At first this appears to be a sentimental poem about the warmth and consistency of a family, with nothing changing in the family home and providing a secure and familiar base for a child even as they grow and become an adult.
However, if we dig a little deeper, we should also recognise the figurative associations related to the roles/jobs/chores assumed by different members of the family.
My mother’s hug is awkward,
As if the space between her open arms
is reserved for a child, not this body of a man.
In the kitchen she kneads the dough,
flipping it and patting before laying in again.
The flour makes her over, dusting
The hairs on her cheek, smoothing out wrinkles.
Dad still goes and soaks himself in the rain.
Up to his elbows in hedge, he works
on a hole that reappears every Winter,
its edges laced with wet wool –
frozen breaths snagged on the blackthorn.
When he comes in again his hair is wild,
and his pockets are filled with filings of hay.
All seated, my grandfather pours the wine.
His unsteady hand makes the neck of the bottle
shiver on the lip of each glass;
it is a tune he plays faster each year.
Owen Sheers (1974-)
Sheers is a Welsh poet, novelist, playwright and academic and although he is over 40 might be interesting for reasons aside from his writing for any female readers.
Helpfully he has a website with a biography (it reads a bit like a none-so-humble autobiography to me!), which is usually a good place to start for context. However, it’s basically just a list of what he’s done rather than giving us any insight into his background and youth, which would be interesting to review in relation to the themes of this poem.
If we presume the poem is autobiographical to some degree then the only thing I’ve come across that is relevant is the fact that he attended quite a prestigious , but non-fee paying, school and later attended Oxford. This suggests to me that home life was pretty settled and happy, although this is inference based on statistical likeliness of doing well in school being related to settled home life and affluence.
This one is basically mono-thematic and focuses on the love, security and care consistently provided by family, not just in childhood, but throughout our lives.
I suppose there is also a connection to the theme of mortality/ageing as we see the deterioration of his grandfather and there are slight suggestions that he is also aware of the impact of ageing for his parents.
The ‘story’ to this poem is really straightforward.
Sheer goes home to visit his family after sometime away. He is now an adult and presumably has his own life, house and all the other accoutrements of growing up. However, he returns to a household that hasn’t changed at all and he is embraced and treated just the same as when he was a child.
You might not recognise this feeling yet as it is something that only really comes when you’ve spent a prolonged period of time away from your family home. When I went back to my parents this Christmas, the house, routine and life just felt completely familiar and comfortable despite my 12 years of living away. I was able to pick up my life as a teenage boy with my mum making me sandwiches and my dad fixing the broken shower in the shared bathroom. Although I tower above my parents and am currently rocking a rugged beard, they care for me and in many ways treat me as if I was still a child.
I hope I explained that well, it’s a lovely feeling, even if you know in the back of your head that this isn’t really your life anymore. Having that comfort and security of home is something that is always where your parents are (assuming you have nice parents!).
For Sheers, Mum is baking for him in the kitchen, dad is still sorting out the house and garden to keep the family in order and grandfather is still pouring the wine… or helping out and providing for the family.
However, there is a lot of deeper meaning hidden in his imagery and language, which we will explore below.
Language and techniques
The title immediately tells us Sheers has been away. ‘Coming Home’ also indicates that even as an adult and someone who doesn’t live in this house anymore it still retains a place in his mind where he is completely secure and in comfort. ‘Home’ is such a powerful concept that tells us so much about our feelings for a place as opposed to ‘a house’ or ‘my house’.
Don’t be tricked into thinking that Sheer’s isn’t completely at comfort in these images he creates because he describes his mother’s hug as ‘awkward’. This merely suggests that he doesn’t fit anymore. He is not the child he was when this place became his home. However, I think the fact that the hug is still the same and it is ‘as if [it was]… reserved for a child’ show that his mother still sees him in the same light. I see this as being a deeply warm image of a mum who still provides the same level of care for this ‘body of a man’ as if he were still just her little boy.
