to find that it is not as pleasant as it was remembered to be.
The fact that the sleeping lovers are depicted as a book ‘with blank pages / and nothing on them but sleep’ goes further to allude to a superficiality and emptiness of this relationship.
Notice how the stanzas are arranged into triplets – as this is a poem with music on its mind this could be an allusion to the 3/ 4 time signature used in a waltz… a romantic dance for a man and woman.
It is interesting that Sheers moves from triplets to couplets in these next to sections. The implication may be that the couple are once again in-sync and working as a couple. It may also be a visual representation of the way that the woman is laying on the man’s back.
Nudity is important here – as with ‘Landmark’ it symbolises honesty and a lack of barriers between the couple.
It is also one of the only moments in the collection where a man and woman are naked and physically close for a purpose other than sexual gratification. The woman is rubbing herself against the man in a way that is depicted as artistic ‘with the brushstrokes of your hair’. We may see this as being the one instance of true intimacy between the lovers in this collection, although it is slightly jarred by the way that the man has his back to the woman.
Just as ‘Happy Accidents’ drew parallels between writing and photography, there is a certain relationship alluded to between writing and painting here – ‘the impression of your breasts / against the sentence of my spine’. We might see this as a coming together of the two disciplines, or we may simply see it as a symbol for how these two people could never be happy as they see the world in entirely different ways – her as an artist and he as a writer.
The lynchpin of this poem is in its final lines –
‘making me realise once more that bodies, like souls,
only exist when touched’.
The ‘making me realise’ part echoes the section of ‘Hill Fort’ where Sheers writes ‘I think I understand’… we get the definite sense that his poetry is his only way of coming to terms with the world and understanding it.
The idea that ‘bodies … only exist when touched’ is a possible allusion to the notion of a tabula rasa, championed by the philosopher John Locke. The basic idea is that human beings can only learn from experiences and engagement with the world around them.
Sheers’ idea about existence is also aligned with ‘solipsism’, the idea that we can only be sure of our own existence and nobody else’s. The implication here would be that physical intimacy is the only way of being assured of our own existence and role in the universe, which is why we are so predisposed to enter into relationships, even bad ones.
Again, we have a description of a back… there is another one of these in the next poem in the way Sheers describes a mountain.
We are starting to see here a mild echo of the fable in ‘Song’. The ‘dark tent’ of the lover’s hair is an echo of the dark magpie in ‘Song’ as well as, again, Shakespeare’s dark lady – both of which are poems which deal with a woman’s promiscuity and a man’s attempt to deal with it.
So much of the collection seems to be occupied with the onslaught of Westernisation in modern society, that the ‘Eastern’ in this title hints at something exotic, unconventional and attractive because of its ‘otherness’.
We are to assume that this is a poem on the topic of his lover’s interim sexual partner during their time apart. As in ‘Song’, Sheers is not judgemental of the woman’s moving onto other men, and sees it as inevitable. The depiction of the sexual act between the two being ‘like the shock of new ice in old water’ is perhaps slightly unflattering to the woman but is rooted in the ingrained modern desire for variety.
Here we are, back to Sheers’ favourite stanza-type, the triplet. But not before we have a single isolated line to indicate that things have gone back to how they were and the couple are no longer together.
The title, as is often the case, has a variety of meanings. There is the initial indication that Sheers’ is following the ‘life is just like a poem’ trope and is therefore saying that line-breaks of poems are analogous to certain moments in relationships. This reading is supported by the use of the word ‘caesura’ – a poetic term for a mid-line pause.
The word ‘caesura’ has also been chosen for its visual and phonetic proximity to ‘caesarean’ however, a word connotes an artificial start to life and childbirth difficulties. In this sense, ‘Line-Break’ could be a reference to the cutting of a lifeline or, more literally, the cutting of an umbilical chord.
If we are to take this reading of the title, then the image of the broken glass in a sink causing ‘the smoke-signal of blood, / uncurling from below’ points towards a miscarriage.
The final reading of the title ‘line-break’ however, points towards the line being a ‘telephone line’ and the ‘break’ could either be a pause, or simply hanging up. Telephones are a symbol of technology and also a sign of people communicating whilst being a very large distance apart. If we compare this to the lovers laying naked, side by side, but facing away from each other in the opening of the poem, we get the sense that they have now drifted further and further apart until the emotional line that held them together has completely broken.
Liable to Floods
This is another encounter with American soldiers in the collection – this time the GI’s are on training in Moel Siabod, a mountain in Wales.
As in ‘Mametz Wood’, Sheers does not criticize the soldiers themselves, but those who lead them into the situations that they faced. The American major is shown as an arrogant figure who ignores all prior warning from maps and farmers that they are about to set up camp in a dangerous, flood-prone, area.
In the context of the world Owen Sheers was living in, I think we can draw a few obvious parallels. Firstly, we have the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a conflict which saw the deaths of many Americans who were marched into a situation under false pretences and were killed in their thousands as a result.
