Falling Awake by Alice Oswald
(Cape Poetry, paperback, 81 pages. Out now.)
Review by Robert Selby
“The all-night rain puts out summer like a torch,” wrote Edward Thomas, after lying awake in his Steep cottage one night in August or September 1911. The prose passage inspired by this sleepless night fed Thomas’s poem ‘Rain’, written in 1916 with the trenches in mind (“Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon”), but I’ve always preferred the less celebrated, musical ‘After Rain’ of 1914, with its alternating lines of four and two stresses in chiming couplets. Alice Oswald has borrowed the couplet rhyme in her own poem on rain, ‘A Short Story of Falling’, which opens her new collection, Falling Awake.
The genius of Oswald’s poem is that, whereas in Thomas’s the rain has temporarily passed with the night, leaving behind a residue that is just one part of the dawn’s leaf-strewn scene, the rain in ‘A Short Story of Falling’ is the life-giver of – and an element within – all things visible, including the poet herself:
It is the story of the falling rain
to turn into a leaf and fall again
it is the secret of a summer shower
to steal the light and hide it in a flower
drawn under gravity towards my tongue
to cool and fill the pipe-work of this song
which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again
The repeat at the end of the opening’s ‘rain’/ ‘again’ rhyme – echoing the conclusion of Thomas’s poem, in which the trees are hung with “crystals both dark and bright of the rain / That begins again” – is a neat representation of the cyclical nature of life, a preoccupation in this collection. The flowing ‘song’ of the full-rhyme pentameter, aided by the signature omission of traditional punctuation, helps minimise the distance between the description of the rain and the rain itself; we are left with a Thomas-esque egoless evocation of the natural world, the like of which readers of pre-Memorial Oswald collections such as Dart and Woods etc will be familiar with. The consistency is to be enjoyed but also, perhaps, to be questioned: the reader is waiting for something new, too.
And in ‘Village’, Falling Awake delivers it. These disorientating streams of consciousness surely have their origins in the speech of actual, elderly villagers somewhere, “living on the fluff of green of the last little floes of the earth”. In this way they recall Andrew Motion’s ‘Two Late Portraits’ (Peace Talks, 2015), the meandering monologues of two elderly ladies suffering from dementia that might sound nonsensical when overheard in the TV room, but provide a profound insight into the human experience – and the immense complexity of the human mind that interprets it – when recorded on the page by the poet. This is partly what Thomas’s friend Robert Frost meant by the ‘sound of sense’, something Motion’s poetry has increasingly become attuned to. Oswald’s villagers are similarly losing their grip on, or beginning to transcend, the prosaic:
somebody out thankfully not me out lost in the mud
somebody lost out late again say what you like
a boot by the granite trough not many of us left
living in the slippery maybe the last green places are you listening
Here Oswald deploys quatrains of long, un-enjambed lines which, when combined with the omission of punctuation, serve to replicate both the natural rhythms of everyday speech and its dizzying jumps between clauses. The lucid poignancy of the poem’s climax is thus thrown into sharper relief by the enjoyable incoherence that precedes it: one of the elderly perishes putting out the rubbish in the snow, while another – “as barely there as light as a lace curtain” – is forced for a week to live off the nettles she fell into until finally discovered.
The collection’s other infirm character is Tithonus, who – as his lover Eos, goddess of the
dawn, mistakenly asked the gods to grant him immortality and not eternal youth – is destined to be ancient forever. Oswald’s preface to ‘Tithonus’ informs us of what we are about to ‘hear’, not ‘read’. This can be interpreted simply as an encouragement to read the poem aloud (something which Tennyson, that great blank verse portrayer of Tithonus, would have heartily endorsed). However, it could also be received as the poet getting her excuses in early, by reminding the reader that the poem is foremost a performance piece – designed to last the 46 minutes it takes the sun at midsummer to rise into view from six degrees below the horizon, with interludes of music and silence – and thus may, on its 32 pages, fail to deliver the same power that it does (by all accounts) when Oswald recites it. Typographical dots denoting each second, included in the poem’s left-hand margin, can serve both purposes. After the rheumy eye of ‘Village’, the clear eye is returned:
now a lark in a prayer-draught shakes the air and the hour is quickened by crows with their rusty voice-handles and pre-world owls too impartial to be swayed and ear-splitting over-actual blackbirds and magpies coming straight from a meeting with misfortune
Still Tithonus – inured, one would have thought, to the dawn’s glory, having witnessed it a few million times before – has his “thick-skinned listening /[ …] washed by a single thrush”. His immortality is like an addiction to him: he wants it both to end and to endure. Pleasures once exquisite have worn insipid: the voice in his head is “like a file going to and corrosively so”; the sun does not rise but “saws the morning into beams”; his prayer – for that is what it is – at the poem’s end, “may I stop please”, is “in chorus with unanimous unrest”, unrest an inherent quality of life. Oswald’s interest in the cyclical story of life – “that rises to the light that falls again” – permeates Falling Awake, and the inability of Tithonus to take his place in that cycle makes him this excellent collection’s thematic aberration, even if he perhaps struggles, on the page, to be its finest accomplishment.
Robert Selby is a poet and journalist living in Kent. He co-edited Mick Imlah: Selected Prose (2015) and his poems and reviews have appeared in the TLS, New Statesman, The London Magazine, and elsewhere.