Caught by the River


13th June 2008

by David Wheatley and originally published in The Guardian on Saturday July 13, 2002.

Like Langston Hughes, Alice Oswald has known rivers. After three years recording conversations with people who live and work on the Dart in Devon, she has produced a remarkable homage to it and them, called simply Dart. The poems of Oswald’s 1996 debut The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile were full of well-trimmed lyric borders, reflecting her love of gardening, but no proof against the invading power of water, disrupting our human arrangements and losing itself in itself: “the very integer / and shape of water disappears in water”. From its burbling beginnings in Cranmere Pool all the way to the sea, Dart is an attempt to give an outline to that disappearing shape, exploring the balance between the river as wild force of nature and biddable resource. But rivers can be many things simultaneously. Heraclitus thought we couldn’t step in the same river twice; Wordsworth saw in the river Duddon not flux but continuity, “what was, and is, and will abide”. Most of the time, Eliot writes in “The Dry Salvages”, the river is “unhonoured” and “unpropitiated”, without ever ceasing to be the “strong brown god” of myth, “sullen, untamed and intractable”. Dart opens with a scene of primal beginnings. An old man of the river lumbers into the poem like Edward Thomas’s Lob, and Oswald’s constantly shifting metrics take one of their sudden forward surges:

Oswald prefaces Dart with a list of people she’s spoken to about the river, but despite this and marginal notes telling us who says what, “all voices should be read as the river’s mutterings”. Among the local deities muttering with the river’s tongue is the King of the Oakwoods, “who had to be sacrificed to a goddess”, a pattern the river repeats on later victims like local bogeyman, Jan Coo, and an unfortunate canoeist. Dart is “old Devonian for oak”, and Oswald underlines its sacred associations by mutating “Flamen Dialis”, the priest of Zeus, into “Flumen Dialis”, his river. The substratum of mythic violence is very Hughesian, and like the river of Ted Hughes’s 1983 sequence, River, the Dart can “wash itself of all deaths”, though after a drowning Oswald follows the dead man’s last thoughts with a respectfully blank page (“silence”). “The water is my only neighbourhood,” Sean O’Brien wrote in Downriver, and there is scarcely a line of Dart that does not squelch with riverine ooze. Oswald’s delight in the liquid textures of language show how much she has absorbed from the most onomatopoeic of all writers, Joyce. As Tom Paulin has reminded us in a recent essay, water was always central to Joyce’s aesthetic. In Ulysses Stephen Dedalus is described as “distrusting aquacities of thought and language”, while Mr Bloom is an inveterate “waterlover, drawer of water” and “watercarrier”. Hydrophilia wins out in Anna Livia Plurabelle, which Joyce told Arthur Power was “an attempt to subordinate words to the rhythm of water”, “the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of” the Liffey. And not just the Liffey: he worked in Oswald’s river too, when Anna Livia runs “like a lech to be off like a dart”. Oswald finds a match for Mr Bloom’s descriptive rhapsodies in her water abstractor, verifying his calibration records and monitoring for “colour and turbidity”. People are forever sifting the Dart or trying to harness its power: tin-extractors, millers washing their wool and making dyes, dairy workers using the water to cool their milk, not to mention its ecosystem of “round streamlined creatures born into vanishing”. Like Wisdom Hely’s sandwich-board men in Ulysses, Dart gives the alphabet human form when a swimmer spells out what she is doing by visualising her body as an S, W and M. Also Joycean, and Hopkinsesque, is Oswald’s delight in the water music of the Dart’s “foundry for sounds”, “jabber of pidgin-river”, and the springy Devonian of words like “bivvering”, “slammicking” and “shrammed”. Not all the Dart is equally inviting for swimmers. Eliot doesn’t go into detail about the colour of his “strong brown god”, but Oswald properly includes a sewage worker, describing “a rush, a sploosh of sewage, twenty thousand cubic metres being pumped in”, overlaying her “sloosh” with the “splash” of all that shit getting dumped in it. From the polluted present she returns to a time “when oak trees were men” and “water was still water”, retelling the story of Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, setting sail from Troy for the Dart (a tale that also turns up in David Jones’s The Anathemata, a book whose mythic method has much in common with Oswald’s). The river’s classical past survives in the names of boats (“Oceanides Atlanta Proserpina Minerva”), combining with the accounts of fishermen, boatbuilders and oyster gatherers to freight every passing tide with memory, “a whole millennium going by in the form of a wave”. Joyce’s Anna Livia is careworn and weary by the time she reaches the sea, and the Dart exacts its human toll too, with its old river pilots groaning about their arthritis but unrepentant (“tell me another job where you can see the whole sunrise every morning”). In the poem’s last lines 20 seals accompany the Dart out into the sea, and Oswald faithfully records its final Protean transformation: 

With their grandmother mouths, with their dog-soft eyes, asking

who’s this moving in the dark? Me.

This is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,

all names, all voices, Slip-Shape, this is Proteus,

whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,

driving my many selves from cave to cave . . .

This is a heartening book for all sorts of reasons. Oswald shows that poetry need not choose between Hughesian deep myth and Larkinesque social realism. Dart frequently combines the two, moving in the same sentence from religious invocation to marketing jabber (“may He pull you out at Littlehempston, at the pumphouse, which is my patch, the world’s largest operational Sirofloc plant”). She shows, post-New Generation, that wry ironies and streetwise demotic do not exhaust the avaliable range of tonal and thematic possibilities. She offers, in a word, what too much contemporary poetry forbids itself: ambition. Oswald joins Ciaran Carson, Iain Sinclair, Hughes and ultimately Joyce himself as one of the great celebrants of the genius loci, the spirit of place, or what the Irish call dinnseanchas, lovingly elaborated topographical lore. According to Stephen Dedalus, Epictetus was “an old gentleman who said that the soul is very like a bucketful of water”. Oswald has soul in riverfuls.  

David Wheatley is co-editor of Metre magazine.