“find a leaf and fasten the known to the unknown / with a quick cufflink / and then unfasten”
The images of nature in Falling Awake act not so much as metaphors for contents of the human mind but rather are points at which nature presses so hard upon the surface of the human that it ruptures that surface and breaks through, or, rather, nature wears away that surface and flows through, subsuming the human, the reverse flow of what is usual in that performance of language that we call metaphor. To observe is to become that which is observed, or, rather, to surrender oneself to the observed, to lose the idea of oneself, at least for that moment, but a moment from which there is in fact no return, and, similarly, in the reading of good poetry there is no defined border between interpretation and one’s own underlying thinking, so to call it, brought to the poem and brought away again altered in some way, not so much by the forces in the poem itself but by its own forces, catalysed in some way by the poem. In Oswald’s poems, water is language is life. Gravity pulls on all, and to surrender to falling, to the earthward pull, is the tendency of water towards the sea, of language towards silence, of life towards death. To resist this pull, to be some thing, to take names, to speak, is to weary and age oneself, to repeat oneself, to erase oneself by seeking to avoid erasure (“the eye is a white eraser rubbing them away”), to bring forward that point at which surrender is inevitable, even though the only alternative to struggle is surrender. And what remains after form has gone? How soon the pull-to-flow, ever present, however resisted, after a moment, a crucial reverse moment, “as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment / water might keep its shape”, tends everything towards its goal. In ‘Alongside Beans’, Oswald shows the vegetal profusion of the beans underscoring the human passage through illness towards death by travelling the path in reverse, progressing from the grave to ominous swellings, to vague symptoms, to widespread growth and profusion. This is time moving backwards, this is not resurrection or rebirth but their opposite, the compensatory movement of vegetal time to that which pulls always at us. It is possible, with great effort, to resist this gravity, this tendency towards death, but only with great effort. ‘Dunt: A poem for a dried-up river’ describes the repeated efforts of a lifeless Roman figurine to (re)produce water from dry rock, “try again”, “try again”, which not only enlivens her, into the groans and pains that are the symptom of enlivenment, but produces a trickle, “go on”, “yes go on”, then a stream, at least a mucky liquid flow, a “fish path with nearly no fish in”, an image of the poeting process of effort and release, some sort of release after some sort of effort. Is the effort to take a name, to make a word, to struggle, only of any sense when seen in the context of the release that succeeds it, the release into namelessness and into silence? Oswald allows her poems to tend towards that silence. She senses an affinity with the cooling, increasingly clumsy and stupid flies, losing, through the increasing cold of the season, their capacity to speak. But what would they say? “what dirt shall we visit today? / what shall we re-visit?” Meaning is worn away by repetition, but this wearing away is its own meaning. We are caught, it seems, in a moment of vertigo, a conflict between free will and gravity, being and release, words and silence. As we are thus disabled, or thus enabled, nature reaches its strangeness towards us more than we can push our ordinariness towards it, at these moments nature takes our humanness from us even to the extent of appropriating our human capacity for speech, though it be our speech, like Oswald’s eldritch image of the vixen who speaks, “it’s midnight / and my life / is laid beneath my children / like gold leaf”, a statement impervious to rational approach, yet somehow right and somehow essential. Nature is not so much wonderful or beautiful, not a reassurance but a threat, always seeking our erasure, to undo us, to bring time to bear upon us, although perhaps this is not something we should feel as a threat, this perhaps is what we long for, our release, our rest, our cessation, and we could perhaps welcome, and even seek, that moment “when something not quite anything changes its mind like me / and begins to fall”. The final, extended sequence, ‘Tithonus’, is marked out in seconds for the 46 minutes before dawn in midsummer, the sounds observed and voiced really more a patterning of silence, the words more a patterning of their absence, the meaninglessness that crumbles away the edges of words at all times, this onward pull of time. The poem is not a progress towards dawn as a moment of birth or rebirth, rather a progression into decrepitude, beyond decrepitude, beyond imbecility, losing the idea of the self, “very nearly anonymous now, to the point where dawn is a longed-for release, heralded with the final words, “may I stop please”.
Alice Oswald's poems are always vivid and distinct, alert and deeply, physically, engaged in the natural world. Mutability - a sense that all matter is unstable in the face of mortality - is at the heart of this new collection and each poem is involved in that drama: the held tension that is embodied life, and life's losing struggle with the gravity of nature. Working as before with an ear to the oral tradition, these poems attend to the organic shapes and sounds and momentum of the language as it's spoken as well as how it's thought: fresh, fluid and propulsive, but also fragmentary, repetitive. These are poems that are written to be read aloud. Orpheus and Tithonus appear at the beginning and end of this book, alive in an English landscape, stuck in the clockwork of their own speech, and the Hours - goddesses of the seasons and the natural apportioning of Time - are the presiding figures. The persistent conditions are flux and falling, and the lines are in constant motion: approaching, from daring new angles, our experience of being human, and coalescing into poems of simple, stunning beauty.
The finest living British poet comes to Cape with her extraordinary new book.
Shortlisted for Forward Poetry Prize: Best Collection 2016.
Winner - 2016 Costa Poetry Award
"An astonishing book of beauty, intensity and poise - a revelation...The collection's title is spot on. I cannot think of any poet who is more watchful or with a greater sense of gravity." -- Kate Kellaway Observer "Stunning. Is she now our greatest living poet[?]... Her work is commanding... She is less twinkly-eyed than Simon Armitage, more committed to experimentation than Duffy and just as playful...as Don Paterson. For sheer, sustained invention and intellectual rigour, her work is perhaps closest to Kei Miller... If there's any justice in the poetry world, the title [Poet Laureate] should be offered to this gardener-classicist who is bringing the British landscape to life in poetry again." -- Charlotte Runcie Daily Telegraph "The pieces included here are held together by Oswald's luminous, almost alien powers of observation." -- Yasmine Seale Literary Review "Magic, the music of nature, the resurrection of the dead: all these feel real when you read Alice Oswald. Her stunning new collection deserves the Forward Prize." Sunday Telegraph "She is a classicist and a gardener, an expert in the epic tradition and a riverside wanderer... Falling Awake provides the notation for an immersive aural experience; its current existence as a printed collection is not the incarnation for which it will be most celebrated, should Oswald choose to record it as a performance... It is certainly a strong contender in this year's Forward Prizes, and a highly compelling meditation upon transience." -- Phil Brown Huffington Post
Alice Oswald lives in Devon and is married with three children. Her collections include Dart, which won the 2002 T.S. Eliot Prize, Woods etc. (Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize), A Sleepwalk on the Severn (Hawthornden Prize), Weeds and Wildflowers (Ted Hughes Award) and, most recently, Memorial, which won the 2013 Warwick Prize for Writing. 'Dunt', included in this collection, was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem.