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Many American readers first encounter Alice Oswald’s poetry in Spacecraft Voyager 1 (2007), a selected works that includes portions of her first two books of lyric poems, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996) and Woods etc. (2005), as well as the book-length poem Dart (2002) about the River Dart and those who live beside it. These early books show Oswald to be a poet at once earthy and exuberant: a poet with a love of natural presence, a sense of humor, great generosity of spirit, and sympathy for both the perfectly common and the perfectly eccentric. Drawn to popular forms such as the ballad, Oswald understands a poem to be first of all a “sound-map,” a shape of sound in air. When she gives readings, she recites her poems by heart, looking at her audience, a body speaking to other bodies. She earned a degree in classics at Oxford, later working as a gardener, and one of the delights of reading her is that of finding a formal virtuoso who likes to tramp through fields and forests. She loves wind and weather as well as riddle and spell. It takes “a kind of porousness or sorcery,” she has said, to bring the things of the world into a poem.
It takes a kind of porousness or sorcery to bring the world into a poem.
From the beginning her theme has been metamorphosis: the way things are transformed over time and by all they encounter. She is a lyric Heraclitus or Ovid for our time. Dart gathers the voices of dozens of people living along the Dart from its source on a moor in Devon to its estuary in the English Channel. The voices of the river, telling of its mythic depths, and the voices of the people, telling of their everyday activities, come to permeate and translate one another. Everything, everyone, is caught up in crossings and changes. “You can’t step twice in the same foot,” Oswald says in another poem.
Death is the change of changes for the living, and mortality is the primary concern of Memorial, Oswald’s 2011 translation-transformation of The Iliad. She reshapes the epic by removing its narrative while re-patterning its moments of death and its epic similes. Her version of the poem becomes an antiphonal song in which each lament for a dead individual is followed by a pastoral lyric that occurs twice. “One of the reasons I repeat the similes,” she has said in an interview, “is that you need time off from the grief. My hope is that the similes will repair what gets broken by the biographies, in the same way that the natural world does. I think of simile as a healing art.”
"I think of simile as a healing art."
The somber but spacious weather of Memorial returns in Falling Awake. In this new book we see animals meeting their ends, shadows falling, a dying village, a dwindling river, mythic characters being worn away by time. Time is felt as a force of gravity bearing down on everything. In one poem a badger, “shuffling away” with the “heavy box of his body,” doesn’t quite see “the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase towards him,” instead running on in a dream of further life, “as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment / water might keep its shape.” In a poem about the coming of evening, “the hours on bird-thin legs” step away, “returning their summer clothes,” “with the night now / as if dropped from a great height // falling.” In “Vertigo” we begin with the point of view of the rain as it falls, staring at the earth below, and end with the point of view of Grief or the Wife of Grief, living in a basement and looking up, hearing the “dead straight lines [of rain] / coming closer and closer to my core.” The speaker of another poem, telling “the tale of a shadow,” feels as if she has “interrupted something / that was falling in a straight line from the eye of God.”
Elsewhere in the book, though, the weight of mortality is shown to be not an abruptly falling force but a persistent erosion. In “Village” an inhabitant of a declining rural enclave listens to lonely people out at night with their troubles: “somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud / somebody lost out late again say what you like / a boot by the granite trough not many of us left / living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening.” In “Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River,” the poet has retrieved a carved water nymph from a museum and asks her to call the river back to life: “Very small and damaged and quite dry, / a Roman water nymph made of bone / tries to summon a river out of limestone.” She tries and tries again, encouraging herself and the river, but hears only a wasteland, “little distant sound of dry grass,” and an absence of water, “beautiful disused route to the sea / fish path with nearly no fish in.” Another river poem in the book, “Severed Head Floating Downriver,” evokes the head of Orpheus drifting down the River Hebron, the poet of loss becoming part of the anonymous sorrow song of being itself: “my voice being water / which holds me together and also carries me away / until the facts forget themselves gradually like a contrail.”
The poet has translated what she has heard into a book of changes to be recited at dawn and dusk.
The long final poem, “Tithonus,” which fills the second half of the book, tells of a lover ruined by time. According to the myth, Dawn, having fallen in love with Tithonus, asked Zeus to grant Tithonus immortal life but forgot to ask that he be freed from the burden of aging, so he grew older and older, until at last Dawn put him in a room and left him there talking to himself. What we hear in the poem, Oswald says in a brief prefatory note, “is the sound of Tithonus meeting the dawn at midsummer,” an event that, she adds, takes forty-six minutes. The poem includes a map of time: running vertically down each of its thirty-two pages is a dotted line divided by small cross marks into eighteen sections, each page measuring just under a minute and a half of dawn’s arrival. Throughout the poem, the left side of the page is entirely blank (except for occasional cues for “Music”). The right side, formed of between one and five fragments per page, consists of indications of time, observations of Tithonus, descriptions of the dawn, and words spoken by Tithonus himself. The poem begins: “as soon as dawn appears / as soon as dawn appears / 4:17 dressed only in her clouds.” A little later we hear Tithonus: “old unfinished not yet gone here I go again.” A man unbearably old, “recently turned five thousand,” “nearly anonymous now,” once again meets the “cascades of earliness” and “shining / stuff” of the dawn he once loved. He sees, not feels, how beautiful the dawn is, and on the last page, after “the sun saws the morning into beams,” he says, “may I stop please.” The poem clearly recalls Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Tithonus,” a romantic crisis poem whose speaker, Tithonus, voices the poet’s grief over the loss of the eros and élan of youth. Yet in Oswald’s “Tithonus,” a more subdued poem, there is no cry of nostalgia, only a poised attention measuring the chasm between a dawn that always returns and a human life broken by time.
Thus the gravity of things. And the grace? What does it mean to fall awake? A hint is given in the first stanza of “Flies”: “This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence / and lie stunned on the window-sill shaking with speeches / only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement which / break off suddenly as if the questioner had been shot.” “What dirt shall we visit today?” the flies wonder, and by the end of the poem “they” speak as “we.” Is this our condition? To fall into life, and into puzzled speech, as flies fall out of curtains on days in early spring? To go falling through life, and out of life, as we have come falling into life? The inventive elation of Oswald’s early work has become the clairvoyant patience of her recent work. Perhaps the title of Falling Awake is meant to suggest that our vocation is to be awake while falling: to see, hear, say the falling of everything in time.
The grace is in the dawn that returns. The grace is in the sounding. Almost all the poems of Falling Awake are entirely without punctuation (in this respect the book’s style is akin to that of Memorial). On rare occasions a comma or a period marks a pause. In several of the poems, phrases recur like irregular refrains. Phrase and line, stanza and echo compose the rhythms here. Grave and lithe, the poems have a distinctive clarity of phrase, line, and shape, as if they came out of a trance of waking attention. The poet has walked far into time and listened there and taken the measure of falling things and translated what she has heard into a book of changes to be recited at dawn and dusk. At the end of “A Rushed Account of the Dew,” a poem that recalls both the first poem of the book and Andrew Marvell’s “On a Drop of Dew,” the speaker voices an old mystery that can never quite be seen or held:
I want to work out what it’s like to descend
out of the dawn’s mind
and find a leaf and fasten the known to the unknown
with a liquid cufflink
and then unfasten
to be brief
to be almost actual
oh pristine example
of claiming a place on the earth
only to cancel
Robert Baker is the author of The Extravagant: Crossings of Modern Poetry and Modern Philosophy (2005) and In Dark Again in Wonder: The Poetry of René Char and George Oppen (2012), and the translator of René Char’s The Word as Archipelago (2012). He is professor of English at the University of Montana.
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