After Memorial, her rendering of military deaths in Homer’s Iliad, Alice Oswald’s seventh collection returns mostly to poems about the natural world. Traditionally poems have described nature either as evidence of God’s handiwork or as a comfort or inspiration for mankind. This tradition was refashioned by Hughes who celebrated the mindless forces of nature and is further re-presented by Oswald in what I will call neo-animist terms – nature can be seen and responded to as living in a non-scientific and also non-religious sense. This is established in the book’s first poem, A Short Story of Falling, which describes rain’s effect on leaves and flowers, continuing:
if only I a passerby could pass
as clear as water through a plume of grass
to find the sunlight hidden at the tip
turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip
then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience…
This isn’t pathetic fallacy in the traditional sense – that inanimate substances can share or express human feelings – but rather that nature, if looked at aright, can reflect our deepest desires and fears. Oswald sometimes addresses us like a prophetess or sybil:
May I shuffle forward and tell you the two-minute life of rain
starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze…
or as a storyteller enacting her subject matter:
I’m going to flicker for a moment
and tell you the tale of a shadow
that falls at dusk…
or to set up a mystery:
This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead
it was a badger treading on the thin partition…
In every case the poem develops into a meditation on the life of nature and sometimes on death (a rotting swan, a dead badger, dying flies) with an intensity of focus and originality of language like no other poet writing today or ever. For example, to read “I have been leaning here a long time hunched / under the bone lintel of my stare / with the whole sky / dropped and rippling through my eye” (Looking Down) is to see seeing in a new way.
Some poems may be new departures: Fox suggests a feminist response to Hughes’s The Thought-Fox – vixen speaking to another mother rather than dog-fox inspiring self-absorbed male poet; the 15-line Slowed-Down Blackbird strikes me as a wry response to Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird; and Aside, a lovely description of the four-year-old Oswald hiding in a laurel bush and becoming absorbed by its spirit, has a distant echo of Edward Thomas’s Old Man.
The three longest poems have classical subjects: Severed Head Floating Downriver (the dismembered Orpheus); Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River in which a tiny carved Roman water nymph is invoked to bring water to a dried-up Gloucestershire watercourse; and Tithonus, a drama to be performed in 46 minutes at midsummer dawn, set out apparently with metronome markings over some 36 unnumbered pages. All three are likely to be very powerful when spoken aloud – Oswald recounts a woman having an asthmatic attack at the end of Dunt because she forgot to breathe. When interviewed for Magma 26 in Summer 2003, Oswald spoke about having started to write a play about Tithonus. It has appeared 13 years later, suggesting an extraordinary persistence with matters she feels to be important.
Falling Awake by Alice Oswald is out now from Jonathan Cape.