The other strong parallel here is the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina an event which lead to over a thousand deaths and left the City of New Orleans flooded. The final lines seem to echo so many of the images shown from the City of New Orleans at that time:
‘as if the weather had finally caught up with their lives –
this being taken at night without any say,
this being borne, this being swept away.’
and we must remember that this collection was released four months after the tragedy of the hurricane.
The difficulty of the poem comes in the GI’s apparent happiness at being flooded however. They ‘woke from dreams of home to sense, just for a second, somewhere deep in the bone, how suitable this was’, a reaction which we certainly do not expect. So why is it that Sheers has depicted the GI’s as being happy about this flood?
The happiness may well come from the reminder that ultimately nature will always overpower the strength of men, perhaps belittling the fears they have of war and the men on the opposing side.
The happiness might also be derived from the fact that their arrogant major has been unequivocally proven wrong, and that it is worth all levels of hardship and inconvenience for the sake of defrauding an incompetent leader as an idiot. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, this is exactly what happened, as it showed the president at the time, George Bush, in a particularly bad light.
The way that the spread of the water is ‘bleeding through the camp like ink from a broken cartridge’ is another example of Sheers making everything analogous with the act of writing.
It is no accident that Sheers follows up a poem about American arrogance with a poem which makes mention of oil. Whereas it was once the case that a country’s worth was placed on its industrial capabilities, the paradigm has shifted and it is the availability of oil that gives countries value and power as we move through the twenty first century.
For this reason, Wales is no longer a key figure in an industrial world and so the quarry in Lleder Valley likes ‘disused’ and reclaimed by the natural elements such as ‘the blackbird’s song’, ‘moss’, ‘soil’ in a way that is entirely symmetrical with Sheers’ depiction of Ebbw Vale in ‘The Steelworks’.
The irony here is that Sheers is not giving us simply episodes of nostalgia for a simpler, more natural time. Steelworks and quarries are no more natural than oil-rigs, gyms and the internet – all these things are examples of man’s inflicting of his own agenda upon nature.
When Sheers suggests that this ‘history’ runs ‘down the marrow of every bone’, he is drawing our attention to an uneasy paradox. Whilst the people of Wales may yearn for a time in the past, the golden-age that they yearn for is one entirely based on the industrial revolution, quarries and mining. Whilst this era may have created extra jobs for the Welsh, it was also a time of terrible living conditions founded on ruthless innovation and decisions based on business models.
Notice how the quatrains of this poem are interrupted by three couplets. The couplets could be a visual indication of the blades of slate that are depicted, or could be seen as a symbol of the crumble and break-up of Welsh industry.
The mention of bone-marrow also subliminally put the reader in mind of cancer – an important thing to consider when dealing with the next poem.
When you read this poem, think about the popular platitude about things that don’t kill you making you stronger.
In the modern world, the world ‘Amazon’ has several connotations, all of which are important to the poem and the collection as a whole. Perhaps the first thing you thought of was the internet bookshop when you saw the word. Sheers is surely familiar with the website, and if you go to the page for his debut collection, The Blue Book, you will see some particularly scathing reviews of his work.
Perhaps Sheers would describe the public insult of his work by jealous fellow poets as being a painful experience that has made him stronger in the long run. If we extend this metaphor, then Sheers may be subtly suggesting that his early critics are a bit like the ‘cancer’ of the poetry world.
The word ‘Amazon’ can also be used to refer to the rainforest and river in South America. The area carries connotations of man’s destruction of a natural environment – did you know that the area the size of a football pitch disappears from the forest every five seconds? This isn’t always through deforestation, it is sometimes through tribal agriculture, but still a shocking figure.
The Amazon rainforest is sometimes effected by the tribal practice of ‘slash and burn’ agriculture – a technique which has a temporarily damaging effect on the environment, but can lead to recovery – similar to the cancer of the woman in the poem.
It might also interest you to know that around 90% of the ingredients needed to make all modern medicines can be found within the Amazon rainforest – bit of a tangent but it’s still pretty relevant given the subject matter of this poem.
It is also important to our understanding of this poem that in the Amazon rainforest, some of the tribeswomen will have one of their breasts removed to improve their ability to use a bow and arrow in hunting. This practice is specifically referred to in the final line of the poem – the missing breast is used as a symbol of strength rather than vulnerability.
The other main connotation of the word ‘Amazon’ however, is the term used to describe a group of female warriors in Greek mythology. This connotation is obviously important to the depiction of the strong, female figure who emerges by the end of this poem.
As you will have noticed, the structure of this longer poem is unique in the collection. Whereas ‘4 Movements in the Scale of 2’ is arranged into four individually named sub-poems in a sequence, this all falls under the same title with a centralised asterisk to separate the sections.
Why has Sheers made this choice? I would suggest that it is because the title ‘Amazon’ is fundamentally important to all elements of the poem and Sheers does not want to distract us from the ways that he is playing with this word.
