IN THE VALLEYS

SKIRRID HILL by Owen Sheers
[7.99, Seren Books]



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