on 23 March 2002
'The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile' is one of the few slim volumes of verse on my bookshelf that I return to again and again. It is perhaps the most satisfying collection of poems that I have read in years. Alice Oswald is clearly, with this debut collection, already an accomplished and mature young poet who can write the occasional, short, 'yes-that's-right' poems that poke fun at the dullnesses of suburbia (see 'Privet Property') and - her forte - sensational, Narnia-like representations of Nature with a capital 'N'.
One of my favourite poems from this collection is the first, 'Pruning in Frost' (Oswald is a gardener, and a better one that Marvell would have made). Although this poem is clearly breathed out in Oswald's own, unique and very modern voice, like so much startling atmosphere on a cold morning, I love it because it echoes sections of those gentle, Conversational Poems of my favourite poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The almost magical frost-imagery conjures his 'Frost at Midnight', and the single phrase (and I write from memory), 'I imagine Pain, turned heron,/ could fly off slowly in a creak of wings', conjures memories of the bird that Coleridge blesses in 'This Lime-tree Bower, My Prison'. A sensational piece of poetry, both in itself and as a subtle intertext.
Just as water is essential to life, it is essential to Oswald's poetry. Many of the poems in this collection have the sea at their heart. Oswald's 'Sea Sonnets' are models of the fluid, but recognisable use of a 'fixed form'. And her imagery and diction in these is again precisely chosen, but at the same time delightfully ambiguous. Take this little phrase, for example (and again I quote from memory), 'the wind japans the surface'. It seems so innocuous, but it invariably sets me off on a train of contemplation: does she mean that a rough wind on a loathsome day is 'japan-blackening' the surface, or is that word, 'japan', supposed to swash into our minds the image of an Hiroshige wave, all bright blues and spraying whites? Or...? The ambiguity creates a new poem each time we read it.
As with all debut collections, there are some everso-slightly weaker poems, or at least poems that I like less readily; still, even these poeticise the pants off much contemporary verse, even that by poets whom I genuinely admire! For example, this collection has a long final poem, 'The Wise Men of Gotham' (again from memory, I'm afraid!), which I can happily take or leave, despite its occasionally fine sections.
I can not recommend this wonderful collection strongly enough - look, a reviewer's cliché, where Oswald would use none! It has something of Coleridge in it; something of Robert Graves in the few 'relationship poems'; and something of that other, fine, contemporary poet, Elizabeth Garret - at her very best. Instinctively, my poetry of choice is usually that social-concern-done-eloquently verse of Carol Ann Duffy or Adrian Mitchell at his most pinko-red, but, but, but it is a joy to know that there are still apolitical, natural-world-and relationship-poets who can prune, water and train my urban soul. BUY IT! I certainly intend to pre-order her forthcoming book, 'Darts'.