So the poem begins with a woman in the process of dressing, as with ‘Landmarks’. However, beneath the defences of her clothes, beneath her very skin, lies a sign of something that is set to undo her life. It is interesting that Sheers chooses to describe the lump as a ‘mote’. One assumes he is referring to the size and shape of a grain cooked in water, but it is hard not to think that he is aiming at the aural match with the word ‘moat’, which points us towards the ‘Hill Fortification’ earlier on in the poem, a once-strong thing that eventually crumbled like the woman’s tumour soon will.
The idea of role play is further developed in Sheers’ treatment of the doctor – ‘his practiced look of concern and the slow pace of his voice’.
It is also highly telling how Sheers never explicitly denotes the word ‘cancer’ but rather hints at it through the pseudo-riddle, ‘with it’s hard C of cruelty / and soft c of uncertainty’. By doing this he gives us a sense of the reluctance to fully come to terms with our own mortality.
Bonus points if you noticed the feminine half-rhyme in the lines –
‘She hears the words he uses
and is quietly surprised by how language can do this’.
If you didn’t know, feminine rhyme is like a normal rhyme but with the stress on the penultimate syllable of each line. It can be no coincidence that Sheers, who rarely rhymes, has chosen to use feminine rhyme when dealing with a woman’s battle with breast cancer.
In the third section, her appearance on fireworks night reminds us of the ‘firework smiles’ in the Dr. Hitler poem. Fireworks have become a symbol in this collection for putting on a front and displaying a sort of contrived beauty. The woman in this poem now feels strong enough to reclaim her femininity and rejoin the world of playing roles.
Ultimately, this is another poem which personifies the ongoing theme of man’s battle against nature. Not only does ‘Amazon’ refer to how the woman has managed to defy nature by recovering using artificial means – but the implicit contrast allows us to think of how human beings treat the Amazon rainforest. In this sense, human beings are like a cancer to the natural world.
This is a morally ambiguous aspect to Sheers’ writing though – the woman has managed to live for longer using medicines, something which Jean Sheers refused in ‘On Going’. There is no simple moral stance taken by Sheers on whether it is right to defy nature with artificial means – the equilibrium between man and nature is a complex balance in this collection.
At the heart of this poem is a philosophy that runs through many other of Sheers’ poems – the idea that the most moving and conspicuous of sentences can be sought out in the things that are left unsaid. Think back to his father in ‘Trees’ who makes his imminent death known entirely implicitly.
Sheers’ need to boil down the complexities of life into simple maxims also shows in this poem… contrast
‘it’s not matter that matters,
or our thoughts and words,
but the shadows they throw
against the lives of others.’
with this quotation from ‘Hill Fort’:
‘it isn’t the number of steps
that will matter,
but the depth of their impression’.
These are similar sentiments, which are also congruent with the idea that ‘bodies, like souls, only exist when touched’ in ‘Four Movements’. The common thread of these is that Sheers believes that the moral complexities of life can be surmounted by following the belief that people can only be ‘good’ or ‘important’ to the world in the way that they effect the lives of others. One becomes a positive person by being positive towards others.
The theme of magic appears again in this poem, as the artist is described as ‘conjuring with bulb’ in the creative process. It seems as though Sheers draws a clear distinction between male magic and female magic in this collection – male magic is an instinctive thing that involves doing impressive things subconsciously. Female magic is more of a contrived way of creating the illusion of attractiveness. In her review of his last collection, Zoe Brigley suggested that Sheers was following in a long line of misogynistic Welsh poets. Decide for yourself!
Again, this is a poem that follows the ‘everything is analogous to writing’ direction of thought… this time art is like writing. If you want a bit of wider reading to give you context to this painting, check out Frank O’Hara’s wonderful ‘Why I am Not a Painter’.
Under the Superstition Mountains
So, a quick note on the title. The Superstition Mountains are to be found in Arizona. Visually they look a bit similar to Skirrid Hill, which creates a visual link between USA and Wales in the collection. There is also a degree of mythology surrounding the mountains; some Native American tribes believe that there is a hole leading into the underworld somewhere in the mountains. Again – this creates a link between Wales and USA, encourages us to see more similarities between the two places other than the spread of superficial culture.
The poem has an epigraph from a song by the band Eels called ‘Susan’s House’. The song itself is about some of the negative things that go on in American suburbs such as shootings, teenage pregnancy, elderly people not given the care they need in their later years and the anaesthetisation of youth through television. I strongly recommend that you read the lyrics to the Eels song (I’ve put it in the appendix to this book, because I’m a nice guy) before re-reading Sheers’ poem.
By quoting from a modern rock song, Sheers is also showing us that his collection is nor simply influenced by the past and what has come before him in the world of literature, but what is going on in the world around him now.
Quick facts… this poem is set in Sun City West. Sun City West’s population is 98.7% white. When the census was taken in the year 2000, they found that there was nobody under the age of 18 living in the town and 82.4% were over the age of 60. Make of this information what you will!
