I am averse

Joe Shier

A collection of sonnets by Joe Shier


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‘The river is in discord with the dead;

she will not let them rest upon her bed.’


   – Vladimir Malaprop 


Overture: The City Gate



At times of heightened threat, the city gate

is locked by day as well as night to keep

the saboteurs at bay. But is our fate

sealed by a wolf in fleece amongst the sheep?

There is a traitor in our midst who wields

destructive capabilities beyond

our enemies outside. He’ll scorch our fields

and poison our wells, only to abscond

uninjured. Heed his warning: he’ll return

at some unspecified point in the future.

But presently, a more pressing concern,

we’ve houses to rebuild and wounds to suture.

And we’ll sing as we labour night and day,

‘All that comes to pass must pass away.’


Certain Innovations in Typesetting



Certain innovations in typesetting

are needed to adequately transcribe

the soldier’s livid barbs at length begetting

the phonetician’s pompous diatribe.

She doesn’t slide in, smiling, when I call

(Of course, that’s because I call silently

and in a voice that, if it was at all

audible, still would not sound like me).

She doesn’t recognise my face with its

distinguishing marks carefully concealed.

She sits, I lie, I stir, I stand, she sits.

Eyes never level, souls never revealed.

The roses are so red this time of year,

but some of us cannot see straight for fear.


Hits of the Thirties



The word ‘romantic’ is preceded by

‘hopeless’ all too often for my taste.

We idealise, although in practice, chaste

is just the same as frigid, plus we die

alone regardless of status, so why

must we affect something divine when faced

with our fundamental urges and placed

among the other beasts? I couldn't lie:

I told her, truly, all I want is you!

She said, I can assure you this is not

the way these things are done where I come from.

Where have you been? These days it’s all done through




Driving Across America: Not As Much Fun As You Might Think



The GPS has the voice of John Cleese –

the manufacturer’s feeble attempt

to make trips like this pass with greater ease.

Two words: Familiarity. Contempt.

We share a hazy memory of shouting

“ROAD TRIP!” like the crazy college kids

in some lame Hollywood comedy outing.

We’re silent now, fighting with our eyelids.

My rock was wrapped. Perhaps it’s for the best –

driving until dawn affords me time to

reflect on certain choices as the rest

drop off, their deep-fried brains condemned to chew

on Fawlty’s final utterance of the night:

In four hundred and fifty miles, turn right.


Please Stand Still



A continent, sterile and unforgiving,

lay behind us as, with purpose, we marched

onward, headed vaguely towards the living,

heaving sea and away from the parched

and fissured desert crust – not dead, though not

alive by any means. There are some plants

that flourish in those parts, though it’s so hot.

But no-one expects them to sing or dance

or be well stocked with rejoinders and smiles.

The sea is a different colour each day.

Enough! Onward! We can but guess the miles

we’ve clocked up so far, on our merry way.

How are you not sick of facing your fears?

Also, where are we going? I’m all ears.


It’s Fun to Pretend


The precepts of this illustrious college,

so often misconstrued as binding strictures,

exist solely to celebrate the knowledge

that a few choice words can paint a thousand pictures.

It would be poor form to repeat them here,

though they echo within these hallowed halls,

for how can something truly disappear

that once was carved into the very walls?

You might as well relax, now that you’re in

(is that medias res or utero?)

These old buildings will be the first to go.

The air is bitter, the walls paper thin –

a place for the malformed and malcontent

where Homer nods, rhythmically, in assent.





Abstractions, metaphors, reflections on

the past flow like cold water from my pen.

The wry smirk’s an effective mask but when

I let it fall away, the words are gone.

I’ll try, for you, but please don’t hold your breath.

It’s so easy to hide, you’ll never find me,

expertly camouflaged, abstruse ‘til death,

though a moment cannot pass and not remind me

I’ve never needed anyone so much.

My whole self aches and the only things that

can soothe me are your face, your voice, your touch.

Whenever you’re not here, I miss you, ——

Ambitious? Yours is all I long to be.

Please come and share this empty space with me.

