Keyways by Owen Sheers

In Keyways, Sheers portrays himself and his ex-girlfriend after breaking up, waiting for a set of keys to be cut so that he can go and retrieve his belongings from her flat. The poem takes places after the relationship has ended, and has a sombre tone throughout. While waiting in line, Sheers thinks back over his relationship, using the extended metaphor of a key being cut to represent the impact of moments of his relationship upon him. The final failure to connect, the key which doesn’t turn in the lock, is a symbol of the relationship breaking down. The poem is typical to Sheers, intertwining themes of relationships and memory seamlessly.



Owen Sheers Splits Keyways into 7 stanzas. The first 6 stanzas are all five lines long, with the final stanza being two lines. This switch to a final couplet gives the poem a sense of closure, reflecting on the end of his relationship with a sad, yet certain, perspective. You can read the full poem here.


Keyways Analysis

Stanza One

The opening caesura after ‘Strange then,’ instantly emphasises a moment of pause within Keyways. This quiet break before the poem has even really begun sets the sombre tone, with Sheers taking a moment before reflecting on his memories.

Sheers then sets the scene for the encounter, the ‘last time together’ after the end of a relationship. The end stop on the first line compounds this sense of finality, the relationship is over and will not be reestablished.

Sheers grounds his extended metaphor within the reality of the physical environment, the ‘locksmith’s’. The pair is standing awkwardly, ‘waiting’ for the locksmith to finish. This moment gives Sheers time to think back over the relationship, focusing on everything that lead them to this moment.

The final line of this stanza suggests a sense of recapturing something Sheers may have lost. Although he is physically ’tak[ing] back’ his possessions, there is also a more emotional sense of retrieving time, memory and closing a chapter of his life. The sense of melancholy which Sheers feels is laying quietly under the surface. Devoid of emboldened statements of sorrow, Sheers’ poetry speaks on a quieter, more personal level. The colloquial language of this final line reflecting this tendency.


Stanza Two

The oppressive awkwardness, now having broken up, of standing and waiting is evident in the atmosphere of this stanza. The ‘hot day’ which is seemingly ‘press[ing]’ itself against the window of the shop a physical representation of this idea within Keyways. The ironic ‘lucky charms’ seemingly laughing at the couple, their now ended relationship clearly anything but lucky.

The end stop at the end of line three acts as a Volta within this stanza, changing the tone to instead focus on the past, instead of the present. The shift in tense is emblematic of Sheers withdrawing from the scene, delving into is memories.

Sheers now begins his extended metaphor, he ‘felt’ like ‘an uncut key’ when they met. This idea that each memory has worked itself into the very being of Sheers’ personality, shaping him as a locksmith does to a key is a beautiful and intricate reflection on the workings of memories. Sheers argues that moments like these, relationships and things that may seem insignificant are what shape a person.


Stanza Three

The simultaneous ‘waiting’ for his self to be shaped by these memories and the key waiting to be cut combine Sheers’ emotional state and the physical reality of the scene. He describes how ‘moments in time’ shape his being, ‘the milling and grooves’ changing him. Keyways represents this concept, these memories shape Sheers, little by little changing who he is.

Finally the couple fit together, them having shaped each other until ‘out keyways would fit’. The moment of connection comes within a Baptist Chapel, listening to Handel’s Messiah. The triple connection, ‘elbow, shoulder and hip’ perhaps a reference to the holy trinity, drawing upon religious language for this momentous moment in which they suddenly fit each other perfectly.


Stanza Four

Sheers continues his metaphor, drawing upon the semantics of locks and keys, ‘keyed’, ‘combinations’, ‘tumblers’. He is presenting how perfect the couple were from each other, him fitting her and her fitting him like ‘a pair of Siamese twins’. The drawing upon another image of reflection serves to solidify his extended metaphor. Yet, the ‘Siamese twins’ also bare a sense of something not totally stable, ’sharing one lung’. Although perfect, there is a vulnerability to the couple, something which Sheers didn’t see coming. Predominantly, this stanza furthers the elevation of their relationship, Sheers idolising the time they spent together.


Stanza Five

The image of the couple spooning at night, each part of them connected in ‘a master key fit’ is the principle of his idolisation. The serenity of the scene ‘at night’, with the peaceful moment of intimacy is one that furthers the sense of beauty. Sheers was intensely happy in this relationship, shown by his constant elevation of his idea of seemed perfection.

The ‘bow of your hip’ chimes back to another poem within the anthology, Night Windows, with the use of similar language perhaps suggesting that the female character from both of these poems are the same person. It is then interesting to see the difference in presentation of the two scenes ‘at night’, one of serene intimacy, one of disappointment and disconnection.

The double repetition of the rhetorical question insinuates Sheers’ sense of confusion at why the relationship failed to work out. He can’t understand when the key and keyhole changed shape so subtly that they no longer fit. ‘When did the bolt slip? The blade break in the mouth’, with this climactic line summarising his shock and disbelief of their sudden inability to connect. There is a raw sense of sadness within Keyways, most of that stemming from the fact Sheers didn’t see his relationship coming to an end, it seemingly came out of no where.


Stanza Six

Sheers reverts to the linguistics of locksmithing, yet to a different end. Instead of focusing on the perfect fit, he now ‘unpicks’ the past, trying to decode his own extended metaphor. He sifts through the ‘months’, going to the minute moments, the ‘second’ that they broke apart. This micro-analysis of his own relationship furthers the sense of disbelief, Sheers has to go over every little detail in search for an answer to his own questions.

The ‘click, which never came’ is an ultimate image of the failure to connect. Firstly, Sheers employs the word ‘click’, which has connotations of clicking with someone, referencing the spark between them. This word is also a continuation of his extended metaphor. Yet, there is a gaping caesura coming right after the word, a physical manifestation of the silence, the lack of a ‘click’, the lack of connection. The finality of ‘never came’ is tragic, Sheers sadness being paramount in this stanza. The melancholic tone of the poem reaches its maximum here, with Sheers sadly looking back on his formative relationship.


Stanza Seven

The final couplet solidifies the tragic ending. The return to the present tense, also chiming back to the ‘strange then’ which began Keyways shifts Sheers into reality. He focuses on the present situation, the fact that they’re ‘changing all of the locks’, forced to move out.

The truncated line, both split with caesura is a manifestation of the gap between the couple. Where they once fit perfectly, they are now mismatched, standing awkwardly together as they wait for the ‘key’. Keyways is an incredibly tragic poem, with Sheers reflecting on everything he had, and everything he has now lost.

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