By presenting us with this image of the ‘picket fence’, Sheers is also prefacing the poem with the idea of tradition and a wholesome identity. As the poem continues however, we see that the ‘white picket fence’ is a fading symbol of an ideal that no longer exists – the characters that we encounter have no way of living up to the values and ideology that ties in with a ‘white picket fence’. There is a tension between tradition and a movement into the modern world.
In this poem, Sheers speaks in the voice of a private detective, hired to pry into the lives of others, which gives us a sense of distrust, infidelity and an intrusion of others’ privacy. By having Private Detectives in a poem which begins with a picket fence and a Mustang (two symbols of an innocent, golden age in America) we get the sense that nothing is what it seems and, behind closed doors, nobody plays the same roles that they do out in the open.
A strong symbol of this is that the speaker is sat reading a poem by Robert Lowell whilst he waits for the person that he is spying on. I have taken the liberty of giving you the full copy of the Lowell poem that is quoted in italics in this poem as part of the appendix (I know, what a nice guy). What you should know about Robert Lowell is that he was known as a confessional poet, and became famous for being one of the earliest respected writers to write very honestly and often very uncomfortably about his most intimate details and darkest thoughts. This form of poetry would soon be made even more famous by Sylvia Plath.
The idea that the speaker of this poem is sat in a car reading the work of a famous confessional poet suggests that he is someone who is fascinated with looking into other people’s private lives. The reference to the poem also suggests that behind the hypocritical wholesome images of white picket fences and white middle-class traditions and pleasantry, lies something dark and corrupt and that it is likely that the private detectives are there to bust somebody cheating on their wife… this quotation from the Lowell poem seems to shed some light on the poet’s viewpoint:
“My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor's edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.”
Without dwelling for too much longer on this poem, let’s make a few links to the rest of the collection:
Quoting heavily from other writers (Sheers does this at various points throughout the collection.
‘A single bird hits a piano wire mid-flight’ – think about the first stanza of ‘Calendar’
‘A man in a track-suit / takes his oxygen tanks for a walk’ – choosing to keep oneself alive artificially and going against nature’s intentions. Link this with ‘On Going’ and Jean’s refusal to use apparatus.
The fact that there is a bird in this poem at all – a very common theme in the collection.
The camera-man described with ‘his finger on the trigger’ makes a stark contrast to Capa in ‘Happy Accidents’ who does not have all day to sit waiting for the perfect shot.
Sun City West could be described as an aging community past its prime in a way that we can compare to the Steelworks, the Hill Fort, the Landmark or any other examples of things that we can see wasting away over time.
Remember our old friend T.S. Eliot from the epigraph? Well, he is going to be a great help in understanding what is going on in this poem.
Eliot first published his most famous and revered poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, in 1915. The poem is about a man walking through city streets at night, talking to himself about his insecurities and trying to gather the courage to express his feelings toward a woman. Whilst Sheers’ poem is not about male insecurity in the same way that Eliot’s is, there are several similarities that we can draw between the two:
Free Verse – if you look at Eliot’s poem and then at this, you will see that they have a similar shape (or, to be more precise, lack of shape). This is because the poem is written in ‘free verse’, which simply means that it is a poem that does not follow the normal patterns that one would expect from a poem. Free verse was made very popular by people like TS Eliot, who were seen as the forerunners of ‘modern poetry’.
Restaurants – There are several images from Eliot’s poem, Prufrock, that seem to have carried over into Sheers. The most obvious of these is Eliot’s description of ‘restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / and sawdust restaurants and oyster shells’.
Whilst TS Eliot’s poem draws its attention to the customers in a restaurant however, Sheers does the opposite. In ‘Service’, we have a long and unusual exploration of the work done by those who work in a restaurant.
Why does he do this? Well, waiters and sommeliers (the restaurants’ special wine-experts) are excellent symbols for ‘middle-men’. What I mean by this is that these people do not create anything or engage in any manual labour, but rather act as the provider of something that somebody else has toiled over. In this sense, the ‘Service Industry’ to which this poem’s title refers makes the restaurant a representation of the way that Western countries work in the modern world. England (and to a certain extent, the USA) are no longer countries who need to create goods, but rather they pass readymade things on from one person to another, taking payment along the way.
It is because we, as a country, have moved into this way of doing business that we no longer have use of mines, quarries and factories in Britain, and so Sheers is giving us an example of the sort of work that has replaced more manual forms of labour. It is important to note however, that at no point does Sheers suggest that any of the workers in the restaurant have it easy – he is more ambiguously drawing attention to a different type of trade.
Structurally, within the collection as a whole, it is also important that this is placed near the end. It is important because it deals with more ‘modern’ subject matter than some of the earlier poems, therefore creating a sense of chronology. It is also important because it creates a symmetry with ‘Last Act’ by echoing the theatre imagery that we saw at the beginning.
