Owen Sheers: Context 

‘LAST ACT’

  • Sheers has written about his stammer in the past, in poems like ‘Stammer on Scree’ in his previous collection – ‘The Blue Book’.
  • ‘The King’s Speech’ is  the sorry of George VI’s struggle to overcome his stammer.

‘MAMETZ WOOD’

  • Mametz Wood is in the Somme region of northern France. 4,000 from the Welsh Division were killed.
  • Sheers admires the Second World War poet Keith Douglas and wrote a play about him. Like ‘Mametz Wood’, Douglas’ poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (‘Forger-me-not’) conveys w touching sense of waste: a German gunner is found dead with a picture of his girlfriend near his body.

‘THE FARRIER’

  • Unlike in many parts of England, where equestrian pursuits are largely the preserve of the wealthy, in Wales, where Sheers grew up, it was not u comment for someone with a small holding  to keep horses.
  • ‘The Farrier’ is reminiscent of poems of rural work such as those in Seamus Heaney’s earliest collection, ‘Death of a Naturalist’ and ‘Door into the Dark’.

‘INHERITANCE’

  • Like R. S. Thomas, Sheer grew up and English speaker and had a strong sense of both Welsh and English sides to his identity. similarly to Thomas, Sheers has had to balance some aspects of Welsh background against the need to be accessible to his non-Welsh audience, for example, by adding ‘Hill’ to ‘Skirrid’ in the collection’s title.

‘MARKING TIME’

  • The sonnet is one of the most enduring poetic forms. The term comes from the Italian word meaning ‘little song’ and its subject is usually an aspect of love.
    • A ‘Shakespearean sonnet’ / ‘English sonnet’ comprises three quatrains and a couplet, and rhyming ‘abab cdcd efef gg’.
    • A ‘Petrarchan sonnet’ has an octave followed by a sestet, and usually rhymes ‘abbaabba cdecde’.

‘SHOW’

  • ‘Scopophilia’  (literally, ‘love of viewing’) is a term used in cinema studies to denote the voyeuristic pleasure derived from gazing – usually at the female form; the male is the active subject and the female the passive object. It could be argues that the poem is subtly criticizing the kind of superficial pleasure.
  • ‘Haiku’ – the Japanese foe that compresses an image and idea into three lines of five, seven and five syllable respectively.
  • In 1999, Owen Sheers won a young writer’s award from the fashion magazine Vogue. 

‘VALENTINE’

  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 99 confound expectations of form by containing 25 lines, while his sonnet 130 confound expectations of the genre bu seeming to denigrate his mistress, who readers would expect him to praise – before we realise that he is actually satirising the falseness of other sonneteers.
  • Carol Ann Duffy has also written a poem entitled ‘Valentine’; hers satisfies readers’ expectations by communicating passionate love- but confounds them first with her bizarre choice of Valentine’s gift: and onion.

‘WINTER SWANS’

  • A version of this poem was published in A Winter Garland (The Wordsworth Trust, 2003). In 2003-04 Sheers was poet-in-residence at Wordsworth Trust.

‘NIGHT WINDOWS’

‘Night Windows’ by Edward Hopper
  • For an insight into the poem’s description of the female body as landscape, look closely at the picture on the cover of Skirrid Hill. It is and uncredited photograph taken by Sheers himself of a female subject; the highest ‘peak’ is the woman’s left shoulder.

‘KEYWAYS’

  • Changing the locks is something usually done t increase the security of a home – sometimes to prevent a former partner from gaining access to the property. For example, the American singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams used the title ‘Changed the Locks’ for a track about a broken relationship (19988).
  • ‘BORDER COUNTRY’
  • The influential Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), expressed some thoughts about raising and meeting the audience expectations in a dictum that has become knows as ‘Chekhov’s gun’. It states that if a guns is on the mantelpiece in the first act, it  must go off in the third act.

