Owen Sheer’s Marking Time is a sexual poem in which Sheers’ partner gets a carpet burn on her back from their love-making on the floor. It balances themes of sexuality and memory, combining them both in a nostalgic poem that reflects on the more lustful side of a relationship.
The poem is split into two stanzas of 7 lines each, with no regular rhyme scheme. Some argue that the employment of a 14 line poem is a reflection of the typical form of love poetry, a sonnet. Yet, as the typical features of a sonnet (final rhyming couplet, rhyme scheme) are not present, it can be argued that the structure is a rebellion against the typical love form. This poem is not a poem of love, but lust, and due to this Sheers decides to only lightly reference the archetypical form, instead of embodying his poem through its structure.
You can read the full poem here.
The Title – ‘Marking Time’
The title is a summary of exactly what happens within Marking Time.
The woman is ‘marked’ by the development of the carpet burn scar. Not only does this leave a physical trace, but also leaves a permanent mental marker that draws the couple back to that sexual moment. It is something that exists both physically and works as a mental trigger to remind the pair of the sexual moment. They have marked a moment in time, a memory being manifested through a physical representation.
Marking Time Analysis
Lines 1 and 2
That mark upon your back is finally fading
in the way our memory will,
The syntactical placement of ‘That mark’ at the beginning of Marking Time instantly draws the reader’s attention to the key aspect of the poem: the scar. The fact Sheers describes it as ‘that’ signifies that both the lovers will know exactly which scar he is talking about, without need for further explanation.
Owen Sheers focuses on the theme of memory within these first two lines. He states that the scar is finally fading, reflecting the similar slow fading of the memory they hold. The connection of the physical and the mental is interesting, it seems that the two are inherently intertwined. The certainty that both the scar and the memory will fade gives us an insight into Sheers’ perspective on memory. Indeed, the poet thinks everything will come to an end, all memories will eventually fade.
of that night our lust wouldn’t wait for bed
where we worked up that scar —
These lines explore how the scar game to be. Sheers writes of ‘that night’ which their ‘lust’ ‘wouldn’t wait for bed’. The rhyme of ‘bed’ and ‘floor instead’ connect the two concepts, providing a semantic link between the sexual encounter on the floor, and the typical encounter in a bed.
The personification of ‘lust’ laying ‘us out’ presents lust as something which is controlling the two people. They did not think about their actions, instead the passion of the moment overtakes them and makes them make love on the floor.
The combination of the two characters within one pronoun, ‘we worked up that scar’ is representative of the balanced nature of their relationship. Whereas in other poems on gender, Sheers often presents the male as active and the female as passive, here they are equal in their actions. It is a shared sexual memory, yet still the female is the only one to be actively ‘scar[ed]’ by the experience. This could be Sheers commenting on the power dynamic of relationships.
Sheers further describes the scar as a ‘brand-burn’. The language, more commonly used to describe branding an animal, is slightly unsettling considering the sexual context of Marking Time. Sheers could be commenting on the different outcomes of a relationship. The male has seemingly got off without a physical scar, whilst the female has been subjected to a painful scar during their lovemaking.
Sheers employment of ‘Two tattered flags’ is polysemic. On one hand, the adjective ‘tattered’ could be reflecting the fact that this relationship didn’t work out, focusing on the degeneration of their love. It could also be a reference to the nationalistic elements of Sheers poetry, a foreshadowing of the poem to come, Flag. The constant returning to his Welsh identity is paramount to Sheers’ writing.
I trace them now and feel the disturbance again.
The still waters of your skin broken, the volte engaging
The reminiscing on the moment as Sheers ‘trace[s]’ the scar compounds the theme of memory within Marking Time. It is a poem of looking back, remembering, and reflecting. The ‘disturbance’ he references can be an adjective to describe the scar, or could be echoing the sexual moment which ‘wouldn’t wait’.
The reference to ‘the volte’ draws to mind a turn or thrust, further echoing their shared sexual encounter. Moreover, it could be a reference to the loose sonnet structure which I discussed above. A Volta within a sonnet is a point of change, in which the tone and direction of the poem is often changed. Within Marking Time, it is in this moment that Sheers changes to focus on the image of trees and the marking of trees.
as we make our marks like lovers who carve trees,
that buckles under time but never leaves,
The connection to their forging of the scar and ‘lovers who carve trees’ draws upon archetypical notions of romance. The immortalization of names within the carving of bark on a tree is similarly achieved, according to Sheers, by the scar they have created on the woman’s back.
The reference to love that ‘buckles under time’ could be Sheers’ method of exploring the difficulties of relationships. The anthology as a whole does not have the most successfully positive outlook on love. Sheers acknowledges the hardships that relationships entail.
The nostalgic possibility of a love that remains and ‘never leaves’ dwells further on Sheers’ exploration of memory. Although it may ‘fade’, Sheers argues that love can continue forever, even in the most subtle of ‘scars’.
Lines 13 and 14
Sheers argues that although things can ‘change’, memories will still remain. Like the tree that has names written ‘under the bark’, ‘the skin’ continues in the same fashion. Although the scar will fade, the memories will never be completely lost, a remnant of that inaccessible past will forever exist. ‘Marking time’ is about making memories, and how those memories can intertwine themselves with a person. ‘The loving scar’ never completely ‘fades’, memories of the past never completely disappear.
Marking Time concludes with the idea that a relationship, no matter if it lasts or not, can have a permanent impact on a person. The memories, interwoven into the very ‘skin’ of a person, continue to exist, long after a person may have left or moved on. The odd eternality of memory is a key focus of the poem, with Sheers looking back nostalgically on the past.