A House of Office



The doctor’s undergarments were of coarse

cloth, dyed bright red.  The irony was lost

on him, for such a feat of such a force

could not but leave one or two ts uncrossed.

This immane, stentorophonick sputation

(I’m sorry Microsoft, but you can save

your red zigzagging underscores. I’m slave

to a higher power) left lexication

to the poets and gave itself to serve,

to be the harmless drudge, the desert camel.

But here’s the thing that really took some nerve:

eluded just once (noun substantive: ‘stammel’),

the good doc, clearly not disposed to preening,

set forth, ‘of this word I know not the meaning.’




To know the pain your face betrays

and that it’s nothing I can right;

to see the shades, the blacks, the greys

and still get eight hours sleep a night;

to know how best to intervene

and what it is you’re fighting for;

to stitch in time and then come clean:

I can’t remember anymore,

one must be soundly fortified,

immovable, armed to the teeth.

I’ll surely see my own denied

and violently forced far beneath

the surface, numbering my days

to know the pain your face betrays.

Interlude: Least Concern



Rock Dove

Common Juniper

Snail Kite

Sacred Kingfisher

House Mouse


High 20



Total darkness (until your eyes adjust)

here in our tiny wood-panelled Eden,

like children at bath time. Unwelcome lust

and shame are sucked into the chimney then,

presumably, distributed across

the rest of the site and further afield

where they belong. We will not mourn their loss

(if we even notice it). When we sealed

the perimeter several days ago,

this day was a fire on a distant hill,

but the road is neither straight nor narrow.

Unbelievers will meet only good will

on our daily shopping trips to the city,

fig leaves on faces, trying not to show pity.





We broadcast the New Testament all day,

every day – Matthew to Revelations –

but interrupt our transmission about

once every forty minutes, so our tireless

reader can take coffee and comfort breaks

and, more importantly, so that our kind

patrons can regale you for a while

with products picked to help you on your way

unto dust-free feet; wonderful creations

to hoist the soul, to drive defilements out.

Strayed from the path are those who claim the wireless

is a tool of evil, although it takes

a certain strength of will. We were once blind

to that which lies beyond. Don't touch that dial.

Kill Screen



In theory, the game can go on forever,

the same few screens recurring on a loop,

until the evil creatures get too clever

or the stalwart player’s eyelids start to droop.

In practice, there’s a bug we couldn’t fix:

at level two-hundred-and-fifty-six,

the counter resets and goes back to zero,

erasing both our princess and her hero.

Of course, by this point, all but the most seasoned

gamers will have used up all their coins.

Intrepid are the few who gird their loins

and sweat it out.  In this instance, we reasoned

a patch was not required, having foreseen

you’d give up before reaching the kill screen.


Sonnet Therapy

















Thus Have I Heard



Thus have I heard: the Blessed One was staying

around the corner from the cricket ground.

He meditated deeply (once) and found

no lasting peace would come his way through straying

from the path of purity or from playing

loud angry music, chasing girls around,

eating red meat, etc. This unsound,

untenable existence wanted weighing

up against the one point clearly missed:

his predecessor didn’t feel the need

to justify his lifestyle choices, did he?

No answer (save the prayer beads on your wrist)

.   .      .

as to whence comes the pressure to succeed.

Om āh hūm vajra guru padma siddhi






When Curtal Met Caudate, They Fell in Love



When Curtal met Caudate, they fell in love,

and gave birth to a tiny perfect square

which they kept in sealed box above

the fireplace, protected from the air.

When Curtal met Caudate, they quickly married

and built themselves a vast, imposing palace,

where they could see their noble bloodline carried

on past that point where hubris turns to malice.

When Curtal met Caudate, they fucked each other

and the resultant offspring’s feet were cruelly bound,

growing misshapen. Happily, both mother

and father long since moulder in the ground.

When Curtal met Caudate, somebody should

have interceded, for the greater good.

Drill Pron



This is a trick I learned from Vikram Seth.

The least I can do is return the favour.

I’ll hold my breath and try to recreate

at least the gist, if not the piquant flavour.

