Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Poetry Challenge: Owen Sheers, Skirrid Hill

When I committed myself to reading one collection of poetry a month, I promised to read some new poets and not just old favourites. Owen Sheers was born in 1974 in Fiji, but brought up in Wales at Abergavenny where his family have roots.

The cover of his collection Skirrid Hill promises 'one of the most exciting new talents around' - a quote from Carol Ann Duffy and 'A gorgeously elegiac volume' - The Guardian - as well as other examples of suspicious hyperbole. Are any other readers put off by 'over-quoting' on the cover?

Owen Sheers, like the Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, is writing out of a particular cultural identity, rooted in a particular landscape. This seems more and more common these days - once to be a 'regional writer' was a term of abuse and poets and authors were encouraged to be 'universal'. But now, as the world of writing gets more crowded we seem to be trying harder to seek ways of making ourselves different - separating ourselves - from all the others. I suppose a strong cultural identity is one way of marking us out. For a Welsh poet, this must be fraught with pitfalls. Just as Jacob Polley has to write in the shadow of William Wordsworth, Owen Sheers has to write looking over his shoulder at the two big T's - Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas.

Both Owen and Jacob were involved in the recent series of programmes on poetry made by the BBC (and well worth watching). Jacob's poem 'Honey' was used as a trailer and Owen was the presenter of the Poets and Landscape programmes. I liked his approach enough to want to read his work.

Both Owen and Jacob have published novels recently and I wonder if there's a feeling that you can't be a real writer unless you've had a work of fiction in print? Is it not enough to be a poet? (Very tempting to put a 'just' in there, so I suppose that's the answer.) I read Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town (see earlier review), but I haven't yet read Owen Sheers' novel Resistance - just watched the interview on YouTube.

Skirrid Hill, published by Seren Books, has been around since 2005 when it won the Society of Authors Somerset Maugham Award. It is now on the schools' poetry syllabus, quite a coup for such a young poet. The poems express Owen's sense of place - in a poem Inheritance (after R.S. Thomas) he acknowledges not only his poetic ancestors but his genetic legacy:

From my father a stammer
like a stick in the spokes of my speech.
A tired blink,

.....From my mother
a sensitivity to the pain in the pleasure.
The eye's blue ore,

I'm always intrigued by the criteria poets use to put together a collection - is it a snapshot of what they're writing at the time? Or is it thematic? Some of Owen Sheers poems have no obvious linkages. There are war poems, perhaps sparked off by research for his novel, - mentions of Robert Capa, Manetz Ridge - that sit alongside memories of blackberrying on the way home from school, an account of his mother's death, an Indian marriage, the breakup of a relationship.

There are poems that remember childhood - a gentle rural childhood, on the bare bones of the Welsh hillside, where he helped his grandfather with the sheep, detailing the things we do to animals to turn them into a food crop without sentimentality or accusation. It brought back memories for me of helping my own father with the sheep.

It made me feel like a man
when I helped my grandfather
castrate the early lambs -

picking the hard orange O-rings
from the plastic bag
and stretching them across the made-to-purpose tool,

This is the landscape that RS Thomas portrayed with such exactness and no compromise. Owen Sheers inclines more towards the romantic. He uses images brilliantly - an obsolete steelworks lies 'A deserted mothership/becalmed on the valley's floor.' A flooding river is 'bleeding through the camp like ink from a broken cartridge', Swans on a winter lake float like 'icebergs of white feather'.

But there are also surprising poems, including a sensitive account of breast cancer.

She hears the words he uses
and is quietly surprised by how language can do this:

how a certain order can carry so much chaos,
and how that word, with its hard C of cruelty

and soft c of uncertainty,
seems so fitted to the task.

I understood the references in the cover quotes to elegy - things past and passing haunt the poems. Two lovers look back at the ground under the trees where they have lain and see:

a double shadow of green pressed grass, weight imprinted.
A sarcophagus, shallow among the long stems
and complete without them.

Through all the poems the image of Skirrid Hill recurs, a feature in the physical landscape of Owen Sheers' home country, which also refers back to a tiny quote on the title page. 'Skirrid: from the Welsh Ysgyrid, a derivation of Ysgariad meaning divorce or separation.' - So, now I know the theme that links them all.

It's very strange reading such euro-centred poetry in an environment so un-european it can scarcely be imagined. Context really does alter our readings of things. If I was homesick, (and I'm not yet) then this book would be a solace, talking to me about the hills and green places I count as home. The elegiac mood also resonates here in Asia where you do get a sense of things lost and terrible events just beginning to heal over. But the Asian setting - which is so extreme - also made the poetry seem just a little insipid.


  1. That's an interesting choice, a Welsh poet operating in the shadows of the greats. I think I have 'Resistance' somewhere but I didn't realise Sheers was a poet.

  2. I love Owen Sheers, I am so glad you mentioned his poem about breast cancer. The "soft c of uncertainty" is one of my favourite lines of poetry.