Owen Sheers

Happy Accidents

LYRIC

And Robert Capa, how was he to know?
As the ramps were lowered and the air turned lead
and the marines before him dropped into the water,

that those photographs he took -
no time to set aperture or exposure, just shoot and shoot -
would be printed by some lad, barely sixteen in 'Life's' office.

That he'd overheat the negative strips, blister the silver,
melt the emulsion, until their frozen fires caught
and smoked from under the dark room door.

That of the two rolls taken only seven would remain,
their skies heat-blurred, given starbursts of light
and their surfaces grazed to describe so perfectly

the confusion of that day, when a generation's men
stepped out on Europe's shores
to fall headlong through the trapdoor of war.

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About "Happy Accidents"

‘Skirrid Hill’ takes its origin from the Welsh, ‘Ysgirid Fawr’ which roughly translates as ‘shattered mountain’. ‘Skirrid’ can also mean ‘divorced or separated’ – the theme is the connotation of something broken down or split away — the natural deterioration and separation of people and things.

Therefore the collection deals with death, separation from one’s family, loss of communication, distancing in relationships. It also deals with the literal physical separation that takes place in the mountain itself; the diminished empathy between humans and nature.

Robert Capa (1913-1954) was a Hungarian war photographer, who photographed five separate wars. The photographs referred to in the poem were taken during the D-Day landings of World War Two. As described here, a young worker at ‘Life’ magazine accidentally destroyed almost all the negatives from the set apart from seven. They were characterised by their blurriness and frantic appearance, yet they became iconic as a realistic, if impressionistic, record of the chaos of conflict.

The title is ironic. Although it was fortunate that a few pictures were saved, the idea that war is ‘happy’ is, of course, bitter sarcasm.

While poetry had an important role in the First World War, notably poems by Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, there were fewer Second World War poets and they were less prominent. It was photography and the media that depicted a different set of horrors; crucial documentary evidence.

It is interesting to note that the film director, Steven Spielberg, tried to emulate the mood of Capa’s photographs years later in his opening sequence of the film ‘Saving Private Ryan.’

Structure

The poem comprises five three-lined stanzas known as tercets or triplets. They are unrhymed, apart from the assonant rhyme of the last stanza, The sentences are long and flowing, with lines frequently enjambed, to indicate a complex and intelligent story.

Language and Imagery

Sheers uses imagery of burning and fire to describe the mistake made by the boy undertaking the development, but it is also a figurative way of describing the horrific nature of war. The image of the ‘trapdoor of war’ into which humanity falls echoes the trapdoor of the cage in ‘Song’ — the idea that humans allow themselves to plunge into terrible self-destruction.

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