A Heaviness Inside Each Feather

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
Jonathan Cape 2016

T S Eliot Prize shortlisted
Costa Poetry Award 2016

Backlist reader that I am, over the past year or so Alice Oswald has become my favourite contemporary poet. I appreciate never knowing where she will lead me in a poem whilst trusting that something astonishing will be revealed which will raise questions that refuse an easy answer. She is erudite and intelligent, with an instinctive eye for the visionary within the ordinary, especially with regards to the natural world and our relationship with it.

My willingness to trust her comes from a sense of her poetic integrity, the feeling that she herself is discovering the poem as she writes it: I don’t imagine her composing a killer last line and reverse-engineering the poem in order to get there. This focus on process rather than destination results in a sense of continual unfolding/enfolding. Her subject becomes the inevitable changing of mortal forms when acted upon by time, within time.

She herself has said (in BBC Radio 4’s Book Club programme) that a poem on the page is like a musical score: it is a description of a performance, with the words being punctuation for the silence (paraphrasing T S Eliot) which contributes as much as the words do. The book’s final poem, ‘Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn’, is a performance piece beginning in darkness (represented in the book by a black page). Immortal but without eternal youth, his is a voice without end: like the dawn it is constantly beginning and is gone without ever quite happening ‘but is always almost’.

The ten rhyming couplets of the opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, echo Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ (‘To see a world in a grain of sand/ and heaven in a wild flower’) in their apparently simple musicality:

It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again

Nothing is still. All is in constant motion and transformation:

It is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower

as we move from the natural world to the human realm:

then I might know like water how to balance
the weight of hope against the light of patience

and back to the natural world to close:

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again.

This sense of movement/momentum prevails throughout the book: the focus is (paradoxically) fixed upon the process of becoming, rather than upon states of being. In ‘Swan’, a rotting swan lifts ‘from the plane-crash mess of her wings’ to see

how thickly the symmetrical quill points
were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
of the heart saying…

what a waste of detail
what a heaviness inside each feather

The swan imagines herself as a bride, recalling Mary Oliver’s ‘all my life / I was a bride married to amazement’ (‘When Death Comes’).

The other side of amazement is a bewilderment that results in a fractured or dislocated articulation. Orpheus (‘Severed Head Floating Downriver’) and Tithonus are compelled to speak without ever getting out what they mean. Orpheus’ sense of self is eroding as he floats along (‘the water drinks my mind’) while in ‘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

Just as we are standing off at a safe distance, ‘they’ shifts without warning to ‘we’:

there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly
it’s going to be impossible to think clearly now until next winter.

It’s intriguing. The flies evidently lack the benefit of the page’s white space, its silence. And yet there is an immediacy here: not ‘thoughts about’ something. What does Oswald mean to convey by foregrounding this insect sound? And how does it relate to expression/comprehension through language, conveyed through the rhythm as much as the understanding of the meaning of words (which is, after all, a large part of poetry)? I need to live with these questions a while.

The beauty and vividness of the imagery holds everything together. Take the badger in ‘Body’ meeting with his body’s death, for instance, who

went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

The title Falling Awake evokes the tension between the gravity acting upon our physical being and awareness as the alert mind simultaneously takes flight. Not for her the transcendental ascension narrative: inescapably earthbound, her vision soars yet.

Reading Wrap-Up: September 2018

This month’s highlights:

Bee Journal by Sean Borodale. “You are not fully ordinary, bees.” I wasn’t sure I would enjoy this documentation of bee-keeping: poet Alice Oswald calls them, not disparagingly, pre-poems and note poems (of which I have a deskful of my own: finish the things, damn it!). I loved it! Here we have the mundane and the mysterious inseparable from each other, with a sense of immediacy throughout.

I opened the jar of honey I bought on holiday and sipped a little from a teaspoon. After reading these poems it tasted no less than a bee-spit sacrament.

The Great Passage by Shion Miura, translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter. In which a small team of lexicographers compile and publish a dictionary over fifteen years. Sounds dry? Not in the least! It’s delightful: a feel-good book without saccharine or fluff. I enjoyed the contrast between Majime’s precision and exhaustive referencing with the definition of words and his ineptitude with the spoken word. As for his love letter, it is at once unintentionally funny and painful.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell. If the truth be told, London Above is scarcely less baffling and stressful to me than London Below is to Richard, a hapless everyman who finds himself in mortal peril in a world he didn’t suspect even existed. This is the first I’ve read of Neil Gaiman. I enjoyed it very much and didn’t want it to end. It has fascinating ideas, great characters, humour amongst the deadly serious bits, and plentiful illustrations in the margins. What more could I ask? Well, maybe more of the splendidly awful Mr Croup, an utter savage who speaks as though he digested a Stephen Fry vocabulary-builder at a formative age.

This month’s disappointments:

Ink by Alice Broadway. So, tattooing of significant life events is compulsory and, after death, one’s skin is made into a book to be honoured or publicly burned. Add a charismatic leader ramping up fear of the other and exhorting a return to “traditional values”. It had me feeling so tense at the start but as I kept turning the pages, that tension wasn’t sustained or adequately resolved and the book failed to deliver on its promise. Regrettably, it reads as though Broadway spent the bulk of her writing and editing time on the opening chapters with the rest being all rather “meh” with a headlong dash to the finish, where it becomes apparent that this is volume one of a trilogy. I won’t be reading on.

I spent too much money again although, in fairness, three of the books were bought during a special occasion day out (and two of those had been on my wishlist for some time). The other two I bought after first borrowing copies from the library. Poetry.