Border Country follows the story, from past to present, of a disused car quarry, where Sheers and his friend played as children. His friend’s father was killed in the war, causing his friend to become more reserved, thrust into the world of being an adult, and taking on the role his father left. A large focus is on this trauma, forcing the child to grow up and leave his childhood behind. There are also ideas of change. The poem is set against the industrial wasteland of a car quarry. Sheers nods to the deindustrialization of Wales, mourning the passing of the heyday of Welsh prosperity. Furthermore, Sheers employs ideas of nostalgia, revisiting the car quarry, and seeing things changed, reminiscing about his lost childhood.
Explore Border Country
The poem takes the reader back to Sheer’s own youth and contrasts it with the experiences he has now, as a grown man, as he explores an old car quarry. There, he used to play with his friends and explore their limited freedom. The poem also alludes to the loss of a friend’s father, deep emotional trauma, and what it means to grow up and leave one’s childhood behind.
You can read the full poem here.
Form and Structure
Owen Sheers splits Border Country into 6 equal 9 line stanzas. There is no rhyme scheme, with lines varying in syllable length. The suggested regularity of the equal stanzas yet the in-cohesive nature of the sporadic line lengths reflects the sense of familiarity yet alienation Sheers has with his childhood landscape. Although hints of what he remembers are present, they are distorted, different from before. The structure acts as a mechanism to reflect this concept.
Sheers makes use of several literary devices in ‘Border Country’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and allusion. The latter is one of the most important. Sheers repetitively alludes to the passing of the Welsh heyday of industrialism and suggests that life is not quite the same as it used to be, not quite as prosperous. Alliteration refers to the use and reuse of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “rusting red” and “broken beams”.
Enjambment is another formal device that’s concerned with the way that a poet uses line breaks. For instance, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines one, two, and three of the second stanza.
Title Analysis – ‘Border Country’
The title of Border Country reflects the themes and ideas of the poem. The in-betweenness of a ‘Border’ suggests the careful balance between two different states. In the poem’s case, these states can be assumed to be childhood and adulthood, with Sheers’ friend being torn from one into the other.
The suggestion of ‘Country’ has a differing meaning, pointing to the poem’s wider themes. The literal border between England and Wales is represented here, with the mentions of Wales’s deindustrialization reflecting this partnership. Although combined as a landmass, England and Wales have two differing identities, similar to the vast difference that Sheers elevates between childhood and adulthood.
Border Country is also a reference to the novel of Welsh author Raymond Williams. Within Williams’ ‘Border Country,’ Matthew’s father suffers a stroke, with Matthew then returning home to care for him. It is a story about the love between a father and a son, the mutualistic blend of caring for each other at different points in their life, something that touches Sheers and can be seen through many of his poems, particularly Farther. The contrast between the beautiful and moving portrait of love within Williams’ ‘Border Country’ and the silent passing of a father in Sheers’ Border Country is deeply moving.
Border Country Analysis
Sheers begins Border Country by drawing attention to the disappearance of the location of his childhood happiness. Where he once played with his friend has been transformed into a barren, empty wasteland. The focus on ’Nothing’ as the first word of the poem is emblematic of this emptiness, with Sheers mourning his childhood loss. The use of ‘now’ at the end of this first line further reflects this change, with Sheers using the temporal marker to show the shift of time, where there was once ‘something,’ ‘now’ there is ‘nothing.’
Throughout this stanza, and indeed the whole poem, Sheers employs death’s semantics to foreground a foreboding sense of dread within Border Country. ‘Grave,’ ‘headstone,’ ‘wind-written epitaphs,’ ‘graveyard’ are but few of the many lexical choices which outline Sheers’ poem. This sense of dread imbues the poem with a tone of melancholia. Sheers looks back upon a place that once gave him incredible happiness with a mournful longing, yet full knowing he cannot return.
The reference to ‘the commas and apostrophes / of minnows and bullheads’ is reflected later in Border Country, with the intersection of Sheers’ writing craft and nature being drawn together in another poem: Swallows. This strange blend stems from Sheers’ perspective as a Welsh poet, his personal identity being intertwined with the close association of Welsh people and nature.
This stanza documents different games Sheers would play with his friend as they were growing up. Interestingly, all the games he does play center around ‘war’ or some form of violence. This could reference the pressures of masculinity Sheers faced when growing up in a Welsh, industrial environment. These games are also a tragic reference to the friends’ father, who is killed in the war in stanza 4.
This stanza is plagued with harsh lexical choices and connections. Particularly, Sheers focuses on plosive letters, ‘P’ and ‘B’ reflect the sense of the chaos of the ‘war’ games the children were playing. The repetition of ‘again and again’ gives a senselessness to their games, seemingly going on forever in a wave of ‘dying’ and ‘playing.’ This blend of morbidity and playful childhood fun is shocking when reflecting on the overall melancholic nature of Border Country.
The final fine ‘gap-toothed roof’ calls back to the first poem in the anthology, Last Act, and the early Inheritance, which both focus on Sheers’ stutter. The close aural similarity between ‘beams’ and dreams could reflect the death of the father, and his dreams stripped away from him by the brutality of his death.