We started the collection with a depiction of a stage just after a play, and now as we near the end of the book we have a depiction of a theatre during the daytime, before a play. All this contributes to tie together all the elements of ‘role playing’ that we find in this collection – in Sheers’ writing, nobody is who they seem to be and nobody is capable of doing anything without some degree of pretence.
There is an ongoing theme of masculine/inhumane forms of entertainment in the opening of this poem – within the first two pages we have the following depictions:
‘The Sommelier spits
A boxer’s mouthful of red’,
‘instinctive as matadors’,
‘like a regular Houdini’.
The link here is that these are all images that tie into sports where people pay to see men put into dangerous, potentially fatal, situations. By evoking these images, Sheers is drawing the reader’s attention to the human desire to watch the discomfort and struggle against the odds of other human beings. As the boxer, the escapologist and the matador are all quite traditional and extreme depictions of masculinity, perhaps Sheers is suggesting that the modern world has lost its manliness in the traditional sense.
Whilst Sheers seems to be quite impressed by the service staff in this poem, describing them as moving like ‘sharks through coral reef’, he is far less respectful towards the customers of the restaurant;
‘a suit unfurls a napkin
over the globe of his stomach,
a sail tacking tight above his belt,
already on the last notch’.
Obviously, Sheers is not suggesting that everyone that eats in a restaurant is a gluttonous, fat pig, but the customer in this poem is a representative of a certain trait in society. By using the synecdoche ‘a suit’ to describe the man, the customer is somewhat dehumanised and judged simply as a symbol of his class, rather than a person.
And if we are to look at the very idea of human beings in the ‘hunter / gatherer’ sense, restaurants represent something that goes against the very wiring of what people are built to do. Restaurants are a place where people go to have all of the hard work of eating done for them – the gathering of the produce, the preparing and cooking of it, the decanting of food into glasses, the cleaning up afterwards. We no longer have to do any of the things that other animals have to do in order to survive, and as a result, we grow lazy. This is why the customer in the restaurant is so fat – he is a symbol for what happens to countries that have things easy in an economic sense – he grows bloated and unhealthy whilst the waiters (representing those on the lower economic rungs) rush around doing sections of the hard work.
Even the waiters and chefs find themselves using technology in order to cut corners – notice the pivotal role in their lives that the radio plays.
Actually, let me spin you another reading of this poem, while it’s fresh in my mind…
How about if we extend the metaphor of the restaurant as society as a whole even further and we have four main tiers:
Customer: These represent the people at the top of the economic pile. They have the most money, do the least work and are the least connected to how the world really works. Quick fact – the top 1% of America’s wealthiest people own more money than the bottom 95% combined. The customer in the poem could be tied in with Dr. Hitler from earlier on in the collection.
Sommelier: The sommelier in this poem could be taken to represent people in society who earn their money by being an expert in their field and offering advice to others. An example of this could be the math teacher in ‘The Equation’, and be further extended to stockbrokers, accountants and travel agents.
Chef: These are the people whose job it is to make something with raw materials, perhaps like the artist in ‘Shadow Man’, ‘The Farrier’, or the entrepreneur in ‘Stitch in Time’.
Waiting Staff: These are the least skilled of the workers in this poem, and so could be taken to represent the least skilled workers in society as a whole. Waiters are simply concerned with transporting goods from one place to another, and so could be taken to represent anyone whose trade involves transport.
The Fishmongers: The people who provide the fresh produce for the restaurant are only mentioned implicitly in the mention of ‘boxes left at the door’. These are the people whose job it is to sell the fish that everyone else in the restaurant exchanges money over. Remember though – fishmongers are not fishermen. They do not catch the fish, they simply sell them on… and in this sense everyone in the poem is middleman.
For a ridiculously complicated re-hash of this idea, have a look at my commentary on ‘L.A. Evening’.
My final word on this poem is that there is an overt moment towards the end of Sheers’ ‘everything is like writing’ trope where he describes the chef as ‘an author, copy-editing the text’.
There is not a lot that I need to tell you about this poem – the most important point can be garnered from the opening line:
‘This then, is the age of the fishmonger not the fisherman’.
The point being made here is that the modern world does not favor those who are best at manual labor and providing a product. Those who come out on top in the modern world are the people who are best at finding opportunities to make profit from the toil of others.
A few links to be made with other poems in the collection:
The ease with which the mongers reach for carp is a reflection of the egg-retrieval in ‘The Equation’.
The ‘cruel kindness’ between the monger and the fish is a paradox that is reflective of the relationship between man and nature throughout the collection.
The tipped cap of the fishmonger is congruous with the cap of the major in ‘Liable to Floods’… the implication here could be that they are both middlemen who do not actually have to deal with the toughest physical aspects of their trade.
