- Woods etc by Alice Oswald
Faber, 56 pp, £12.99, May 2005, ISBN 0 571 21852 0
Alice Oswald, though she may not seem it at first, is an opinionated poet of ideas, and her poetry is ambitious in both form and scope. She writes taut poems about nature but refuses to call them ‘nature poems’. Her work is ‘full of hymns’, as Elizabeth Bishop said of her own, as well as pagan shouts and birdcalls. Oswald paints wild, stormy miniatures through which large figures lurch, blindfolded and burdened:
A mouldering man, a powdered and
walking the same so on and so on.
Rutty road. Winter etc.
Poached fields, all zugs and water.
These figures are forsaken and solitary, their minds set against bodies:
I was dying to ditch his head,
maybe put his socks on a twig and stop
caring, just lie there staring up.
I would sing then I would sing if I could.
There is a flavour of Eliot’s ‘I Tiresias’ about them: they make grand statements about their heavy souls. When not writing in this pseudo-heroic mode, Oswald writes restless, unpeopled poems, in which statements are replaced by questions:
is an invisible ray lighting up your lungs? how invisible?
is it a weightless rapture? pause. how weightless?
Though she is capable of more, these are the two modes alternating in her latest book, Woods etc.
In her second collection, Dart (2002), Oswald sought not to describe water with words but to make water out of them. A brilliantly mapped-out and achieved piece, Dart was like a contemporary ‘Brook’: the great river epic Coleridge didn’t in the end have the nerve to write. A winding, wayfaring poem following the path of the River Dart, it is (in Oswald’s words) a ‘sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea’: its language is rhythmical, melodic, playful, fluidly moving between shore and water voices, and mimicking the speech patterns of the local characters – fishermen, dairy workers, prisoners, schoolboys. ‘Christ/be with all those who stare or fall into this river,’ she writes, in a blessing that reads like a signpost. Combining thoughtfulness with pace, scientific precision with journalistic verve, Dart threads through these various voices. The result is similar in spirit to Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts or Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns, a scrupulous tilling and scouring of the poet’s homeland.
Despite her marked territoriality, there is an aura of communion in Oswald’s work (communion with God, nature, language – anything to hand) which can at times seem exaggerated and gushing. When she writes, for example, of wanting to capture her landscapes in ‘a language more opaque and fluid, fragmented, haphazard, instant, inspoken and breath-sensitive than is possible’, it is easy to mistake her for a harmless hippy, vague and high on Hopkins. But there are passages in Dart which, if not quite ‘inspoken’, are breath-taking. To draw one comparison: Ted Hughes, the poet from whom Oswald has learned the most, writes a river as ‘a god,/knee-deep among reeds, watching men,/or hung by the heels down the door of a dam’; inviolable and dangerous, distant and indifferent. This is how Oswald writes a river:
come falleth in my push-you where it hurts
and let me rough you under, be a laugh
and breathe me please in whole inhale
come warmeth, I can outcanoevre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head,
it looks a good one, full of kiss
and known to those you love, come roll it on
come tongue-in-skull, come drinketh, come sleepeth