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: April 2019

Highlights

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver. Published by Faber, 2018. I read the e-book, borrowed from the library on Overdrive.

Well, this is a conundrum! It’s the second of her novels that I have read and, once again, I might have expected to hate it but actually loved it. Why? I cannot abide being bludgeoned with a lecture in a novel and Kingsolver landed many a hefty didactic punch. And yet, reading her, I feel that I am in a safe pair of hands. I have yet to get to the bottom of why I will allow her to preach so. Is it because of her characters? Is it the satisfying patterning of her prose?

Alternating the chapters through two protagonists runs the risk of disrupting the story’s flow and frustrating (or at least compromising) the reader’s engagement. I quickly became engrossed in both parallel stories: contemporary Willa and 19th Century Thatcher Greenwood both learn that this house they have “inherited” and are living in is literally without foundations. In short order their lives begin to fall around their ears, with their personal catastrophes playing out within the family, the wider community and ultimately on a worldwide scale… and back to the personal again.

To be sheltered is to be safe, or to be protected from harsh realities (which itself may be a culpable privilege). To be unsheltered may be a terrifying and potentially fatal exposure to the elements. Or it could be the source of freedom.

Disappointments

Answering Back: Living Poets Reply to Poetry of the Past edited by Carol Ann Duffy. Published by Picador, 2008. I read the paperback, borrowed from the library.

Fifty contemporary poets respond to a poem of their choice: what a great idea! As with all anthologies there are hits and misses. I regret to conclude that in many cases the original poem was the stronger of the two and the smirking smart-arse school of poetry was over-represented. I found myself thinking of the Salvator Rosa self-portrait whose Latin motto (loosely!) translates as “either say something better than silence or shut the hell up”.

It is worth reading, though, for the clutch of excellent poems and it is always good to be introduced to poets I would not otherwise have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading wrap-up: March 2019

A month in which my book-buying ban went all to blazes.

Highlight

The Overstory by Richard Powers. Oh, this book! Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it would have been  my winner. Everyone I know who has loved it has said, “I’ll never look at trees the same way again!” I think I will never quite look at people the same way again. I don’t recall my ever being someone for whom humans are the only (or even, at times, the primary) species of interest. This book made me weep with rage, frustration and inconsolable sadness. But that’s not to say I didn’t love it. I enjoyed following the seemingly separate narratives as they came together. I felt for the characters (human and arboreal) through what came next. I appreciated having plenty to think about. It was so worth the four months I had to wait for it from the library.

Disappointment

(Not the book as a whole, which I actually enjoyed, but a particular aspect of it.) Witch Light by Susan Fletcher. Corrag is a solitary girl with a knowledge of herbs. She is also a witness to the Glencoe massacre. Put the two together and she’s set to be burnt for a witch. She is, quite simply, in love with life, however difficult and dangerous, and likewise with the natural world. I loved the vivid descriptions of her moment-to-moment experience of the Highlands. The actual love story felt superfluous, as though the author lacked confidence in Corrag as a sufficiently interesting character without having her sighing over a Jamie Fraser-alike. A disappointment, then, in a book that otherwise has much to recommend it.

Reading wrap-up: February 2019

Highlights

The most magnificent birthday book-haul I have ever received! Many of these came from friends on Litsy.

My most impactful read of the month was Finding Baba Yaga by Jane Yolen. Baba Yaga and I go back a long way. I chose to read this book one chapter at a time last thing at night, so that it could best do its work on me.

On the surface it’s a simple tale but as with all great folktales, it has resonances that grow more pronounced the longer you spend in their neighbourhood. Jane Yolen’s version has themes of female friendship, the parent/child relationship, and the power and policing of the spoken word.

The verse proved to be the ideal form for weaving together the familiar, if strange, world of Baba Yaga and the contemporary story of teenage runaway Natasha’s flight from an abusive/negligent family. I feel prose would have required too much exposition and would have seemed contrived. Poetry gives both stories the space and opportunity to encounter each other and co-exist, enriching one another in the process.

Shot through with barbs of wit and moments of real sadness, I think it’ll stick with me a while, this book.( And, on a personal note, it has shown me a potential way forward with a writing project of my own that stalled when I became afraid of it.)

Reading Wrap-up: December 2018

For the third month in a row, I have stuck to my self-imposed book-buying ban. I did have a good Christmas book haul, though!

Highlights

Sea Summit: Poems by Yi Lu, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. I love this book (or, at least, I love the half of it that’s in English)! At first glance a direct descendant of traditional pastoral poetry, it soon reveals that passively consuming nature (and pretty poems about it) is not an option. Rusty iron girders have a place alongside the birds and flowers and all demand that the reader, no less than Yi Lu herself (with her remarkable porosity) be an active participant. Yes, our actions affect the natural world but so are we changed in our trajectories by the appearance, if we only notice it, of a bird.