Stitch in Time
As a teacher, I’m not supposed to pick favourites, but this is my favourite poem in Skirrid Hill. This is probably because, of all the poems in the collection, this is the one that took me the longest to unpick the various subtleties and symbolic ideas buried under the surface of the narrative.
So, let’s start with some of the background knowledge that you will need in order to get the most out of this poem.
Taveuni (also known as the Garden Island) is an island in Fiji. What you need to know about this place is that part of it crosses something called the east-west antimeridian. This means that, if we take Greenwich, London, to be at 0º latitude on a globe (everything else is either East or West of it on a map) then there is a point in Fiji that is at the absolute furthest point away that you can get before you start coming back again (it is at 180º, making it both East and West). I’m sure I haven’t explained that as clearly as it would be if you just looked at a globe or a world map, but the point is that countries that fall on the antimeridian cannot be specifically said to be East or West, as they straddle the line between the two.
So, what? I hear you ask. Well, Sheers is a poet and therefore is using the physical divide between East and West as a symbol for the things that are associated with the cultures of the East and the West. Put simply, the West represents capitalism here, the state of mind that puts money-making before any other concern. For a schocking commentary on the dangers of Western capitalism, have a look at Michael Moore’s documentary Capitalism: A Love Story.
Put simply, the East in this poem represents countries which are less economically developed and have not been taken over by modern ideas of business.
And so it is incredibly important that the man in Sheers’ poem builds his business on a piece of land which is on the exact divide between East and West. There are ideological elements of the West and the East about how this man has lived his life.
The man has adopted certain Western ideals; he capitalises on the coincidence of where his land is, he runs a successful business which is always growing and expanding into different areas such as a store, a cinema and a garage, and he takes advantage of the passing tourist trade.
The Eastern nature of this poem however comes in the fact that this is still a tourist destination where Westerners are coming for their holidays… to get away from their usual way of life. The irony here is that by getting away from the West, the tourists are bringing with them the ideals that help to spread capitalism across the globe.
In this sense, the depiction of the island as the place ‘where the future started and the present died’ is not simply a comment on time zones, but is also a symbol for the fact that the business ways of London have now managed to spread to the sbaolute furthest reaches of the globe. It seems that it will not be long before the world of the Meridian stores will come to resemble that of the restaurant we heard of in ‘Service’.
Yet Sheers does not explicitly suggest that this is a bad thing – this is simply the tale of a man who left his family in the hope of earning a better life for them and managed to succeed by sheer luck of location.
The image of London being ‘the first stitch in the pattern to which he’d cut his life’ is a particularly impressive one. We have the image of the gridmarks on an atlas looking like stitchwork forming a pattern towards the farthest end (where we find Fiji). But we also get the sense that this pattern is the steady spread of capitalism and Western business ideals across the globe until it gets to the furthest point possible – London is not just the 0º mark of lattitude, but the birthplace of commerce in this poem.
There are only two more things that I really want to discuss about this poem. Firstly, the title. It is taken from the phrase ‘a stitch, in time, saves nine’ – a saying which gives the message that we save ourselves extra work by preparing for the future and not putting things off until they get too hard to handle. This idea could perhaps imply that by leaving his wife early on, the man does not lose out on an opportunity that has made him all his money.
The title of course also refers to the man’s original trade of making clothes. When we get to the final sections of the poem and his scissors are old, stiff and out of use, we get the message that the man’s original intentions of being a tailor were lost when he got caught up in the business of making money. Perhaps Sheers is suggesting that the most successful people are not the most skilled, but rather those who luck into owning the most advantageous bits of land.
As I have mentioned, the stitch in time is also a visual metaphor for the lattitudinal gridpoints on an atlas.
The final thing that I want to mention about this poem is that it is the only example of rhyming couplets, sustained throughout an entire poem. There can be a number of reasons for this. It may be that Sheers is trying to connote a simpler, more innocent approach to life which has not yet been debased by the conventions of a modern society (such as poems that don’t rhyme). It may also be that this is meant to have the feeling of a children’s story, passed down through the generations of the man’s family and made more pleasurable to young ears by having a regular rhyme-scheme.
You should be doing this anyway but seriously this time… read the poem through a good couple of times, very intensely, before looking at my commentary otherwise you’ll be nothing but confused.
This poem, or at least its epigraph, starts in a very complicated, slippery way which takes a good while to contemplate. The ‘E. Booth’ of being referred to is in fact ‘Edwin Booth’ not Edward Booth as is suggested directly after the quotations. I do not know if this is a typing error, or simply some clever trickery that I am yet to get my head around.
Who is Edward Booth? In a nutshell, 19th Century American Shakespearean actor who set up a society called The Player’s Club. This was a mansion that he bought in New York City where the finest actors of the day could come into contact with other great minds such as writers, businessmen and general creative types.
And the quotation inside the epigraph taken from Edwin Booth’s Legacy? Who is that from? That’s from a theatre producer called Howard Lindsay who was around about the same time as Booth. The quotation basically lays out the fact that, in the world of the actor, the producer has the power to make or break a career, and will often do both.