‘FARTHER’

  • There are several legends surrounding the Skirrid. The one alluded to in ‘Farther’ is probably ‘the legend that the mountain was rent asunder by the earthquake which happened at the crucifixion of the Saviour: hence it has obtained the appellation of Holy Mount, a name under which it is best knows among the inhabitants of the county’.

‘TREES’

  • Philip Larkin’s poem entitled The Trees’, meditates on trees and the ongoing natural cycle of decay and growth.

‘HEDGE SCHOOL’

  • Sheer;s epigraph is taken from The Pardoner’s Prologue. Chaucer’s Pardoner is a bold hypocrite, who preaches powerfully of avarice yet sells fake relics for personal gain. The line used by Sheers quotes the Pardoner talking about those her preaches to: he couldn’t care less if their souls go to hell. The Pardoner’s Tale is one of wickedness: three riotous young men drink, find a pile of gold and then plot against each other resulting in their deaths. The epigraph perhaps highlights the potential; for evil that exists within the boys.

‘JOSEPH JONES’

  • The XR2 was the sportiest version of the popular small hatchback, Ford Fiesta. It was a car that young men would drive fast in and modify by adding thicker wheels and spoilers and so on – just what you might expect from a man like Joseph Jones.

‘LATE SPRING’

  • Pastoral writing, broadly speaking, presents life in the countryside as being peaceful, harmonious and innocent.

‘THE EQUATION’

  • The poem evokes the two sides of the speaker’s grandfather, who is both a teacher and a farmer.

‘SWALLOWS’

  • Introducing this poem for The Poetry Archive, Sheers said it was about swallows that come back every year to his parents’ house. He noted that a report on climate change has suggested that swallows could be one of the species we might lose – a prediction he hopes will not come true.

‘ON GOING’

  • The ‘i.m’ of the epigraph stands for ‘in memoriam’; Jean Sheers was Sheers’ grandmother and this poem is a n elegy for her.

‘Y GAER (THE HILL FORT)’ and ‘THE HILL FORT (Y GAER)’

‘INTERMISSION’

  • The dedication ‘For L.’ is intriguing. It might sound as thought the poem is for a girlfriend, but actually it is for Louis de Bernieres. Owen Sheers stayed with him fro an idyllic month while he was playing the role of Wilfred Owen in the play Not About Heroes, for which de Barnieres was the producer.

‘CALENDAR’

  • ‘A phallic symbol is a sexualized representation of masculinity, usually an image resembling the penis.’
  • ‘A yonic symbol is a sexualized representation of femininity and reproductive power, usually through an image reminiscent of the vagina’.

‘FLAG’

  • The poems epigraph, however satirical, might spark serious thoughts about the importance of culture. A human was once thought to be composed of layers, with the biological  -the body with it vital organs – at the core. The psychological, social and cultural aspects were seen as progressively less important outer layers.

‘THE STEELWORKS’

  • The footnote ‘Ebbw Vale, 2002’ implies that the poem was written in response to a real event: the closure of steel production on 5 July 1001, which left many in the town without jobs or hope.

‘SONG’

‘LANDMARK’

‘DRINKING WITH HITLER’

  • led by Dr Chenjerai ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association became feared for its militant tactics. In 1997 it extracted generous payments from the government; in 2000 Hunzvi led the occupation of white-owned farms. Hunzvi was charges with the embezzlement of 45 million Zimbabwe dollars from the War Veterans’ fuNds in 1999; in 2000 he was named as  torturer by Amnesty International. He died in 2001 of an AIDS-related illness.

‘FOUR MOVEMENTS IN THE SCALE OF TWO’

‘LIABLE TO FLOODS’

  • This was written for the Dolwyddelan Project in north Wales, in which all sorts of were ‘taking the temperature of that area’. Sheers wrote it when he heard of the American soldiers who were training for the D-day landings and ignored the local farmers who warned them that the area they were camping was often affected by flash floods, Moel Siabod on the Moelwynion mountain range.

