Owen Sheers’ Valentine uses flashbacks of specific memories to document the deteriorating relationship Sheers has with his lover. The poem spans three different memories from a trip the couple took to Paris. After each memory, there is an intersecting line that states ‘that will be one memory’. The poem is an intersection of the themes of relationships and memory, exploring one through the other.
The poem flips the typical power dynamics which Owen Sheers usually writes from, with the female character having more power within the poem.
Structure of Valentine
Valentine is written in free verse, with four three line stanzas being split up by intersecting single line refrains. This disconnected form is used to embody the precarious relationship, the interrupting single stanza lines a further reflection of the their deteriorating love. You can read the full poem here.
By situating the poem with ‘Paris’, Owen Sheers calls upon tropes of romance to stage Valentine. Paris is commonly known as the city of love, and by portraying his poem within this atmosphere the audience expects a poem devoted to romance. Yet, the poem overturns these expectations, actually focusing on the failure of romance and the destruction of their relationship.
Sheers focuses on the hollow, painful side of his failed relationship within this first stanza. The first line elicits a sense of pain, with ‘water torture’ reflecting the consistent echo of her ‘heel’ as she walks away from him. This image is used by Sheers to represent the physical sense of pain he gets from seeing his lover walk away. The idea of love and pain being interlinked within this poem is began right within this opening line. The continuously dripping of the water is reflective of the clicking of her heel as she walks. Not only a physical pain, but an ache of loneliness seeps into Sheers’ poem as we see the proximal distance between him and his lover extend. Like their relationship, the couple is physically getting further apart, something which Sheers reflects back on with melancholy.
The semantics of emptiness house the bleak undertone of Valentine. The focus on ‘emptying’ and the ‘evacuated…channels of our hearts’ portrays the empty, unfulfilled nature of the poet’s relationship. Although it was once full, the ‘water’, which here represents love, has now drained from their ‘hearts’. Sheers focuses on the hollow and ruined nature of his relationship, peering back through his memories.
Refrain 1 + 2
The focus on this repeated statement, with slight grammatical variations throughout, serves to disrupt Valentine. Much alike their relationship, the structure of the poem is one broken into pieces. Sheers uses these refrains to embody this sense of decay, focusing on the irreparable nature of their love.
The idea that these moment of loneliness or sadness have become ‘one memory’ of many further this suggestion that their relationship was failing. Sheers has ample moments of sadness to draw upon. This poem is fragile, and gives an insight to Sheers’ unhappiness.
Sheers focuses on the sight of his lover walking away in more detail. He looks at the ‘swing of the tassels’ and the ‘curve of your hip’, elevating the erotic. This focus on the sexual nature of their relationship, furthered by the third and fourth stanza, relates to how the couple are now only sustaining their relationship through physical intimacy, their emotional connection having deteriorated.
Through reference to ‘wet lashes’, Sheers is continuing the ‘water’ imagery present in the first stanza. This image could also be a suggestion that the woman has been crying, with her walking away from him ending in tears. Sheers suggest they have been arguing. This again compounds the pain aspect of their relationship, with this focusing on the emotional pain inflicted. It is interesting how again elements of gender play into Sheers’ poetry, with the male being subject to a description of physical pain in the first stanza, while the female is instead subject to emotional pain in the second.
The couple try to resolve their argument through physical intimacy, yet to no avail. The presentation of ‘sunken voyagers’ suggests the impossibility of fixing their relationship. The boat has sunk below the waves, irretrievable to all. Their relationship has resolved to a tattered shred of what it once once. Valentine is a tribute to what once was, looking back over parts of their relationship.
The focus on water imagery in the image of ‘sunken’ chimes back to the first two stanzas. Indeed, it seems that Sheers uses this semantic field to suggest the irreparability of the relationship. The fluid liquid escaping through the poet’s fingertips, similar to how his relationship deteriorates before his eyes.
The ‘uncertain’ nature of stanza 4 reflects the instability of their relationship within Valentine. Although relying on physical connection to keep themselves together, the couple understand that this is not a healthy way of continuing. The opposing ‘laugh or weep’ portrays their inability to establish a fulfilling emotional connection, their relationship now relying entirely on sex to continue. Both characters have become detached from their emotions.
The ‘exhaustion’ the couple feel is not only physical, but mental. They both are tired of sustaining their relationship. They both acknowledge that it is time to split, the mental toll it takes on them not worth continuing.
The lines within this stanza decrease in syllables as it progresses. The first measures 9 syllables, the second 8, the third 6. This steady decrease in syllables is representative of their relationship coming to its close. They find less and less to say to each other, the physical side is not enough to sustain their relationship. This stanza shows the final moments of their relationship, waking up together and knowing it cannot continue.
The direct address to ‘my valentine’ has a macabre sense of comedy infused with it. Knowing the relationship is over, Sheers laughs at his Valentine trip to Paris. The direct address is an ironic nod to the past, saying farewell to his past lover.
Although the relationship is now over, Sheers elevates the concept of memory. Indeed, these flashback moments of the relationship will continue to live on within his memories. The final memory of waking up and knowing the relationship will be over being the ‘one I’ll keep’ shows how Sheers is committed to ending the relationship. This will not be something he comes back to, but instead is firmly concluding that these moments of love are but memories. This relationship, and chapter in Sheers’ life, is over, fading into memory.