Add to this the fact that ‘The Players Club’ is situated in New York and the poem is titled ‘L.A. Evevning’, miles and miles away from NYC… and we have ourselves a whole heap of complications to untangle for ourselves (I haven’t even got onto the fact that we still haven’t worked out who the actress in the actual poem is yet!)
So, here’s the best explanation that I can think of for all these muddled references:
The Player’s Club in New York is a symbol of the theatre and therefore the old way of doing things, as the home of American theatre is Broadway, NY. The actress in L.A. is a symbol of the cinema and therefore the modern way of living. By drawing this distinction between the two types of acting, Sheers is showing us another example of how times have changed and technology has changed the ways that we engage with the world. If we put this poem in the context of ‘Stitch in Time’ then theatre and cinema become symbols for East and West.
However, the quotation from Howard Lindsay, the producer, has deep resonance with the careers of cinema actors to this very day, and so Sheers is making the point that, whilst some things do change, there are some fundamental principles which remain the same (such as the power that producers have over actors).
Remember the restaurant from ‘Service’? Well in this analogy I suppose the actors are the fishermen, the producers are the fishmongers and the directors are the chefs. The audience is the customer here and I suppose we could suggest that film critics are like sommeliers. And let’s just, for argument sake, say that cinema workers and projectionists are the waiters. Hmmm… life is like a big restaurant. Works for me.
You could maybe also compate Edwin Booth to the entrepreneur in ‘Stitch in Time’, building a legacy for himself in an opportune location (in this case it’s near the theatre rather than on an antimeridian).
So here we are a whole page later and we haven’t even got to the main poem itself. I can’t go on without giving you a final tidbit on Edwin Booth though. Are you ready? The guy’s younger brother, John Wilkes Booth, was the one who shot Abraham Lincoln in a theatre in 1865. And then, you won’t believe this, Edwin Booth saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s brother, Robert, in 1909 by stopping him from falling off a train platform. OK, enough history.
So we’re finally onto the poem. Brief overview – an aging Hollywood starlet looks back over photographs of her movie career, remeniscing about lost friends, past acting jobs and eventually turns out the lights in her house, lets the dog in and gets ready for bed.
To save any of you twenty minutes googling… the un-named actress being described in this poem is Jean Simmons. Jean Simmons was alive from 1929-2010 and so was still alive when this poem was written. There is much about Simmons which you will be fascinated to find out (I encourage you to do your own research on this) but I suppose it is important for you to know that she won an Oscar for her role as Ophelia in Hamlet. I point this fact out because it creates a link with Edwin Booth – they both performed in Shakespeare plays, but in different media.
There is a sense of tragedy to how alone Simmons is in this poem, with only a dog for company and a motion-sensitive intruder light for protection, pining over the memories evoked by these old photographs. Sheers gives us an image of a celebrity at their most vulnerable and human, and as a result he cuts through certain preconceptions about fame and fortune and leaves us with a woman who is just as mortal as the rest of the characters in his writing.
It hardly needs pointing out that this poem is yet another tie into the ongoing theme of playing roles in these poems, but if you decide to talk about this then make sure this poem is discussed with ideas of ‘being yourself’ and ways that the modern world encourages us to disguise our personalities.
It occurs to me that, like the ‘Superstition Mountains’ poem, this is a complex patchwork of references from all over the place that require research and back-story and explanations to understand. This could partly be Sheers’ comment on how the modern world is simply a collage of older images, but I think it also works on a commentary on America as a place. Because America is a country of unparalleled diversity and cultural influences, Sheers’ makes his American poems seem almost ‘noisy’ with the myriad cultural references being made throughout.
The Singing Men
Remember the idea of the restaurant being a metaphor for the whole of the modern world that I’ve been coming back to ever since we looked at ‘Service’? Well, this poem is a footnote of sorts to that.
What happens to the people that do not fit into the limited number of roles that society has to offer? The people who are not geared towards work in the modern world? Where do the drunk and the homeless fit into Sheers’ ever-developing definitions of the modern condition?
The Singing Men is an interesting poem, as it describes the vagrants of the modern world in the sort of language one would expect from David Attenbrough narrating a documentary about a rare species of bird. ‘Corners and doorways are good places to find them’, narrates the poet, ‘full-throated, singing to swallow the moon’.
By describing these singing men with the tone of a nature documentarian, we almost get the sense of the homeless drunk men being closer to the natural human state than anybody else. It is a juxtaposition of ideas that works cleverly, when we start mapping out the comparison. Firstly, we have the sense that the men described in this poem live outdoors, therefore bringing them closer to the natural human state.
We also have their fondness for singing, a pursuit that their previous lives prevented them from; ‘[they] had lives, in which, if they were lucky, they’d squeeze / a little music in, between the lovers, the kids, the wives.’ I get from this the sense that Sheers feels that these men are naturally wired to be singers, but modern lifestyles prevented them from doing this. Now they have slipped through the gaps in society, they are able to live their lives in a way that represents their natural desire to sing.
