Poet Olivia Cole

Topic: CultureSubculture
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Last updated: August 27, 2020

Poet Olivia Cole considers this last line of Farther to be ‘weak’, and that it ‘doesn’t earn its place.’ This is a tendentious comment however, as one might argue that Sheers is effective in unveiling the tragic note beneath the lyrical and pastoral influences in his writing. It is clear that Sheers uses the metaphor of the ‘shallow handhold’ to represent the instability and inevitable death of human relationships, and the fact that these connections can only exist in dreams and thought, which themselves are transient and fragile.This theme can also be seen in Resistance, as whilst Albrecht and Gernot dream of eternal love between them and the farm women, this is never realised.

Critic Ingrid Wassenhaar points out the impossibility of these relationships, ‘the novel begins with an ending- the disappearance of the husbands. Its quest throughout is for an ending that might be a fresh start.’ Therefore Wassenhaar suggests that the tragic note in Resistance stems from the fact that the intentions of Albrecht and his patrol are doomed from the start. This is supported by the quotation, ‘the river..

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.would always rediscover its course, however much he wished to dam it with the insignificant pebbles of his own intentions.’ It is the belief in eternal relationships, whether those are between a father and son, or a man and woman, which sets in motion the tragedy of both Farther and Resistance.Sheers explores these flimsy, transient relationships through the use of poetry as art; ‘The Sarabande still played within her.

The fragility of its sadness had turned her chest to shivered glass.’ This quotation from Resistance exposes Sheers’ technique of presenting poetry as the precedent for an elegiac note, as it’s eloquence suggests a profound grief not able to be expressed in simple terms. Four Movements in the Scale of Two, from Skirrid Hill also reflects this use of poetry; ‘Back to naked back. Opposing bass clefs, The elegant scars on the hips of a cello, A butterfly’s white wings, resting.

‘The word, ‘scars’ sets a deeply elegiac tone, as it represents something that is irrevocably lost. The metaphor of the butterfly places emphasis on the fragility of the couple’s relationship in the poem, as it is a fickle creature, flitting from one place to the next. Sheers uses the metaphor of glass to further illustrate this theme in both Resistance and Four Movements in the Scale of Two, ‘each individual blade encased in a thin tube, as brittle and fragile as the stems of champagne flutes.’ Here Albrecht contemplates both the delicate nature of the landscape and also, on a metaphorical level, the melancholic frailty of humans.

The T.S Elliot quotation from East Coker which prefaces Skirrid Hill is symbolic of the elegiac tone throughout both the poems and Resistance; ‘As we grow older the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated of dead and living.’ At the end of Resistance, Sarah mourns the fact that her ‘memories are no longer of any use to her in her altered world.’ In an almost Chatwin-esque notion, Sheers proposes that our ambitions are nothing but dreams and memories; it is their pursuit that is tragic, as it grounds us in one place, forever trying in vain.The quotation, ‘as suddenly and obscured as a glass dull-snapping in the hand beneath the washing water,’ from Four Movements in the Scale of Two is especially significant, as not only does it represent the breakable interrelationships between people, but that this elegiac note runs beneath Welsh literature, ‘obscured’ by the ‘washing water’ of myth and legend. Sioned Davies, professor of Welsh at Cardiff University, supports this reading of Welsh literature; ‘The nature of the poetic tradition seems to have been different among the Celts too: verse was mainly, if not wholly, employed for elegy and eulogy.

‘Since he is primarily a poet, Sheers uses metaphor and similar linguistic devices to devastating effect in both Resistance and Skirrid Hill. He presents the melancholy through using the landscape as a transferred epithet for the grief of the individual, ‘(Sarah’s dreams) left her feeling like those branches outside her window. Robbed, exposed, bare.’ This use of pathetic fallacy represents the elegiac note beneath the poetry, as Sarah is rendered vulnerable by the fragile nature of human relationships.Sheers also uses the landscape as a metaphor to articulate exactly what the elegy is for, ‘A long valley where his weight had pressed…

As usual, Tom’s shape, the landscape of him, was there. But it was cold.’ This quotation from Resistance highlights how Sheers uses poetry and metaphor to express a yearning for that which is irrevocably lost. This same technique can be seen in the poem The Wake; ‘Here then is the old curse of too much knowledge, driftwood collected along the shore of a century’.Like Sarah, the trials of life have not strengthened the grandfather in The Wake, but have weakened him and forced him to resign to his fate, as represented by the metaphor of the cursed ‘shore of a century.’ A link can also be drawn between the grandfather and Albrecht, as the war has left the German with ‘the body of a young man about the heart, lungs and skeleton of an old one.

‘ Both the grandfather and Albrecht know that their consolation is ‘only temporary,’ as Albrecht admits on page 139, and they are both suspended between life and death. This idea is supported by the placement of ‘driftwood’ at the end of the line; we are forced to merely drift through our changing world, because we refuse to let go of our beliefs and ambitions, despite the fact that they are founded on dreams and memories. Olivia Cole believes that, ‘this is the limbo in which Skirrid Hill is anchored…

this elegiac sense of belatedness.’ This opinion is poignant, as Sheers subtly proposes the question, is it too late to go back to simplicity, to truth, and to life?Author Garan Holcombe beautifully sums up Resistance, in such a way that it is also relevant to Skirrid Hill, ‘Resistance, like everything Sheers has written, is a eulogy to the meditative beauty of the landscape and a cry for communal values in a time of ruthless individualism.’ It is this ‘ruthless individualism’ which is the source of much of the elegiac tone in both works, as it undermines the pastoral and lyrical influences from ‘the meditative beauty of the landscape.’ After reading both works, it becomes evident why Sheers chooses the Welsh borderland for his elegy; the area is representative of the borders that the people themselves create, thus choking any potential for intimacy, and stopping them from experiencing true love, or even just life. Indeed, these borders may be legitimate, for example a language barrier or the obstacle of illness. However, where these borders derive from memories, dreams and fear, there lies the true tragedy of humankind.

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