I think the key to analysing this poem in depth lies with exploring the connotations of the imagery around each of Sheers’ family members. Remember everything is deliberate and thus we need to ask ourselves: why does Sheers choose to show us his mother baking?
As ‘she kneads the dough’ she prepares it, ‘flipping it’ when it needs to be help in a different area and ‘patting’ it so it will rise nicely in the oven. If you didn’t know, this is how you go about making bread. However, could we also view this as an analogy for the role of a parent in bringing a child up; she has prepared him with everything he needs, gives him a push in the right direction when he needs it and supports him emotionally so he has what he needs to be ready for the big world of… being a loaf of bread. Notice that she is ‘laying in again’ if necessary to make sure it comes out just right!
I really smiled at the following image. ‘The flour makes her over… smoothing out wrinkles’ gives us an image of a mother made young again (the flour/her role once again as mother acting as some sort of miracle make up) by being able to provide for and care for her boy.
We have a similar analogous image in the second stanza, but a more masculine one. Dad braves the rain and ‘soaks’ himself and is ‘frozen’ and battered by the conditions leaving him ‘wild’ or dishevelled in appearance. This represents the role of parents in the tough times or doing the tough jobs. Clearly the hedge grows wild and unshapely constantly and needs someone to put in the hard work to make sure it can be a really successful and beautiful hedge. I don’t think I need to make the point about how this could relate to raising a child.
If we weren’t convinced of the difficult aspects of parenting we see how hard dad is working as he is ‘up to his elbows’ in the hedge, meaning he is fully committed and not just having to trim the edges. This isn’t just something that happens as a one off as it ‘reappears every Winter’ and it clearly takes its toll on dad as it his ‘frozen breath is snagged on the blackthorn’. I am reminded of my father having arguments with my older brother (I am the younger angelic child :D) and sometimes being left quite hurt and bashed by what he was having to put up with. Despite these bashings, the role of a parent is to guide and support their child in the best way they can and clearly Sheers’ dad and my papa were prepared to put in the hard and dirty work of parenting.
You could see the final line here as representing the little initial reward that Sheers’ dad has got from his task. If his ‘pockets are filled with filings of hay’ it suggests he’s not got a lot to show for his effort. Well, parents generally don’t get anything out of their efforts and frustrations, but the children or the hedges come out of things looking good and developing the way they should be.
Another thing to comment on in this second stanza is the word ‘still’ in the opening sentence. Just like his mother’s hugs still representing the warmth of love from a parent, his dad’s graft and effort are another form of continuing support and guidance that they will provide no matter how grown up their boy becomes.
In the final stanza we have a similarly supportive image of Sheers’ grandfather who here helps provide materially for the family. ‘Wine’ defies mortality – as it ages gets better – and often serves as a symbol for strength and life. Here it is used as a symbol for the grandfather helping to preserve their family by supporting his children and grandchildren.
While playing this protective role and supporting the Sheers dynasty, the grandfather himself is seen to be deteriorating each year. His ‘unsteady hand’ implies a growing frailty and the glasses ‘shiver’ as he cannot support the weight of the wine bottle anymore and has to rest it on the glass as he pours. This tingling sound is imagined as music and it is ‘faster each year’ because the wobbles keep getting worse as grandpa heads towards the grave.
Just the one thing I’d comment on here.
Firstly the different lengths of the stanzas stand as a recognition of the contribution of the different members of his family. If you think of the opening two stanzas as being the two sides of a parents role (the supportive and loving vs. the tough and guiding side) rather than just representing what dads should do on one hand and mums on the other.
Grandfather’s stanza represents the role of the extended family who are still able to provide support, but do not offer it in such a primary and crucial manner in terms of security, guidance and comfort.
I’d welcome any comments on the lack of regularity between lines in each stanza, lack of rhyme and use of enjambment if you see any significance.
Respectful and with a hint of nostalgic joy. He is enjoying the fact everything stays still at home and you’ll always know where you are and what’s going on.