Also, has anybody else been noticing how this collection of poetry keeps coming back to images of birds sitting on wires? And keeps linking this in with music? I promise you it’s there if you look in ‘Calendar’ and ‘Superstition Mountains’. And you may also know that there is a famous Leonard Cohen song called ‘Bird on a Wire’ (although you need to listen to the KD Lang version of it… much nicer to listen to).
Well, before you ask where I’m going with this… the Leonard Cohen song beings:
‘Like a bird on a wire,
like a drunk in a midnight choir,
I have tried in my way to be free’.
Sound familiar? This cannot be a coincidence. Sheers is subtly making the link here between man and animal by referring us back to a famous songwriter who has done just that in the past.
The final function of this poem is to bring the narrative back to Britain. Sheers does this by suggesting that ‘the singing men’ exist all over the world, including New York, New Kersey, Moscoe, Leads and on the underground in Balham tube. If I’m being honest, this feels like a fairly sloppy way to anchor the collection back in blighty, but then I won’t pretend to know more about the poetic process than Sheers.
A wake is the part of the funeral process that involves viewing the body on the morning of the burial. People often get the wake mixed up with the gathering of people that takes place after the burial but it is very important to the meaning of this poem that you do not get this mixed up.
Because a ‘wake’ is a viewing of a dead body, the title adds to the tragedy of the poem by treating the old man dieing of lung cancer as if he is already deceased. If we are to take this principal further though, is every encounter with a person not a ‘wake’ of sorts, if we are all going to die eventually? Remember that we are dealing with a collection of poems in which everything is wearing away, or breaking apart in one way or another, just like Skirrid Hill itself.
Sheers indicates to us that we are back on familiar ground (in terms of subject and location) by the fact that we are back in tercets after our brief structural foray into the experimental United States.
The ‘two pale oceans’ used to describe the lungs are resonant with the ‘shore of the other chair’ in intermission. The sea here works as a recurring image for forces of nature which cannot be defeated and something which keeps things separate.
Whilst death is a recurring theme in the collection, this poem offers an insight from a slightly different angle. How do doctors emotionally deal with their own terminal illness? Sheers refers to this as ‘the old curse / of too much knowledge’, another reference back to the book of Genesis where humankind’s curse is self-awareness. We are certainly arriving here at Sheers’ fleshed out conclusion that the negative areas of the human condition stem from the way that we stop ourselves from engaging with the natural world with our own inventiveness and inquisitive nature.
The line ‘we both know there has already been a passing’ is a sign that Sheers has matured a great deal since the day he failed to recognise his father’s illness in ‘Trees’. The subtle indication here is that the collection has followed the structure of a bildungsroman and that the world has made the poet more perceptive to the lives of others.
So here we are at the final poem of the collection. One exam question on this collection once asked to what extent this poem works as a fitting ending for the book. My response to that is that, whilst this is by no means my favourite poem of Sheers, it is an absolutely perfect denouement for the book as a whole.
It is not my place to do this for you, but if you have been studying this collection closely and making notes on the ongoing themes, then you will find a way of drawing lines of comparison with every single detail of ‘Skirrid Fawr’ and other points in the collection.
The ‘east-west flanks, one dark, one sunlit’ for example, are a clear callback to the antimeridian of ‘Stitch in Time’. The ‘sentence of her slopes’ is a reference to the countless paralells that have been drawn between the practice of writing and the activities of every other living thing. The ‘unlearned tongue’ can be taken for a reference to the transition and decline of Welsh culture as it once was – a culture he is helping to preserve by giving the mountain its proper Welsh name in this poem.
Most importantly though, the line ‘I am still drawn back to her for answers’. Sheers is a poet who, as we have seen throughout this collection, uses writing as a means of helping him to understand the world. Whereas the man in the previous poem understands the world through science and medicine (man-made things), Sheers goes to something from the natural world for answers.
In this way, Sheers is almost creating the opposite of a Greek myth; whilst the Greeks once made up elaborate stories of clashes between gods and human beings as a way of explaining various elements of the natural world, Sheers attempts to use the natural world as a way of coming to terms with the complex and upsetting ways that the world of humans works.
It is a particularly successful way that Sheers has chosen to anchor this poem – by returning us to the image of the title itself he reminds us that the poem is the key symbol for understanding this poem. As we learned in the notes on page v, the mountain’s name suggests that it is ‘divorced’ or ‘separated’ in some way and it cannot be denied that this entire collection has centred around ways in which things have been separated or broken down.
A counter argument that springs to mind though, is the east-west, modern-undeveloped separations that exist in the collection. In this collection, whilst East and West are separated by georgaphy, Sheers is showing us a world where the two are becoming unavoidably intermingled.
This would not be the great collection that is is however, if Sheers did not leave us with more questions than answers.