I wasn't quite sure about this volume when I first received it (from my wife, for my forty-sixth birthday), because it wasn't like any poetry I'd read before, but I quickly warmed to it. One thing that struck me is how much many of the poems are both visual and auditory experiences. "Tree Ghosts", on page 42, for example, includes a run through the alphabet in emboldened font, although you probably couldn't hear it as such at a reading (for example, the letter "a" occurs in "ballad", written "bAllad", with the "A" in bold). The same poem also contains FOOTNOTES, a reduced-font continuation of the poem itself. In "A Star Here And a Star There", the next poem in the book, Oswald makes effective use of font-reduction to mimic the wonder involved in gazing at the universe. Here you CAN imagine an aural equivalent, a kind of awed whisper. Elsewhere, the author plays with putting lower case letters where we might expect upper case, and eccentric spacing between sentences and parts of sentences. If this makes the whole thing sound gimmicky, have no fear. It isn't gimmicky at all: it works to produce an worthwhile effect.
What is that effect, I hear you ask? Oswald is a nature poet and the net consequence of her style is to restore a sense of strangeness to the world around us. There is something very traditional and very modern about this. In fact, Oswald's poetry feels a bit like what the Victorians imagined pre-Christian paganism to be like. I don't mean to disparage the Victorians or the poet herself here. Think of Hardy; think of Manley-Hopkins; think of the pre-Raphaelites. Now think of them as just a little bit less conventional, just a little bit more attuned to the Green Man.
Alice Oswald asks questions continually in her poetry, striving to understand the world: what is water in the eyes of water loose inquisitive fragile anxious (Sea Poem) Elswhere she gives us extraordinary structures: A song that assembles the earth out of nine notes and silence (Birdsong for Two Voices) And my current favourite of her poems Owl - a poem that can only be rendered in its whole form:
Owl last night at the joint of dawn an owl's call opened the darkness
miles away, more than a world beyond this room
and immediately, I was in the woods again poised, seeing my eyes seen, hearing my listening heard
under a huge tree improvised by fear
dead brush falling then a star straight through to God founded and fixed the wood
then out, until it touched the town's lights an owl's elsewhere swelled and questioned
twice, like you might lean and strike two matches in the wind.
Other poems I loved in this collection include: 'The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards', which is amazingly literal and heart-breaking. And especially, 'Various Portents' - just that, exactly, and an encapsulated history of the world. 'Tree Ghosts' is a ballad, chiefly about Clifford Harris, the last man in England to see a red squirrel. I loved also 'Another Westminster Bridge' and the poem following it, 'Hymn to Iris', which includes a "three-moment blessing for all bridges" and ends thus:
And may I often wake on the broken bridge of a word, Like in the wind the trace of a web. Tethered to nothing
Her poetry has a gorgeously flowing feeling to it, like the rivers she writes about, nothing if not adventurous and swift-paced, tightly rhythmic, pastoral and thrumming with the natural world's sights, sounds and a profound understanding of how nature works on our feelings.
Oswald's simply titled 3rd collection is a slim volume of luminous poetry.
The collection itself draws on Oswald's strong connections to nature, and includes many poems that echo the songs of the woods, of owls, of the moon, of stones and rainbows. There are other poems too, slightly more philosophical in content, such as the rich and sweeping "Various Portents"; a Christmas poem filled with ancient wonder and modern light:
Many visions, many digitally enhanced heavens, All kinds of glistenings being gathered into telescopes: Fireworks, gasworks, white-streaked works of Dusk, Works of wonder and or water, snowflakes, stars of frost ...
Elsewhere, her poetry juxtaposes the natural and the synthetic to glorious effect, words that you hear rather than read (from Owl):
an owl elsewhere swelled and questioned twice, like you might lean and strike two matches in the wind.
Sometimes I think I can hear Ted Hughes in the distance, not borrowed from, but almost pre-supposed. In his well-known poem, The Horses, the world appears to the light of the sun as: "Slowly detail leafed from the darkness." It seems Oswald's "Woods Not Yet Out" are behind it all:
the rain, thinking I've gone, crackles the air and calls by name the leaves that aren't yet there
Oswald's poetry is intelligent and fresh. If there is any hope in this world for poetry, then surely here is one of the poets who carries it. Oswald is a poet of such sensitive intensity and quiet skill, that every subject she touches upon is made finer by her words.
Readers looking for poetry with delicacy, confidence and individual flair; poetry that echoes nature, and poetry that is distinctly contemporary in craft, will find this book a treasure.
[FYI: This book was awarded the 2006 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.]