Disappointments

The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. Stuff and nonsense! Had I not been reading this for the #ShakespeareReadAlong on Litsy, I would have bailed out long before the final act. Leontes, King of Sicilia, has a ridiculous hissy fit and thereby causes heedless death and suffering to the people who should be under his protection. Polixenes, his erstwhile best friend and King of Bohemia, has a hissy fit of his own which makes everything right in the end, if you can overlook said death and suffering. Powerful men indulging in behaviour that would shame the kids splashing about in the water corner at playgroup: just what we need! And as for that ending?! Nope! I liked Paulina. I loved the language. And that is all.

Reading wrap-up: November 2018

For the second month running I have stuck to my book-buying ban!

Highlights

Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia by Martin Shaw. He shares several Dartmoor stories, walking the ground of their being as he does so, and offers a lively, thoughtful and sometimes surprising commentary on them, informed by his belonging to this land. This may sound rather narrow in scope but he covers a lot of cultural ground. I found the book fascinating, exciting to read, challenging at times and at others a huge relief. I don’t want to say too much about it though. It’s still percolating. Have a listen to the man himself: drmartinshaw.com/books/scatterlings

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Evasive celebrity novelist Vida Winter invites amateur biographer Margaret Lea to stay in her Yorkshire mansion to hear her tale and write her life story. But why has Vida chosen Margaret? And what hidden connection does Margaret have to Vida’s story? This is a proper, good old-fashioned gothic novel. I watched the BBC adaptation (with Olivia Colman and Vanessa Redgrave) a while back so knew I would enjoy the story but I wasn’t expecting Margaret to be such a bookworm! I loved all the nods to the Bronte sisters but am not quite the fan of a “proper” ending that Margaret is: I prefer things a little less neatly tied-up. (And, yes, I did have a wistful hankering after Vida Winter’s non-existent novels.)

Disappointments

Game of Thrones (Volume 1) by George R R Martin. Curiosity got the better of me: I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It’s not bad but it isn’t my cup of tea. The chaps charge about being heroic or dastardly and the women mainly get to be their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters. (I’ve been told that they “come into their own” later. Well, I would hope so: there’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from having fabulous hair.) I think I’m too much of a bolshevik to tolerate all the my-lords and my-ladies. All in all, Tyrion was the only character to hold my interest, probably because he is morally ambiguous and he thinks.

Reading Wrap-up: October 2018

A month in which I stuck to my book-buying ban and made good use of the Poetry Library’s online collection.

Highlights

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve chosen this as my pick of the month (though Burial Rites is a close second) as I think it is the one that will stay with me the longest.

“To succeed, to enjoy lasting good fortune, one must have a different temperament from mine. I shall never do what I could have done and ought to have wanted and pursued.”

Vincent, friend, you did all right! These are fascinating letters which, naturally, give great insight into his art and what it meant to him but which also show him and his work interacting within a wider context than that of the isolated madman of his “mythology”. He comes across as a driven and difficult individual, yes, but also a deeply thoughtful and vitally involved one. The collected letters are simultaneously heart-breaking and affirming.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. The story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland, for the murder of her lover/employer. I was astonished to learn that this was a debut novel, and will definitely look out for more of hers. I thought there were striking parallels (e.g. the nature of the crime committed, the circumstances and ambiguity of the woman found guilty) between this book and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace but, while Atwood is undeniably clever, I feel that Kent’s book has more heart: the last chapter, especially, made for difficult reading.

Disappointments

The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. I enjoyed Chaucer very much when I first encountered him, many years ago: here’s the cast of lively characters that I remember, with a host of boisterous tales to tell. I still enjoy Chaucer (and one day will re-read the original). Twenty and more years ago I loved everything I read by Peter Ackroyd so was looking forward to a treat: what a disappointment! Why? In a word, misogyny. Whether of the casual or deliberate kind, there’s no let up. The characters, Chaucer and Ackroyd all fall back on “no offence intended: just repeating what I heard” and while this may be accepted as par for the course in Middle English verse, in contemporary English prose the effect is harder to stomach.

The male characters reveal themselves by their words and behaviour as blusterers and blatherskites (Chaucer has a laugh at everyone’s expense, his own included) but the constant harping on the failings of women in a modern voice is at first irritating and then cumulatively demoralising. That’s not my idea of entertainment.

Letters Against the Firmament by Sean Bonney. Written against a backdrop of “austerity” and other Tory doublespeak, I get the rage, I really do. But, for me, this collection is an example of what happens to poetry when it is disembodied, so to speak, when the idea becomes paramount. And it reads as though written not from a need to communicate but to enjoy the big, shocking sound of its voice bouncing off the walls.  The result is phrasing such assertions as: There is no prosody, there is only a scraped wound – we live inside it like fossilised, vivisected mice. Well that’s certainly a striking and nasty image but what on Earth does it MEAN? Anything? Imagine putting hours of machine gun fire into Google Translate: there you have it.

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.