‘Border Country’ – Owen Sheers : Analysis

In ‘Border Country’, Sheers is describing revisiting a childhood place and reflecting the nature of death and his changed view of the quarry. He writes about how his life has changed and how he himself has matured since he used to play at the quarry as a young child. The poem consists of six stanzas of free verse, nine lines each.


In the first stanza, Sheers describes his overall impression of the quarry at the present. In the next two stanzas he then reflects on the games he used to play as a child. The fourth stanza takes a more mature tone as Sheers begins to talk about growing up and his father’s death. In stanzas five and six, he explains how death makes people grow up quicker and might make us feel lost.


Sheers, in the first stanza, illustrates the scrapyard from his youth as a ‘car quarry’. The word ‘quarry’ suggest something embedded in the stone being excavated: the cars have been in the ground for so long, they’ve become a part of it. ‘Quarry’, with its connotations of digging, might be referring to the memories of Sheers’ childhood he is about to ‘dig up’. He describes the scrap yard being ‘like the hummock of a grave’. This suggests the quarry acts as a grave for the car which have are now ‘dead’. As Sheers used to play with cars when he was a young boy, and now the cars are buried, it could imply his memories being buried too. With the emphatic sentence ‘filled in years ago’, he begins to describe what the scrapyard used to look like in his youth: ‘an elephant’s graveyard of cars’. The use of elephants in this metaphor helps the reader to visualise the size of thee scrapyard.


In the second stanza, Sheers reflects on his childhood games with a friend: ‘we came’. The conceit of ‘the commas and apostrophes of minnows and bullheads;’ links the time he spent in school with his playtime. It also suggest how it was almost in his nature to be a poet: the fish he saw reminded him of punctuation. ‘Playing war in the barn, dying again and again’ looks back on the types of games he would play. The word ‘playing’ and the semantic field of death in these lines suggests playing with death. It also shows the children’s innocence and naivety: playing games of war whilst not fully understanding the seriousness of it. ‘Dying again and again’ could be referring to how long they’ve been playing the game, possibly until dark and it was time to go home; or simply emphasising that it was only a game and death wasn’t real.


The third stanza concentrates on the semantic field of cars: ‘drivers’ seats’ and ‘engines’. Sheers comments on the youth of the buzzards flying above him as he plays: ‘young as the buzzards above us’. ‘Sat in the drivers seats, going nowhere’ further emphasises Sheers innocence and youth. He is ‘going nowhere’ because he can’t drive yet as he is too young to do so. Another example of the games he played was trying to fix the old cars: ‘operated on engines’. The use of the word ‘operated’ depicts and image of a young boy pretending to be a mechanic. The semantic field of death and cars continues with ‘reading aloud from the names of the dead’; the reading of ‘dead’ car names in the scrapyard.  The ‘names of the dead’ suggest a grave, linking the third stanza to ‘elephant’s graveyard’ in the first stanza.


The fourth stanza continues on the next page, but is only separated by a colon from stanza three. This shows stanza four, although more mature in content than stanza three, is still a continuation of Sheers’ youth.

In this stanza, Sheers describes growing up like being in a car crash – sudden, unexpected, frightening, and disorientating: ‘when life put on the brakes and pitched you, without notice, through the windscreen of your youth.’ He then continues saying ‘your father found at dawn – a poppy seed sown in the unripe corn’, suggesting his father’s death put his life on breaks and made him grow up quickly.


The fifth stanza begins with Sheers looking back on revisiting the scrapyard when he was older: ‘I came back once, to find the cars smaller’. The cars may appear smaller to him either because he has physically grown, or because the cars which once seemed to fascinating and were such a huge part of his life are no longer so important. The first rhyme in the poem is of the words ‘grown’ and ‘stone’. Attention is drawn to these lines due to the two words contradict each other, as something made of stone cannot grow. ‘The needles of their speedos settled at zero’ refers to the car crash of his youth in stanza four. The death of someone close may feel like time has stopped and you cannot move, just like the speed of the cars is at zero and they cannot move. For the second time in the poem, a buzzard is mentioned: ‘I disturbed a buzzard that flew from its branch like a rag shaken out in the wind’.  However this time, the bird of death is no longer young, highlighting how much time has passed since Sheers last visited. The description of the ‘rag shaken out in the wind’ imitates the sound of huge, flapping wings perfectly.


In the final stanza, Sheers’ language and description return to that of his heritage and childhood: ‘on over the fields – the spittle sheep, the ink-dot cows, a tractor writing with its wheels’. With his portrayal of the countryside from the buzzard’s flight, Sheers gives us further insight on his childhood. The final line of the stanza suggests that inside, Sheers is still a little boy trying to find his home in adulthood and sometimes still get lost inside his childhood memories: ‘Where a boy … trying once more to find his way home’


Skirrid Hill is said to be Owen Sheer writing about what it’s like to be a man, as well as a human being, in today’s society. ‘Border Country’ is perhaps the most relatable poem regarding being a person and our life experiences. It explores the darker and more sorrowful aspects of people’s lives, like death and loss. Consequently, reflecting on this poem, it may be that for Sheers, experiencing milestones like playing war in the barn and fishing and loss of someone close, is what makes us human.


3 thoughts on “‘Border Country’ – Owen Sheers : Analysis

  1. Some very good work here, you have certainly made a big leap since your last practice essay! Moving into the top of middle/beginning to look at upper band. Remember to comment on how individual quotations you have selected and discussed add to the meaning of the line, the stanza and to the poem a a whole – try to resist just explaining its ‘isolated’ meaning; also be specific when you make assertions e.g. ‘gives us further insight on his childhood’ – you need to say exactly what that insight is. Finally you need to comment on the effect/what is added to the meaning by the form and structure – simply describing it will not earn credit in the exam. E.g. what is the effect/how does it add to the meaning of the poem to break up the reflection into the stanzas the way Sheers has? Well done ! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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