‘The whole challenge of poetry’, Alice Oswald once wrote, ‘is to keep language open, so that what we don’t yet know can pass through it’. Her new collection, Falling Awake, is proof of this: full of poems that are somehow both spare and spacious, it is held together by her vision that language ought to be continuously re-made – and always revelatory.
The most striking poems in this volume are brief and tightly-formed, resembling woodcuts in their ability to record strokes of light and shade. Rarely longer than a page, they employ quick, untrammelled lines to sketch the contours of a scene –
——————I heard a cough
——————as if a thief was there
——————outside my sleep
——————a sharp intake of air
The simplicity, however, is deceptive. These carefully-knit pieces position themselves as heirs to a long alliterative aural tradition, and rely on the inner music of each line (as heard in ‘as if a thief‘, or ‘sharp intake of air‘) to echo in the mind. Some draw directly on the onomatopoetic potential of both familiar and invented words to illuminate moments which would have been imperceptible to the eye, but not the ear. One such poem, ‘Sz’, places a finger on the ‘first faint breeze of unrest / no louder than the sound of the ear unzipping’. Oswald’s confident grasp of the English language’s dynamic range allows her to employ with considerable finesse such resonant instruments which almost certainly would have rung hollow in the hands of a lesser craftswoman.
Other poems ‘keep language open’ by wresting form into service of both the narrative and melodic line. ‘Village’ presents fragments of a longer poem previously featured in ‘Under Glass’, a performance by the Clod Ensemble; structured entirely in quatrains, it speaks directly to the reader in vivid portraits of a hamlet’s inhabitants (‘that’s him in the rain now / somebody with a tread like that / very chilblain slow with a lump on his toe…’), propelling itself forwards on the momentum of each stanza. ‘Dunt’, which won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2007, is another long poem whose form resembles its subject matter. Beginning in a trickle (‘try again / a Roman water nymph made of bone / very endangered now / in a largely unintelligible monotone’), it builds into a majestic river of language –
——————and they say oh they say
——————it would flood through five valleys
——————there’d be cows and milking stools
——————washed over the garden walls
——————and when it froze you could skate for five miles yes go on
It’s impossible not to hear in these lines echoes of Dart and A Sleepwalk on the Severn, which previously established Oswald as an expert navigator of both custom and invention.
While Oswald’s stylistics lend themselves to evoking signs of life, death and decay are as much a part of her observations. In ‘Cold Streak’, Oswald writes: ‘I notice the fatigue of flowers / weighed down by light / I notice the lark has a needle / pulled through its throat’. Half-rhyme and stepped meter combine with the startling images here to remind us that the world uncovered in these poems is no straightforward rural idyll. Pieces like ‘Flies’, ‘Body’, and ‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’ focus even more directly on scenes of life’s cycles. Oswald drives home such reminders of transience with clues of the finitude of language itself. ‘Slowed-down Blackbird’, for example, centres on the scene of ‘three people in the snow / getting rid of themselves / breath by breath’ – evoking the ache of a long walk in winter – in which even the trees are ‘exhausted / tapping at the sky’. Overhead, the watchful blackbird (a foil for the poet, perhaps?) is at a loss for words:
——————trying over and over its broken line
——————trying over and over its broken line
Crucially, Oswald’s mortal landscape is also an inhabited one. On the periphery, ‘walkers float / on the wings of their macs’, while the foreground – where ‘three rivers spring to their tasks / in … indecent hills’ – is peopled by geographical elements with very human qualities (‘A Drink From Cranmere Pool’). Standing in as nature’s divining-wand (to borrow Heaney’s memorable image), Oswald herself is ever there, her attentive ‘I’ always alive to its impact on the surroundings. As she writes in ‘Shadow’, ‘if I stand / if I move one hand / I hear the hiss of flowers closing their eyelids’. We get a rare glimpse of her in third-person in ‘You Must Never Sleep Under A Magnolia’ (a mother’s voice: ‘Alice, you should / never sleep under / so much pure pale’), but such distancing turns of speech are uncommon overall. More often, we are drawn into an immersive, intensely-observed landscape where Oswald dwells and her (human and non-human) interlocutors.
The book finishes with the text of one long, performance poem (‘Tithonus’), linked with a brief, concluding piece (‘And So He Goes On’), both of which exploit – and exalt in – the qualities of Oswald’s poetry described above. With its sonorous lilt (and in Cape’s elegant presentation), ‘Tithonus’ moves persuasively between page and stage, stalking a liminal space analogous to that which its title character occupies between night and dawn. It takes a rare and formidable poet to conjure a sonic landscape which most of her readers have only heard in their sleep – and summon, at the same time, Hamlet’s ghost, Grendel, and other creatures of the half-dark. Oswald steps bravely to the task, and with an insistent care for the sounds we have become deaf to, writes to convince us that there is still a language for the shock of being alive.
By Theophilus Kwek
Falling Awake, Alice Oswald, Cape Poetry, 2016, £10