Sometimes a particular poetic landscape is stalked,
written about and claimed as territory so powerfully that it somehow remains
forever in the shadow of the poet. No one can write about Irish peat bogs
without a tip of the hat to Seamus; London Bridge will not easily forget the
bank clerkly Eliot; neurosis among the long-lived Boston families brought
forth a Lowell. So it is with Wales: the grim depopulated valleys and the
tenacity of the people inhabit the works of R.S.Thomas. For a new young poet
to tackle similar terrain requires some confidence, and Owen Sheers, in this,
his second collection, achieves some success.
He is not Thomas, of course, but poems such as 'Y Gaer' (The Hill Fort) and
'History' bring the furious old cleric to mind: 'Don't try to learn this
place / in the pages of a history', Sheers writes in the former, finding
meaning in the old slate quarry, a narrative written 'in every head, across
every heart/ and down the marrow of every bone'. The latter does echo Thomas
very closely, the protagonist finding, in a storm, 'at last, something huge
enough to blame', a rhetorical flourish which reminds me of Thomas'
relentless questioning in empty churches, and the fury of his demands from a
God who seemed not to be listening. There is, in fact, a poem written 'after
R. S. Thomas' in this collection.
The best poems here, however, seem to begin to stake out a more convincing,
quietist landscape: 'Intermission', 'The Steelworks' and a couple of pieces
in which climbing Skirrid hills takes on rite-of-passage significance. Others
draw detail from Sheers' time travelling in Africa and namecheck the
photographer Robert Capa, and while there are many successful poems here,
Sheers has yet to develop a totally original tone; other voices such as
Heaney and the Cumbrian poet Norman Nicholson keep coming to mind, the latter
particularly in the way several poems have fairly conventional narrative
structures. This is a carefully-structured, rewarding but essentially
conservative collection and for once, the cover description of these poems as
'grounded' seems to sum it up.
© M.C. Caseley