Shortlisted for the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize
PBS Autumn Recommendation
The poems in James Sheard’s remarkable third book are about love and leaving, of how the rift of departure brings on a kind of haunting – of the people involved and the places where they lived – an emotional trace of departed lives and loves. This is what these poems are: the scars of separation, the spoors of desire. Sheard writes powerfully about loss, about how the vestiges of significance, of sensual heat, are retained by structures – in ghost towns, war-zones, deserted villages or resorts – but also by the human body and memory: ‘for love exists, and then is ruined, and then persists.’
These are poems about permanence and fragility, of being uncertain whether the house you live in is a shell, or if you have become a shell by living there – whether emptiness means loss and abandonment or a clean start and a new beginning. But these are also poems full of the ache of desire, the tart, lingering smell of sex: poems shaped by longing.
James Sheard is one of Britain’s most assured and precise lyric poets, and his third collection brings all his considerable strengths to poems as accurate and strange as thermal images.
Dammtor is the old city gate and now the centre of ground transport for the great port of Hamburg. In James Sheard's second collection it is a 'station for midnights, hitched up on stone legs, hollow with sunken light' - a hub for the damaged and deracinated. These precise, wounded poems draw the reader through this desolate landscape - through sexual longing, sexual violence, bereavement and the beginning of hope through the birth of a son.
Dammtor restlessly narrates the condition of maleness, looking for truth and music in a voice which is both urgent and unadorned. The poems are spoken in solitary places - late-night stations, hotel lobbies, car rides and empty woodland - but they are addressed to the living, the missing, the dead and the just-born. Personal and political narratives leak into the spaces of the poems to form a strange light which has something of the hallucinatory clarity of translations.
The voice might be by turn elegaic, vicious, obsessive or bewildered as it explores its topic, but it is accompanied by an eye which will not - or, perhaps, cannot - blink. Finding tenderness amid brutality, Dammtor is a highly accomplished and remarkable collection.
James Sheard was born in Cyprus in 1962, and spent his childhood abroad, mainly in Singapore and Germany. As an adult, he spent periods living in Hamburg and Helsinki. His debut collection, Scattering Eva, was shortlisted for the 2005 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and the Glen Dimplex Award for Poetry. Dammtor was published in 2010. He lives in mid-Wales and lectures at Keele University.