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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Number 156: Owen Sheers "Not Yet My Mother"

Not Yet My Mother

Yesterday I found a photo
of you at seventeen,
holding a horse and smiling,
not yet my mother.

The tight riding hat hid your hair,
and your legs were still the long shins of a boy's.
You held the horse by the halter,
your hand a fist under its huge jaw.

The blown trees were still in the background
and the sky was grained by the old film stock,
but what caught me was your face,
which was mine.

And I thought, just for a second, that you were me.
But then I saw the woman's jacket,
nipped at the waist, the ballooned jodhpurs,
and of course the date, scratched in the corner.

All of which told me again,
that this was you at seventeen, holding a horse
and smiling, not yet my mother,
although I was clearly already your child.

-- Owen Sheers

Hap Notes: Owen Sheers (born 1974) is an extraordinary writer and his poetry is often like a photograph one stares at (as in today's poem) and then begins to really see things. His economy of phrasing is remarkably eloquent. He has a wonderful ear for the words, so it won't surprise you to learn that while he was born in Fiji, he was raised in Wales. He's won scads of awards already, and he presented a popular television series in Great Britain, "A Poet's Guide to Britain." He has also written fiction and non-fiction.

Go to the bathroom mirror and look deep into your own reflection. Your mother is in there. (Actually, in my case my grandmother is also in there. This would be alarming to me except I loved my grandma so much and have missed her so deeply all these years after her death that I am always delighted to see her again, even if it is just me.) When you see your mother in your facial characteristics, it's actually a little disconcerting. I mean, who are you? Are you part of your mom and dad, are you separate and completely different from them? If you are so different from them, why do you look so much like them? Why does the sheer force of genetics pull at us so mysteriously?

Notice also in the poem how Sheers is saying something about the masculine in the feminine and the feminine in the masculine. If you are a woman, you certainly still resemble your dad, do you not?

And when he says she's not yet his mother, what is he saying about the way people change as they age, who they become? And how does that change affect the future child? Can you see things in your mother when she was younger that she no longer has, that you still have? Will you lose those things, too, whatever they are; naivete, softness, vulnerability, innocence, verve, whatever? Maybe those are things that you and your mother still share. That mirror holds a lot of information when you really look into it.

I'm pretty daffy about Sheers as a poet right now, his books, The Blue Book (2000), and Skirrid Hill (2005), are filled with deft observations. His phrasing is powerfully touching. We'll do more Sheers this year, I believe.

Here's a good Sheers quote: "Even though I don't have an everyday spoken Welsh accent, when I read my poems in my head my poems do have a Welsh accent - so I think the rhythms of the people that I was brought up around and the people who I met when I was growing up right until I was eighteen, the rhythms and the metre of their speech and their accent is very much kind of embedded in the poetry."

and another: "The best advice I got when I was starting to write was quite simply read poetry - it's amazing how many people try to write poetry or do write poetry and don't actually read that much of it. And it's a bit like asking someone to go away and make a film and they've never seen a film or to go and play football and they've never really watched or studied football. You have to know what people are doing with the language and with poetry at the time that you're writing. "

You can find more Sheers here:


  1. We're doing this poem in English right now and there's just one bit that confuses me! At the end where Sheer says "Not yet my mother, although I was clearly already your child", how could I summarise what Sheer was trying to say here? If you could possibly give your opinion that would be a great help! Thank you x

  2. I reckon that it highlights the fact that his mother's identity changed dramatically on the birth of her child yet he will always be her son.