On Alice Oswald

Colin Burrow

It would be very easy for Alice Oswald to get stuck. She had great and deserved success with Dart (2002), a poem that sought to be a river. It wandered from source to sea, taking in voices of Devon and its history as it went, and deepening and widening as it reached the estuary. When she revisited the notion of a poem as riverrun in A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009), which replayed five moonrises beside the River Severn at different phases of the moon, she seemed in danger of embanking her imagination into a repeated form, and becoming not just a river poet but a poet who had to rely on the physical and temporal flow of water to give her work a shape and direction. What next? The Humber? A fluvial chorography of Britain after the not entirely auspicious example of Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion?

She also runs the risk of getting stuck in other ways. Her shorter poems typically take a moment of arrest in time, or a place, or both, and relish stopping and getting lost in a moment. Stopping is a noble and a pure thing to do, and most people don’t do enough of it. But making a poetic career of such moments does tend to create acute problems of starting or restarting and moving on, particularly when, as Oswald does, you combine them with a tendency to structure poems around recurring or varying phrases. In A Sleepwalk on the Severn she declared: ‘Listen this is not the ordinary surface river/This is not river at all this is something/Like a huge repeating mechanism.’ That imperative ‘Listen’ is one of the tics she uses to keep herself moving on, and the ‘repeating mechanism’ is both what she describes and how she describes it. In Memorial (2011), her selective translation of Homer’s Iliad, she more or less stripped out narrative from the poem in order to make it into a series of deaths, which were accompanied by similes. These were themselves repeated verbatim. The effect was to keep the deaths coming and coming and to make them sink into the memory by evoking something of Homer’s oral formulaic recurrences of phrase. But it did have the secondary consequence of generating a poem that celebrated the grim repeater, Death, and from which the fleeter feet of Joy and Story were banished. If critics are allowed to worry about poets I would say that I worried a bit about Oswald before the appearance of Falling Awake (Cape, £10).

But Falling Awake shows from its first poem that she knows what she needs to do. It begins with ‘A Short Story of Falling’; and since ‘stories’, even short ones, are less her thing than recurrences and processes, it is actually a rhythmic and rhyming chant about the cycle of rain: ‘It is the story of the falling rain/to turn into a leaf and fall again.’ The water falls, makes leaves, lubricates the poet’s voice, and the poem ends not quite where it began, with water cooling and filling ‘the pipe-work of this song/which is the story of the falling rain/that rises to the light and falls again’. It’s a delicious poem, with something of the limpid simplicity of Herbert or Traherne, and it sets the tone of the whole volume, which is recurrently concerned with moving out of water – with not, as it were, getting poetically bogged down. It’s hard not to read ‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’, in which the head of Orpheus tries to hold on to life and song, as the expression of a poet who has more or less condemned herself to immersing her own voice in rivers, and who wants to move on:

my voice being water
which holds me together and also carries me away
until the facts forget themselves gradually like a contrail

A contrail is a condensation trail like that left behind by aeroplanes: the speech of the river poet is a long slow fade.

The high points of this volume – though it has no low points – are three poems. ‘Village’ presents a dark version of the kinds of community that flanked Dart. It’s a sort of modernist miniature version of Crabbe’s The Village. Things keep happening over and over, and they are not nice things (‘somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud/somebody lost out late again say what you like’). They are described in a dribble of gossip punctuated by a jolting self-stimulus of rhetorical questions to keep itself moving forwards: ‘A boot by a granite trough not many of us left/living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening.’ There is not even time for a question mark after ‘are you listening’ as the flow of talk goes on. Much richer in its repetitions and its sense of flow is ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River’. The title of this poem (the Dunt was once a large river in Gloucestershire but is now a substantial dribble) might suggest it is a version, desiccated and blunted, of Dart. It is about a statue of a river spirit now kept in the Corinium Museum in Cirencester. That provokes a poem in which Oswald’s self-kickstarting Muse really gives herself a working over in her efforts, it seems, to turn herself into a source and make these dry bones live. The description of the dry spirit of the river is repeated in several slightly different forms, as though the object is being turned over in the poet’s hands and forced to yield the flow of a poem:

