Review: Alice Oswald - Falling Awake

18/07/2016 14:56


Is there a word more fitting for the cultural climate of Britain in 2016 than pandemonium? When Milton coined that word, it was to describe the parliament of rebel angels conspiring in braying, self-interested tones, to bring about the fall of man. He was of course also referring to the conditions necessary to bring about civil war, regicide, spiritual isolation from Europe and a brutal draconian Republican rule. What better noun then, than pandemonium to describe where we are now? What better adjective to describe our political state than postlapsarian? We have bitten the fruit and may now prepare ourselves for the pains of banishment.

It is hardly surprising that Alice Oswald, whose latest collection Falling Awake is nominated for the Forward Prize, often seems to be in consideration of Milton's Eve; she is a classicist and a gardener, an expert in the epic tradition and a riverside wanderer.

The motif of 'falling', in its literal, metaphorical and Biblical senses, is found throughout the collection as the poet evokes a worldview based on temporariness, mutability, decomposition and deadlines. The collection opens with a misleadingly Larkin-esque lyric, 'A Short Story of Falling', in which the water-cycle we all learned in secondary school becomes an allegory for reincarnation as "the story of the falling rain / that rises to the light and falls again."

I refer to this approachable, aphoristic series of couplets as misleading, because the collection immediately strays into the more liminal, stylistically undefined territories which Oswald is better known for. The poem 'Swan' enacts the decaying and dying moments of the bird coming apart in the water as the structure and syntax of the poem mimics the dismantling process:


This use of space to reinforce the disjoint and rot at the poem's core puts me in mind of Oswald's fellow classicist, Anne Carson, whose 2006 collection, Decreation, makes similar use of the page to symbolise the putrescence of all things.

This image of a swan, cognisant of its own decomposition is one which is reiterated by degrees throughout Falling Awake in ways which evokes the meditative fieldwork of Dart and the academic rigor of Memorial. In this sense, this latest collection is the fullest integration of Oswald's twin wellsprings of inspiration - the natural world and the canon.

When Oswald focuses her efforts upon the close observation of living things, she frequently demonstrates the microscopic precision of Emily Dickinson such as describing the 'thin meticulous grass' in 'Cold Streak' or:

"This is the day the flies fall awake mid sentence / and lie stunned on the window-sill shaking with speeches" ('Flies')

But Oswald's most engaging trick is to consider living creatures with such trained concentration that, almost without the reader noticing, she inhabits their consciousness. The poem 'Flies', seamlessly shifts from discussing its subject as 'they' before shifting into the collective first person 'there is such a horrible trapped buzzing wherever we fly / it's going to be impossible to think until next winter'.

As one would expect from a collection hinged on rises and falls, the position of the sun and the phase of the day are ever-present and the position, colour and quality of light are what give each of the poems its aesthetic. The poem 'Aside' takes place in a 'Museum of Twilight', 'Evening Poem' depicts the 'old choir of hours / returning their Summer clothes to the Earth' and in 'Vertigo', 'the light is still a flying carpet / only a little white between worlds like an eye opening / after an operation'. The starkest enactment of the 'fall' from light to dark in this collection is the inclusion of a plain white space on page 35, and the two plain black sides on pages 43-44.

This blackness precedes the collection's main sequence, 'Tithonus - 46 Minutes in the Life of Dawn'. The conceit of this lengthy, experimental piece is to capture the waking consciousness of Tithonus, the Trojan who was mistakenly cursed to an eternal life without eternal youth by his lover Eos, forced to live out the frail tedium of each day's descent through old age.

The sequence itself follows Beckett's trope of demonstrating despair and boredom by inducing it in the reader so that, as we read Tithonus' final words - 'may I stop please' - we may well share his sentiment. Then, following two more blank white pages, we have this slow fade to white:


Has the reader noticed by this point that the pages are no longer numbered? Quantity is an irrelevant concept to those with no deadline.

In the press materials for this collection, Cape has chosen to mention that 'these are poems that are written to be read aloud', and it is in this sense that the book itself presents some difficulties. As with Dart, and Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, Falling Awake provides the notation for an immersive aural experience; its current existence as a printed collection is not the incarnation for which it will be most celebrated, should Oswald choose to record it as a performance. Whilst Falling Awake doesn't give sufficient grounds for the slightly sycophantic suggestion that Oswald is 'our greatest living poet', it is certainly a strong contender in this year's Forward Prizes, and a highly compelling meditation upon transience.