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
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.