Those snappy Onegin stanzas inspire

this, my increasingly obsessive quest

to sonnetize the whole blank world as best

I can, though who’d compare Shakespeare and Shier!

Everything we’ve so far read and heard would

suggest that I should venture, now I’m flowin’,

to let the stone ricochet second-birdward

and tell you that my middle name is Eoghan.

My fiercest detractors would be hard put

to say that I don’t go the extra foot.

The Party of the First Part



The party of the first part shall hereafter

be known by some other name and consigned

to the history books along with laughter,

eye contact, comfortable silence. We dined

out for long enough. In this light, you strike

me as one whose guilt is paralysing.

I’m placed at an advantage but unlike

god, I will not be capitalising.

With nothing more to say in my defence,

and pleasure’s majesty bringing no pardon,

I think it’s time to come down from the fence,

and stand with both feet firmly in your garden.

But I must ask you this, before we start:

do you absolutely have to break my heart?


Appendix A



What follows is an extract from “The Sonnets

of Joe Shier” by Professor Milton Hack.

The paper opens up a debate on its

subject’s literary merit or lack

thereof. Hack argues that “though Shier has proved

the quatorzain still apposite today

and writes back, showing how the form has moved

on with the times and still has much to say,

at times he prefers to eschew his seedier

ruminations on bitterness and loss

in favour of a pseudo-learned dross

that owes less to Petrarch than Wikipedia.

The one about the car journey was fun.”

(Hack, 2011, p.1)



The commentary looks back over the collection with a critical eye, giving explanations for creative choices. This is done by exploring the inspiration behind the decisions, as well as offering a personal insight into the experience of writing the collection. 

The decision to undertake a creative writing project this year was somewhat last minute. Although I had very much enjoyed the first year module, I felt, initially, that the pressure to produce work of a high standard would be too great in the final year where all my results will count towards my degree classification. Eventually, however, I realised that I wasn’t particularly interested in attending numerous lectures on post-colonial theory and decided that the challenge might be just what I needed to boost my enthusiasm for my degree which had, admittedly, waned somewhat during the second year. I am writing my dissertation on Tony Harrison’s sonnet sequence The School of Eloquence, and hoped that to create my own sequence of sonnets – a homage of sorts – would be doubly valuable in that the two projects might influence and encourage each other.

During the first year, my research into Harrison’s rather unusual sixteen-line sonnet form led to an interest in the sonnet form in general. Despite having learned much about the history of the form, it’s development, and the many variations and innovations that poets have come up with over the years, the sonnet still remains something of a mystery to me – I can’t quite work out why I love it so much. To a certain extent, then, this project is my way of allowing a little of that mystery to remain in place, in the face of the thoroughdemystification process that I expect the dissertation project will bring about. The closest thing I have found to an explanation of why the sonnet form appeals to me comes courtesy of Don Paterson, who suggests, in his introduction to 101 Sonnets, that ‘as poetry moved slowly off the tongue and onto the page, the visual appeal of an approximately square field of black text on a sheet of white paper must have been impossible to resist.’ This, he argues, is because ‘ unity of meaning is something that is impossible to represent in any sustained, linear, complex utterance – but it’s what, crazily, our human poetry tries to do.’

In fact, Paterson’s anthology has influenced my collection in another, very different way. His only criterion for inclusion in the book was that a poem should have fourteen lines. All of the sixteen-line sonnets The School of Eloquence are consequently excluded and I was saddened to see Harrison represented by what I feel to be a vastly inferior offering, ‘Cuba Libre’. The collection also includes Edwin Morgan’s ‘Opening the Cage’, a 14 line poem that doesn’t seem to bear any of the other characteristics associated with the sonnet form (iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme, turn, etc). Paterson is, of course making a point about how it is impossible to satisfactorily define the term ‘sonnet’, because any rule that can be enforced can also be broken. My resultant attempt at a cutting response to Paterson and his collection came in the form of ‘Sonnet Therapy’ which consists of 14 lines of one word each. It was written on a day when I was about half way through the collection and was losing momentum. I didn’t feel like writing sonnets anymore but was committed to doing so. The identity of the ‘you’ who I am ‘not going to fight with’ could be me, Paterson or (in my preferred explanation) the sonnet form itself. 