Very small and damaged and quite dry,
a Roman water nymph made of bone
tries to summon a river out of limestone

That description is rephrased and reworked with the repeated injunction to ‘try again,’ as though a source can be unlocked and a poem start to flow just by repeated effort and by self-rebuke:

exquisite bone figurine with upturned urn
in her passionate self-esteem she smiles looking sideways
she seemingly has no voice but a throat-clearing rustle
as of dry grass        try again

Water flows. Poems do not naturally do so; they need teasing on, and they need a form which would allow them to get steadily larger. This one, with its repeated ‘try again,’ risks a structure that emphasises its own deficiency. But gradually it moves itself forward and the Dunt expands into a dribble and then a full ottery flow:

it’s a pitiable likeness of clear running
struggling to keep up with what’s already >gone
the boat the wheel the sluice gate
the two otters larricking along        go on

This is not just a poem about how the imagination gets itself going, and which tackles head on the fear of drying up. It creates a world in which the encouragement of ‘go on’ is rhymed with ‘gone’ (and ‘along        go on’ is also almost ‘long gone’), but it does not get stuck in the past. A dry thing from antiquity is gradually filled with life. ‘Dunt’ displays the recurrent rhythm of Falling Awake as whole: the imagination has to give itself a jolt – ‘go on’ – a tick and a tock to pull itself along into full flow.

That ticking and tocking becomes almost literal in the final and finest poem in the volume. ‘Tithonus’ reads like a radical rewrite of ‘Fragment of an Unfinished Morning’, which appeared among the new poems in Oswald’s 2007 collection, Spacecraft Voyager 1. The poem starts, we are told, at 4.17 a.m. ‘when the sun is six degrees below the horizon’, and ‘stops 46 minutes later, at sunrise’. Tithonus was granted immortal age but not immortal youth, as Tennyson almost said, by his love Aurora, the goddess of dawn. So he provides Oswald with a myth of yearning and endless repetition of the kind to which she is particularly attracted. Woods etc (2005) included poems about the Danaides (condemned endlessly to carry water in sieves) and Sisyphus (who rolls a stone up a hill before it rolls back again). Tithonus’ mortal immortality, forever waiting for dawn and forever ageing, belongs to the same pantheon of persistence. Writing about Tithonus also enables Oswald to dwell on those kinds of times that aren’t quite definable, between night and day, to which she appears constitutionally drawn (the sleepwalker who figures as a kind of narrator in A Sleepwalk on the Severn must be an insomniac alter ego of the poet). ‘Tithonus’ creates its own time and rhythm, which is indicated typographically by removing page numbers from this section of the volume and by providing bars and dots, thus


.
.
.
.
.

in the margin. Each dot is a second. Two lines of verse occupy five seconds. This allows for extended periods of timed silence, as when ‘and then another thing and then | another’ is followed by twenty seconds of silence ‘and then a chaffinch starts and/then another’ is followed by another twenty seconds of silence ‘and starts and starts’. This allows Oswald to do what she has always wanted to do, which is to represent being in time, where things recur and repeat, and in which attempts to pause and linger on the moment get thwarted by the necessary flow of time. But it also forces her not to get stuck, since it gives her a marginal rhythm like a metronome to keep herself going onwards. There are moments (and that is more than a metaphor in this poem in which time is the measure of all) where she indulges in the Beckett-I-must-go-on-I-can’t-go-on potential of Tithonus, ‘which is me old unfinished not/yet gone here I go again’ – Tithonus says that at about 4.20 a.m. according to the poem’s internal clock. But Oswald also takes us through, second by second, the moment where it all breaks into the pale beauty of dawn – and it is genuinely beautiful:


.
.
.
.
.         as soon as dawn one star then

.
.    suddenly none then blue then pale
.
.
.        and the whole apparition only

.
.    ever known backwards already too
.
.
.    late now almost gone

.
.
.
.
.