Birds in literature are frequently used to represent freedom, and the ‘buzzards’ here are no different. Sheers employs the quick, flitting nature of the animals to symbolize the carefree playing of the boys. The birds ‘striking their cries’ echos against the boys ‘test[ing’ our voices],’ with the representation stemming from the connection from similar action. The association of the boys ‘test[ing] our voices’ is a symbol of them finding more out about their own identities. They try different ‘voices’ in this carefree car quarry, shouting at the top of their lungs in a picture of electric youth.
This grammatical isolation provides a harsh pause on each side of the image, embodying the theme through this line. Sheers points to Wales’s deindustrialization and the sudden cessation of progress, grinding the country to a halt. The fact that they are in cars, a form of export that was once a large portion of the Welsh economy, furthers this bleak image of the stagnation of Welsh progress. The pathetic fallacy of ‘flint sky’ furthers this tragic depiction of the scene. The children, unknowingly passing through a time of economic strife within their country, play on the remains of a Welsh hay-day, the rusting cars becoming the stage for their childhood games.
It is within this stanza that Sheers draws out the true tragedy of Border Country. He elevates the loss of a father, the sudden thrust into adulthood, and the irretrievability of the past.
The initial fading of ‘rusting of red’ rings with alliterative ‘r’ represents the very deterioration of color through the word choice. This symbolizes the loss of youth, the children growing older and outgrowing their games. The speed at which time passes, ‘year on year’ passing within three monosyllabic words, represents this childhood loss.
Even at this breakneck speed which childhood seems to slip from Sheers’ fingers, his friend has it worse. The child’s father, ‘found at dawn,’ killed in war is echoed by the allusion to the First World War, ‘poppy.’ The shock of losing a father causes the boy’s childhood to literally crash, ‘and pitched you, without notice, through the windscreen of your youth.’ The emblematic use of a car crash calls to the boys’ image playing in the unmoving cars, the child stripped from this image of childhood fun.
The caesura employment within this stanza leads to the disruption of the flow seen within the first three stanzas. The meter is chopped and fragmented, used by Sheers as a representation of the harsh change that strikes the boy, the loss of the father crippling him, and destroying his youth.
The hyphen following the image of the ‘father found at dawn -‘ is used by Sheers as a method of presenting simultaneous ideas. At first, the pause can be seen as a moment of shocked mourning, Sheers and the friend not believing what has happened. The eery silence of the break-in Border Country, followed by the tragic image of the singular ‘poppy sown’ in an unfamiliar field, furthers the dramatic tragedy of this moment.
Simultaneously, the hyphen can be understood as a physical representation of the border between childhood and adulthood. At this moment, Sheers’ friend is thrust into the adult world, taking on the responsibilities of his dead father. This shift comes simultaneously as the hyphen, the child passing over from one state to another. This border is both physical and metaphorical within the poem, Sheers employing a subtle poetic technique to achieve a polysemic manipulation of punctuation.
After the tragedy of stanza 4, Sheers steps back to examine the scene once more, but this time as a fully grown man. The change that takes place now he has become an adult, the cars seemingly ‘smaller’ and the ‘undergrowth grown’ culminate to present the shift in his perspective. Now he has grown up, the cars which once gave hours of fun are ‘just cars,’ a blunt rejection of his youth. The traumatic event shifted not only his friend’s perspective but also Sheers’ own perspective, ruining a location that once gave him immense joy.
The echo of the cars ‘going nowhere’ in the line ‘needles of the speeds settled at zero’ extends the image of a sterile and stagnant wasteland. The location of childhood joy is reduced to something barren and joyless. The cars, an image of progress and moving forward, again show a sign of lifelessness. Wales froze in the process of deindustrialization.
The once electric ‘buzzard’ has now been ‘shaken out in the wind,’ ‘like a rag,’ undercutting the exciting childhood images for a bleak look into a traumatic past. The ‘car quarry’ is eery and unfamiliar to Sheers, with a certain failure to connect with his youth.
Stanza 6, particularly in the final 4 lines, focuses on the loss of innocence, direction, and purpose. The image of a boy ‘meandering’ instantly suggests directionless, the boy moving from one side of ‘the lane’ to the other in an endless undulation. The splitting of the final two lines with caesura gives a sense of the interrupted verse, furthering this idea of the directionless child. Now his father has died, a role that is important in Welsh society for teaching aspects of masculinity, the boy feels lost, wandering searching for his lost ‘home.’
The final two lines are measure 8 and then 9 syllables. This extra syllable on the final line places metrical emphasis on ‘home,’ the impossibility of finding his way back now he has lost his innocence, the elevated image within the closing line. The inability to get ‘home’ can be understood as representing his childhood innocence or of a whole familial structure, his father now gapingly absent.
The poem is one of deep tragedy, the loss of youth’s innocence, and the stealing of childhood deeply ruminating with Sheers. Border Country is both a tribute and a mournful depiction of the childhood stolen from Sheers’ friend.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also look into reading some of Sheers’ other works. For example, ‘Farther,’ ‘Coming Home,’ and ‘Marking Time‘. The former describes a father and son’s climb up Skirrid Hill while commenting on father/son relationships. Some other related poems are ‘A Welsh Landscape‘ and ‘Welsh History‘ by R.S. Thomas. The latter is filled with metaphors about the history of the Welsh people.