I have come to see I Am Averse as a collection which tells the story of its own creation (albeit in a non-linear and rather obscure fashion). I consider this to be most evident in the two sonnets which are perhaps most explicitly concerned with the task of writing sonnets. ‘It’s Fun to Pretend’ is concerned with the possibility that a seemingly staid, traditional verse form might not be something that the modern reader can relate to, and the efforts of the poet to convince both himself and his audience otherwise. The use of metaphors based around the theme of academia is deliberate. In my own life, the metaphor could be said to be reversed. I have struggled, at times, to find any meaningful purpose for my extended foray into the world of literary criticism. I usually come to the rather unsatisfactory conclusion that it’s simply enjoyable and it’s not hurting anyone. The experience of writing these sonnets has been similar, but on a condensed scale. The other ‘sonnet about sonnets’ in the collection is ‘When Curtal Met Caudate, They Fell in Love.’ I am aware that a more obvious title would have been simply ‘When Curtal Met Caudate’, but I have always found a certain charm in the fact that old untitled poems come to be known by their first lines. This is the case with some of Shakespeare’s better known sonnets (‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’, ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold’...) as the opening lines are easier to remember than the numbers by which they are more correctly identified. As such, it seemed appropriate given the subject matter. Having discovered such variations on the sonnet form as the curtal sonnet and the caudate sonnet, I had originally intended to include my own examples of these forms in my collection. These attempts always failed in that I invariably ended up with fourteen lines.

Despite periods of writer’s block and self doubt, the actual writing process for almost all of these sonnets was an incredibly joyful experience. The positive feedback I received from both tutor and peers was hugely encouraging, as was the fact that the project came together with far greater ease than I had imagined. Several people with whom I have discussed the project have expressed admiration for my supposed ‘discipline’ in adhering to the sonnet form, but strangely, I do not see it this way. I find it incredibly difficult to write sincere and convincing free verse, whereas the apparent confines of a form such as the sonnet seem, in my case, to provoke creative expression. When faced with a blank page on which I could write literally anything, I am overwhelmed by the possibilities and usually come up with nothing. On the other hand, the need to find words that rhyme and sentences that scan requires me to search the recesses of my mind for the word or idea that fits. This is when the most interesting ideas arise. The sonnet form has proved utterly liberating, rather than stifling, in terms of my ability to express myself poetically. And to express myself is exactly what I feel I have done. One reason that I am so pleased with this collection is that I really feel that I have presented myself on the page as accurately as I can and furthermore, I don’t entirely dislike what I see.

After Tony Harrison, the second greatest direct influence on this collection is Vikram Seth. I particularly appreciate the fact that both poets appear to use rhyme to educate the reader. In stanza 5.1 of Seth’s verse-novel, The Golden Gate, lines 10-11 read:

“What’s your next work?” “A novel...” “Great!

We hope that you, dear Mr Seth—”

Having read the preceding four chapters, a reader could reasonably be expected to be, by this point, familiar enough with the rhyme scheme (and the rigidity of Seth’s adherence to it) to infer that Seth’s name is not pronounced as written, but in fact, rhymes with ‘great’. Similarly Harrison closes The School of Eloquence with a couplet that teaches the reader to pronounce the obscure welsh term ‘cynghanedd’, by rhyming it with ‘death’. ‘Drill Pron’ is my attempt to pay tribute to my influences and emulate this technique. I, like Seth, have a surname that is commonly mispronounced, so I took the opportunity to use my poem to set the record straight. It is one of my favourite poems in the collection, so I was surprised to find that feedback was relatively muted. On reflection, I realise that this is understandable due to the personal and esoteric nature of both the subject matter and the humour in the poem. I must therefore concede that, although I enjoy it, this constitutes an inherent weakness of the piece, in that it is unlikely to ultimately serve it’s didactic purpose!

