Review by Sean Robinson
Alice Oswald is a poet keenly aware of the power of the human gaze, and of the poet’s role in attributing significance to the natural world. In ‘Another Westminster Bridge’, a poem from her 2005 collection Woods Etc., she instructs the reader to ‘go and glimpse the lovely inattentive water’, to:
take hold of a breath-width instant, stare
at water which is already elsewhere
in a scrapwork of flashes and glittery flutters
In this poem, nature in the form of the River Thames is indifferent to the human gaze; it is powerful, fast and exuberant, compared to the ‘tiny thoughts and authorities’ of the watching office workers.
In Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape, 2016), the act of observing the natural world remains a preoccupation, but the balance of power seems to have shifted. Instead of a poem for the confident Thames, we have ‘Dunt: A poem for a dried up river’, which comes to act as a symbol of infertility:
she struggles to summon a river out of limestone
little shuffling sound as of a nearly dried-up woman
not really moving through the fields
Through this kind of strong symbolism, as well as often violent anthropomorphism, images from the natural world are used by Oswald to interrogate such themes as human mortality and the cyclical quality of time. Here are poems about a fox, a badger, a blackbird, a swan, the dew, and the rain. In each, the natural image is recruited in the service of understanding what it is to be human and mortal, as in ‘Shadow’:
I hear the hiss of flowers closing their eyelids
and the trees
as if dust was being beaten from a rug
shake out their birds and in again
Flowers have eyelids and trees seem to spring-clean. Elsewhere in the collection, water has wishes; a cockerel lives in a one-room flat; flies ‘fall awake mid sentence’; and in the long poem ‘Tithonus’, which ends the collection, ‘a songbird asks / is it light is it light’. No longer does nature shrug off the human gaze and flutter off, as in ‘Another Westminster Bridge’: in these poems nature is understood almost exclusively from the human perspective, as symbol.
Often, the attribution of these human concerns seems absurd, such as when we are told that ‘a flower / singing out a faint line of scent’ did so with ‘a bewitched slightly off-hand look’. Through such bizarre and bold anthropomorphism, Oswald draws our attention to the act of observation, and away from the natural object, or even what it may symbolise. It is often the speaker’s curious ways of perceiving that provides the most interest and pleasure throughout the collection.
The nature of the gaze is considered directly in ‘A Rushed Account of the Dew’. In their assessment of themselves as ‘I who can blink/to break the spell of daylight’, the speaker presents a kind of mock-challenge to the power of the sun’s rays. Similarly, nine lines of the twenty-line poem ‘Cold Streak’ begin with the words ‘I notice’, including the declaration ‘I notice the wind wears surgical gloves’. This word ‘gloves’ recurs throughout the collection, and these repetitions deepen and enrich meaning, so that, for instance, the ‘old scrap-iron foxgloves’ in ‘Evening Poem’ echo the ‘gloved hands’ in ‘Alongside Beans’, the fox wearing ‘black gloves’ in ‘Fox’, and the wind in its ‘surgical gloves’. These lost gloves, dropped amid images of nature, seem somehow out of place – not in ways that jarr, but as reminders that whatever the object under observation, in these poems the human is the true subject.
Likewise, in ‘Swan’, Oswald’s use of the term ‘slippers’ acts as a sort of thematic pivot, shifting the poem’s subject from the animal to the human. The lines immediately preceding (‘strange / it’s not as if such fastenings could ever contain / the regular yearning wing-beat of my evenings,’) take much of their emotional power from being read twice: we first read them in terms of the swan, before doubling back, after that word ‘slippers’, to contemplate them in their human context. A comparable tonal shift occurs in ‘Severed Head Floating Down River’, in which the ‘I’ belongs to the increasingly forgetful, decapitated head of Orpheus, singing as it winds along yet another river – this time the Hebron:
my voice being water
which holds me together and also carries me away
until the facts forget themselves gradually like a contrail
and all this week
a lime-green light troubles the river bed
The word ‘contrail’ swings us from a world of Greek mythology to one of aeroplanes. The subject becomes no longer ancient, but modern; no longer Orpheus, but the speaker and perhaps the reader. It is a truism of literature that reading about mythological characters, or about animals, tells us about people in the here and now. But what is innovative in this collection is the dramatic shift of perspective a single word enables.
Formally these poems are varied and bold. The opening poem ‘A Short Story of Falling’ is in rhyming couplets with a simple syntax, introducing a gnomic, almost Blakean air to the collection. It begins:
It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again
it is the secret of the summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower
In contrast, the next poem, ‘Swan’, is in free verse, and is Ferlinghettiesque in its wanderings across the page. This variation continues throughout the book, which includes ballads, dramatic monologues, several blank pages (with page numbers to distinguish them from printer’s errors) and four longer poems: ‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’; ‘Village’; ‘Dunt’, which won the Forward Prize for best single poem in 2007; and ‘Tithonus’, a poem that does away with page numbers altogether in favour of a vertical line of dots down each page, acting as a sort of stave against which the poet’s lines (if they remain lines) are lain. This latter poem, whose subtitle is ‘46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn’, is an effective attempt to challenge the working of time in the process of reading. With each new reading of the poem, I felt compelled to hurry as I might scan a newspaper article, reading to find out where the poem was going, rather than lingering on words or lines. Despite the boldness of this innovative form, the poem is hindered by a rather trying and eventually uninteresting tone, which is perhaps another reason for my hurried reading. Whilst Oswald’s use of repetition elsewhere can be affecting, the thirty two sparsely filled pages that make up ‘Tithonus’ lead one to respond to the final words, ‘may I stop please’, with an emphatic ‘Yes, Do!’
Nevertheless, Oswald explores huge themes in poems that are at times sublime. Oswald’s approach to exploring mortality – and its elusiveness – is exemplified by the question: ‘What is the word for wordless, when the ground / bursts into crickets?’ The sound of crickets here becomes part of a white noise, which acts throughout the collection as a way of giving some expression to wordless mortality: the ‘trees / made less of leaves than sound’; ‘a creaking sound / like speaking speeded up’; ‘something similar to laughter’; ‘the sound of everything repeating’; ‘little distant sound of dry grass’; ‘little whispering fidgeting of a shut-away congregation’. At all times, behind the often beautiful music of Oswald’s language, and behind the bold images, hum these sounds – the rustlings, the creakings, the mutterings – embodying something of the constant presence in human life of an unspoken awareness of death.
Sean Robinson is studying for a masters in poetry writing at St. Andrews under Don Paterson. An erstwhile policy wonk, he graduated in 2013 from Oxford with a bachelors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and worked for some time with the Civil Service, until deciding to chuck it all in to do something useful, and write poems. He is from London.