‘HISTORY’

  • Like the preceding one, this poem was written as part of the Dolwyddelan Project.

‘AMAZON’

  • Amazons were a legendary race of women, famed for their strength, height and athleticism, who according to ancient Greeks, lived at the edge of the unknown world. According to legend, it was normal for an Amazon woman to cut off her right breast so that she could hunt more proficiently with a bow.

‘SHADOW MAN’

  • Mac Adams is a Welsh-born who lives and works in New York. He is well knows for his innovative sculptures and photographsl in which objects cast unexpected shadows. These shadows often form arresting images very unlike the objects that produced them.
‘Civil War’ by Mac Adams (1999)

‘UNDER THE SUPERSTITION MOUNTAIN’

  • The epigraph is from the song ‘Susan’s House’ by American rock band Eels. It is ironic, since the white picket fence might be said to be an iconic image of a whoolesome, sunburbn America, yet the song goes on to evoke images of insanity, arson, death by shooting, drug pushing and teenage pregnancy. Perhaps by choosing such an epigraph, Sheers is preparing readers for the strangeness of the America that he describes int he poem.

“Susan’s House” by Eels

Going over to susan’s house
Walking south down baxter street
Nothing hiding behind this picket fence
There’s a crazy old woman smashing bottles
On the sidewalk where her house burnt down two years ago
People say that back then she really wasn’t that crazyGoing over to susan’s house
Going over to susan’s house
She’s gonna make it right

Down by the donut prince
A fifteen year old boy lies on the sidewalk
With a bullet in his forehead
In a final act of indignity
The paramedics take off all his clothes
For the whole world to see
While they put him in the bag
Meanwhile an old couple argues inside the queen bee
The sick fluorescent light shimmering on their skin

Going over to susan’s house
Going over to susan’s house
I can’t be alone tonight

Take a left down echo park
A kid asks do i want some crack
Tv sets are spewing baywatch
Through the windows into black

Here comes a girl with long brown hair
Who can’t be more than seventeen
She sucks on a red popsicle while she pushes a baby girl
In a pink carriage
AndIi’m thinking that must be her sister
That must be her sister, right?
They go into the 7-11
And I keep walking

Going over to Susan’s house

  • Sheers wrote the poem while in American with the photographer David Hearn, who was working on a project on aging. This took them to Sun City West, which is underneath Superstition Mountains in Arizona. You have to be at least 65 years old to buy property there. As Sheers sat looking up at the mountain range the experience got him thinking ‘about different forms of aging’ (Sheers, 2006).

‘SERVICE’

  • Sheers wrote this poem and ‘Hedge School’ as a commission for National Poetry Day 2004, while he was poet-in-residence st the Fat Duck, Bray. The theme that year was food. It is perhaps one of his most accessible poems, and, given its loosed form, its peace and immediacy, it is hardly surprising that at reading it is often greeted by spontaneous applause.

‘THE FISHMONGER’

  • This poem was commissioned as part of the British Council’s ‘Converging Lines’ project to coincide with Hungary joining the EU in 2004.

‘STITCH IN TIME’

‘L.A. EVENING’

  • About British actress Jean Simmons (1929-2010).

‘THE SINGING MEN’

‘THE WAKE’

‘SKIRRID FAWR’



THEMES

  • Sheers, in an article introducing the collection, made the following comments on theme: ‘When I am writing a poem I am never thinking about the “themes” or subject matter of other I have written before’ (Sheers, 2008).
  • Sheers acknowledges that when re-reading his finished work ‘it is almost impossible not to travel back through your own work detecting the shared territories, themes and preoccupations that may exist even if you didn’t place them there when writing the individual poems’ (Sheers, 2008).
  • Some themes that Sheers himself sees in the collection include ‘the ongoing dialogue between man and nature, the fraying of love’ and ‘questions of failed articulacy’ (Sheers, 2008).
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