It is tempting to assert that ‘Kill Screen’, with its use of the strict rhyme scheme, though not the metre, of the Onegin stanza (the form in which Seth’s The Golden Gate is entirely composed) is a further tribute to Seth – and, by extension, Pushkin – but this is not really the case. It is actually another example of rigorously strict attention to form providing my creative momentum. The poem took a relatively long time to complete. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, but simply could not make it fit. As something of a last resort, I decided to try and apply Pushkin’s rhyme scheme, in which masculine and feminine endings appear in set positions. Bizarrely, it was by tightening rather than relaxing the rules by which I was forcing myself to work, that I was able to finish the poem in a matter of minutes.

Almost all of the sonnets in the collection adhere to one of the established sonnet rhyme schemes – the Shakespearean, the Petrarchan or that of the Onegin stanza. The exception to this is ‘Air’, in which I made use of a rhyme scheme of my own invention: abcdefg abcdefg. This came about as I had originally intended to write the poem in blank verse. Having completed the first seven lines I found that it was a far less enjoyable process than writing in rhyme. I was, however, satisfied with the first half of the poem and did not want to rewrite it, so I simply decided that it would be an interesting challenge to try and rhyme the second half with the first half.

Regarding the ordering of poems within the sequence. I decided early on that I wanted to collection to have the appearance of a unified whole despite the variety in the nature and tone of the poems. ‘Least Concern’ is a ‘found poem’ that is not written in the sonnet form. Its light-hearted nature and minimalist form are intended to provide a break from the intensity of the blocks of sonnets that precede and follow it. ‘The City Gate’, being the first sonnet I ever wrote, was always intended to open the collection. I struggled over the course of the project to write a sequel which would continue the metaphor and close the collection. After several attempts, I eventually abandoned this effort having written only a single couplet, which subsequently became the epigraph – supposedly a quote from Vladimir Malaprop, which is actually a pen name I used for my first year poetry project. Thankfully, when reading a comically stuffy and ancient scholarly paper on the sonnet form, I was inspired to write a sonnet in the guise of a rather pompous academic criticising my work. ‘Appendix A’ was the result and instantly presented itself as the perfect way to close the collection.

The feedback that I have received for these poems has been overwhelmingly positive and incredibly encouraging. Certain colleagues have provided some incredibly subtle and insightful comments. In a lot of cases, I find that I tend to stick to my original ideas despite people’s suggestions. I still feel, however, that this is a helpful process as I am consequently required to justify my decisions. There were surprisingly few poets on the creative writing module this year, and while I enjoyed reading and commenting on some incredibly impressive prose works, I did not find this process to contribute significantly to my development as a poet. On the other hand, it was interesting to be part of a small group of poets, all of whom have developed recognisable and distinctive styles. There was a feeling of mutual respect and admiration that helped my creative process immensely. Unfortunately, feedback from the various magazines to which I have submitted some of these poems has not been quite as positive. It was very disheartening to receive a number of rejection emails while I was working on the project. Attending the various workshops throughout the course, in which published writers talked about their experiences, encouraged me not to lose heart. It has become clear that there are a lot of people out there who want to get their work published and competition is fierce. Overall, the experience of creating this project has been thoroughly rewarding and I fully intend to carry on trying to improve as a poet.


Bullock, Walter L., ‘The Genesis of the English Sonnet Form’, PMLA, 38: 4 (1923), pp. 729-744. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/457304 (Accessed 2nd January 2012)

Harrison, Tony, Selected Poems, 2nd edn. (London: Penguin, 2006), pp. 109-189.

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/conscience/index.shtml (Accessed 2nd January 2012)

http://www.thepoetsgarret.com/sonnet/curtal.html (Accessed 2nd January 2012)

Paterson, Don (ed.), 101 Sonnets, 2nd edn. (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), p. xvi.

Pushkin, Alexander, Eugene Onegin, trans. by Charles Johnston (London: Penguin, 1979)

Seth, Vikram, The Golden Gate, 2nd edn. (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 5.1, 10-11 (p. 100)

Shakespeare, William, The Complete Sonnets (Mineola: Dover, 1991)




Joe Shier


brightONLINE student literary journal

16 Nov 2012