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 of the poem is on this trauma, forcing the child to grow up and leave his childhood behind. There are also ideas of change, the poem set against the industrial wasteland of a car quarry. Sheers nods to the deindustrialisation 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.
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 to what they were before. The structure acts as a mechanism to reflect this concept. You can read the full poem here.
Border Country Analysis
The Title – ‘Border Country’
The title of Border Country reflects the themes and ideas of the poem. The inbetweenness of a ‘Border’ suggests the careful balance between two differing states. In the case of the poem, 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 wider themes of the poem. The literal border between England and Wales is represented here, with the mentions of the deindustrialisation of Wales reflecting this partnership. Although combined as a land mass, England and Wales have two very differing identities, similarly 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.
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 barren, empty wasteland. The focus on ’Nothing’ as the first word of the poem is emblematic of this emptiness, with Sheers mourning the loss of his childhood. 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 the semantics of death 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. An interesting note is that all the games he does play centre around ‘war’ or some form of violence. This could be a reference to 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 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 be a reflection of the death of the father, his dreams stripped away from him by the brutality of his death.
Birds in literature are frequently used as a representation of freedom, and the ‘buzzards’ here are no different. Sheers employs the quick, flitting nature of the animals to symbolise 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 the 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.
The stagnant image of the cars ‘going nowhere’ is trapped within a caesura and an end stop. This grammatical isolation provides a harsh pause on each side of the image, embodying the theme through the form of this line. Sheers is pointing to the deindustrialisation of Wales, the sudden cease 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 colour through the word choice. This is a symbol to represent 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 loss of childhood.
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 image of the boys playing in the unmoving cars, the child stripped from this image of childhood fun.
The employment of caesura 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. It is at this moment which Sheers’ friend is thrust into the adult world, taking on the responsibilities of his dead father. This shift comes at the same time as the hyphen, the child passing over from one state to another. This border is both physical and metaphorical within the poem, Sheers employing 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 which 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 frozen in the process of deindustrialisation.
The once electric ‘buzzard’ has now been ‘shaken out in the wind’, ‘like a rag’, undercutting the exciting images of childhood 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 gives the suggestion of 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 interrupted verse, furthering this idea of the directionless child. Now his father has died, a role which is important in Welsh society for teaching aspects of masculinity, the boy feels lost, wandering aimlessly in a search 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 a representation of his childhood innosence, or of a whole familial strucutre, his father now gapingly absent.
The poem is one of deep tragedy, the loss of the innocence of youth and the stealing of childhood deeply ruminating with Sheers. Border Country is both a tribute, and a mournful depiction, of the childhood that was stolen from Sheers’ friend.