Skirrid Hill by Owen Sheers
About halfway through Skirrid Hill, Owen Sheers’ second collection, we come to the bisected peak of ‘Y Gaer’ and ‘The Hill Fort,’ respectively the Welsh and English names for a place where, ‘”We’re no more than scattered grains.”‘ Reaching the top, ‘The land is three-sixty about you here, / an answer to any question.’ Beyond and beneath this summit are fragments real and abstract that link the past to the present, and the living to the dead.
The ascent of Skirrid Hill begins with a poem that, like its subject matter, will rise to surface in this year of the Great War’s centenary. Haunting and beautiful, ‘Mametz Wood’ is the story of the soil that holds ‘a broken mosaic of bone linked arm in arm,’ burial site of ‘the wasted young.’ The First Battle of the Somme was a catastrophe for the British, but amid the carnage was a small sliver of light. After days of heavy fighting the soldiers of the 38th Welsh Division took Mametz wood from the Germans and their ‘nesting machine guns.’ ‘For years afterwards the farmers found them… / turning up under their plough blades.’
‘Skirrid’ comes from a Welsh word meaning separation or divorce. As in the fields around Mametz, Sheers’ path up the hill links the physical legacies of disunion with the emotional genesises. ‘From my father a stammer / like a stick in the spokes of my speech… From my mother / a sensitivity to the pain in pleasure,’ he writes in ‘Inheritance.’ From the historical and familial to the intimate and erotic: ‘of that night our lust wouldn’t wait for bed / so laid us out upon the floor instead / where we worked up that scar,’ he writes in ‘Marking Time.’
After reaching the emotional summit of ‘Hill Fort’ the poems rush downhill with a fresh and at times playful tone, though with the same wealth of imagery. ‘And when the others came, / drawn by the oil spill of your plumage, / the darkness of your eye,’ he imagines a magpie saying in ‘Song.’ There are also two clever and much less gruesome scenes of military history: in ‘Happy Accidents’ we learn how the iconic photographs of the D-Day landings only achieved their fitting blurriness through the clumsiness of ‘some lad, barely sixteen in Life‘s office,’ while, perhaps in preparation for that landing, American GIs in the shadow of Moel Siabod are washed from their unwise choice of base in ‘Liable to Floods.’
An homage to the wildness of Wales, Skirrid Hill also offers worship of women. There is a catwalk girlfriend and a mother with whom he shares ‘quiet moments beside a wet horse,’ but the most impressive tribute is to the lady of ‘Amazon.’
She’s all the way back now,
her life fitting about her once more
like the old clothes pulled from the changing room floor.
Rather than end at sea level, the collection returns to the hill of the title. ‘I am still drawn to her back for the answers / to every question I have never known,’ he writes in ‘Skirrid Fawr.’ Poetry lovers will be drawn to this collection for years.