Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Disclosure: Normally this would be super short, just saying that I’ve read some of Oswald’s work previously but have no personal connection to her. Jack Underwood’s Brief Manifesto for Kindness, however, has important questions about how ‘full’ these disclosures actually are. He notes that having this section at best does a half-job, publicly clearing one’s conscience without really troubling one’s right or capacity to pass judgement, particularly on writers who experience more oppression than I do, i.e. just about everyone. And I guess there’s real danger of doing the same right here, so suffice it to say Underwood’s note about ‘tactical soul-searching’ has been bugging me constantly, I recognise the irony of doing this at the prompting of another privileged white man, and as ever, I hope you trust me – I’ll do my best to earn it.

Review: Insofar as a book as meditative as Falling Awake can be said to have a clear thought-line or theme, it may be the deconstruction of the primacy of human voices and bodies. The book features several ‘talking’ animals (albeit speaking a language to which the reader has no access) and humans in various states of decrepitude. This preoccupation with primacy is in tension with Oswald’s extremely precise control of pacing – although the imagistic element of the poetry may be of, for example, a swan’s decayed corpse or a badger falling to its death, what each poem has to say is delivered with a miniaturist’s attention to the information conveyed  by every odd detail. So the corpse in ‘Swan’ is ‘the plane-crash mess of her wings’, ‘getting panicky up out of her clothes’, climbing out of her own cockpit’, ‘the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone’, ‘the leather underdress / of the heart’, ‘my own black feet / lying poised in their slippers’, ‘the / frozen cloud of the head / before it thaws’, ‘the bride has just set out / to walk to her wedding’. Connecting the uncommon abundance of unique imagery is the swan’s own surprise at finding herself so suddenly grounded –

‘bending back for another look thinking
strange
strange’

– and the list of metaphors can be roughly sifted into two groups, ‘flight’ and ‘(wedding) clothes’, and although the connection is never made explicit, the poem seems to purposefully weave between these domains before arriving at its final image:

‘the little black-lit church
it is so cold

the bells like iron angels
hung from one note
keep ringing and ringing’

What starts with a swan’s dismembered body ends with a traditional church wedding, via several backward looks. There’s an entire short story’s worth of narrative here if the reader wishes to reach for it, and it doesn’t sound like a happy one. Extrapolating a defined plot, though, would risk distorting what seems to purposefully lie a degree out of reach, the poem’s uncertainty (which the swan seems to share – ‘strange / strange’) integral to its meaning. Behind its lyric ambiguity is, I think, a very pointed arrangement.

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The opening poem, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, I think is partly intended to prime the reader for precisely this intensity of composition, to read an organising force behind the book’s disappearing meanings. The poem is ten couplets in irregular pentameter, with polysyllabic rhymes that more often than not finish on an unstressed syllable; the last couplet echoes the first and the entire poem formally embodies the cycles of water and life. As in ‘Swan’, there’s an empowering dissonance between the poem’s formal solidity and its unstable substance. The poem relies on its music as much as its sense, the constant falling away and returning:

‘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’

The last of these three couplets feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant. I think the line points towards ‘Tithonus’, the book’s closing long poem/performance piece about a mortal who fell in love with the dawn, who was granted immortality but not eternal youth, and thereafter waits every morning for a glimpse of his love. Maybe it’s a reach, but the book’s preoccupation with creatures (including humans) that barely survive or struggle to communicate might be rooted in the opening poem’s surprising note of optimism. There is certainly suffering, there is certainly decay, but there is survival, of the natural if not necessarily the human world. Maybe it’s only optimistic the way Beckett is optimistic.

Beckett might be a valuable touchstone in Falling Awake. The sequence ‘Village’ is the only poem that features reported human speech, and it renders that speech as almost-nonsense, perhaps attempting to make speech sound the way birdsong sounds to an untrained (human) ear, a gathering of stock phrases from which – like ‘Swan’ – a narrative could be inferred, if not one that could be easily or accurately translated:

‘somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud
somebody lost out late again say what you like
a boot by the granite not many of us left
living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening’

Like much of the Irish writer’s work, ‘Village’ is populated by folk just barely surviving, the poem relishing describing their bodies in unflattering terms: ‘that’s him bursting full of himself hook-nosed sinister walk / scars on each side of the wrist no teeth’, ‘spillikin legs always wet for some reason’. Oswald balances the sequence between a failure of communication and the will to keep going regardless, the poem’s last line sees its speaker(s) ‘living on the fluff of green of the last little floes of the earth’. Perhaps the undercurrent of Beckett’s apocalypticism makes this a far more troubling line than it might have been – those ‘very last floes’ sound rather conclusive.

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Although many poems in Falling Awake take place in the poet’s immediate physical space, along the River Dunt or in the poet’s back garden, more often than not the centred speaker is non-human, or, like Tithonus or Orpheus’ dismembered head, are subject to powerful debilitation of their senses of self. Arguably, of course, these alternate consciousnesses are filtered through the human and there is no escape from our own minds, but placed on a sliding scale it’s definitely towards the ecocentric end of the spectrum. Also arguably, this retreat from or occlusion of our own biographical selves is achievable for white people in a manner unavailable to poets of colour; Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation has at its heart this very problem, of recognising the essential shiftiness of selfhood while being compelled by colonialist politics to navigate someone else’s fixed and false expectations.

