Sunday, 2 July 2017

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald       {Reviewed by THOMAS}
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”.

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