A brief, hopefully relevant aside: in the first six reviews of Falling Awake returned by google, Oswald is compared to: Don Paterson, Ted Hughes (x4), Tennyson, Homer, Marvell, John Clare, Whitman, Larkin, Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Heaney, Blake, Eliot, Dickinson (x3), Anne Carson, and, bizarrely, Claudia Rankine. Of note here is that if you make your favourite poets public reviewers will take that little shortcut to heart, also that this list has many men. In some ways it makes sense: Oswald is a classicist, and in an interview with Max Porter the poets she names are mostly male, Ovid, Hughes, Clare, Shakespeare and Edmund Waller outnumber Dickinson and Jorie Graham. Graham is the only living poet and one of only two from the last century. Judging by that same interview, in which she agrees with Porter’s statement that ‘I think it’s one of the great problems of our culture that we aren’t allowing people to think in certain ways’, Oswald doesn’t seem much taken with recent British poetry or its adjacent culture, arguing ‘We allow [poets] to be marketable, which means they must be categorised in order to be sold’. Those statements need a lot of unpacking: maybe ‘we’ indicates reviewers and publishers, and as ever it’s not clear who imbues these individuals with powers of censorship, but the fact Oswald reaches so far back into the word hoard so matter-of-factly seems significant. As Charlotte Runcie argues, Oswald ‘has made a career of writing powerfully about earth, strength and physicality – tropes many poets would earmark as masculine’: it’s a powerful thing to acknowledge that dividing subject matter into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ piles is nonsense. The fact that such topics remain gendered, however, is an indicator of how entrenched such gender norms are in anglophone poetry, and how important is Oswald’s occupation of that space. Perhaps the fault is not with poets being faced with either engaging hundreds of years of canonised poetry (some of which isn’t terrible) and being fixed in a hierarchy of dead men for life, or working further from the mainstream and being ignored/wilfully misunderstood. Reviewers could work harder to take poets on their own aesthetic terms and not be so eager to quick-fix someone’s authority/authenticity by invoking the dead. (I realise I mentioned Beckett earlier – I hope that was sufficiently contextualised.) What’s important, I think, is that Oswald gives gender essentialism exactly the respect it deserves; when in ‘Fox’ the poet mentions that the fox arrives in the poet’s garden:

‘in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name’

there’s probably some manner of reclamation work going on. As Runcie also points out, addressing gender so directly is not Oswald’s usual way. The fox appears ‘in her fox-fur’ and ‘her black gloves’, depicted in women’s clothing in a notably similar way to the swan in her ‘black feet … in their slippers’, is referred to by female pronouns and ‘trespasses’ in an effort to find food for her cubs (‘hungrily asking’):

‘as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf’

On one level it’s an uncanny encounter with the wild, a moment in which the comfort of the human is contrasted with the uncaring objectivity of nature; but gender is woven into the short poem’s fabric. It doesn’t seem a grand leap to read this as the female poet’s unwelcomed (‘no name’) intrusion on the comfortable ‘house’ of the anglophone canon; that it appears to be an exercise in self-sacrifice also rings true, considering the recent ignorant outbursts from such literary policemen as Private Eye and the Spectator (not to mention the much quieter, more respectable exclusions by the TLS and LRB, as noted by the VIDA count). Falling Awake may be primarily concerned with the difficulty of maintaining consciousness, but it bears in mind how this difficulty intensifies where it intersects with gender.

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The book’s finale is ‘Tithonus’, mentioned above. The book’s pages collaborate in the performance, as page numbers are discarded, not exactly replaced by a vertical line somewhat like a musical stave, denoting measures of time. Like much of the collection, ‘Tithonus’ is largely unpunctuated, except where space on the page is unable to represent pauses in speech (Falling Awake is rather remarkable in being so closely tied to traditional lyric yet so focused on recreating a human voice in action). Beyond the innovative presentation, though, is a profoundly sad telling of the myth. The poem is superabundant with skilful and keenly observed renderings of the dawn’s beauty into language:

‘here come cascades of earliness in
which everything is asked is it light
is it light is it light
the horizon making only muffled
answers but moisture on leaves is
quick to throw glances
and bodiless black lace woods in
which one to another a songbird asks
is it light is it light

 

 

not quite’

It is also keenly aware of Tithonus’ suffering among all this beauty, his inability to speak back to it (‘like a traveller staring through a / newspaper mouthing the headlines’), to communicate in it, only to observe it over and over in its constant variability. By the time the dawn has fully risen the poem  has considered the dawn from an incredible number of angles (‘every morning the same repeti- / tion spreads its infection a kiss gives / off a swoosh’), allowing humour and beauty and death a similar weight, Tithonus’ final, unbearably humble ‘may I stop please’ pulls at my heart even the third or fourth time round. It’s a remarkable piece, and I can only hope a live performance (which was staged with a harpist) gets recorded for posterity. One can dream. In any case, the poem’s tension between death-wish/acknowledgement of beauty reverberates throughout the book, quietly but firmly, and forms a powerful undercurrent, a constant reminder of the stakes in play. Runcie notes in her review that Oswald is at a remove from the London/BBC poetry scenes, and it may well be true that Falling Awake moves at right angles to the any of the prevailing aesthetic winds, to the point of feeling adrift in time. But it is a powerful, thoughtful, often funny book, with a significant message about the natural and human world.

Further reading:

Charlotte Runcie – review in The Telegraph
Max Porter – interview in The White Review
Theophilus Kwek – review in The London Magazine
Alice Oswald – lecture, ‘The Bearer-Beings’: Portable Stories in Dislocated Times

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