Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

"Falling awake" by Alice Oswald (Cape, 2016)

The first poem, "A short story of falling" is neat and likeable, beginning with

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

ending with

which is the story of the falling rain
that rises to the light and falls again

which continues the cyclic theme of the book's title. Better still is the 2nd poem, "Swan".

A rotted swan
is hurrying away from the plane-crash of her wings
getting panicky up out of her clothes
climbing out of her own cockpit

and lifting away and bending back for another look
at the clean china serving-dish of a breast bone
it is snowing there
and the bride has just set out
to walk to her wedding

ending with a tolling bell. I thought at first it was about a swan taking off, seeing its broken reflection. Then I thought it was the soul of a swan leaving its body. Then the wedding imagery kicks in, followed by hints of death. It's my favourite poem at the moment.

"Shadow" is also fairly straightforward - that falls at dusk/ out of the blue to the earth ... being dragged along crippled over things as if broken winged ... with the flesh parachute of a human opening above it ... my own impersonal pronoun/ crumpled under me like a dead body ... hour by hour more shade leaks out

Several poems are in standard forms: "Fox" is 5 short-lined xaxa quatrains; "Two voices" is 2 stanzas of 7 rhymed iambic pentameter couplets, etc.

At her best she's effective both at small and large scales. Here's some small-scale imagery -

  • this is how the wind works hard at thinking/ this is what speaks when no one speaks (p.10)
  • I notice the fatigue of flowers/ weighed down by light (p.11)
  • Here is the sensation of watching the dawn break above the tree line: it makes me shiver like a dead/ soldier returning his empty clothes/ to his bride but she’s married/ someone else ("Tithonus")

But I struggle with many of the longer poems. I can't believe that "Dunt: a poem for a dried-up river" is very good. This is 20% of "Alongside beans"

      covering first one place

and then another

and after a while another place

      and then another place

            and another

                  and another

which I don't get. In another poem it takes a third of a page to say "and then another thing and then another". I can see something about time as continuous becoming vs time as sequence, but it doesn't pass the call-my-bluff test. I got little from the second half of the book, which starts after a black page (night) at 4.17am. It's a long piece called "Tithonus" (printed mostly on the right-hand-side of unnumbered pages) that ends 46 minutes later at dawn. I noticed in the reviews that the later Beckett's mentioned, and I can see why - the repeated phrases and fragmented lyricism for the spoken voice. And the spirit of Jory Graham hovers.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway (an astonishing book of beauty, intensity and poise – a revelation)
  • Fiona Sampson
  • Dave (The last of these three couplets [in the 1st poem] feels almost too neat, leaning heavily on its rhetorical power to convey two relatively loud abstractions for a poem (and a collection) that finds its meaning almost entirely in the concrete, observable world. That such a noticeable exception to the rule appears in the opening poem seems significant)
  • Charlotte Runcie (There's a case to be made that she is our greatest living poet.)
  • Theophilus Kwek
  • Dan Chiasson (“Swan,” perched on the cusp between myth and mechanics, is a kindred performance, a poem about grace and its tendency to hide when we seek it. With its mercurial line and widely variable pacing, the poem acts as a covert defense of poetry, a chrysalis capacious enough for a swan. ... Her nature poems tend to be revisions of earlier poems on the same subjects: ... Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox” stalks Oswald’s “Fox.” This isn’t simply influence or homage, though Oswald is generous about crediting her forebears. The deeper urge is to collaborate with the dead)
  • Laurie Smith (In every case the poem develops into a meditation on the life of nature and sometimes on death (a rotting swan, a dead badger, dying flies) with an intensity of focus and originality of language like no other poet writing today or ever.)
  • Roger Cox
  • Phil Brown (this latest collection is the fullest integration of Oswald’s twin wellsprings of inspiration - the natural world and the canon ... 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.)
  • Pierre Antoine Zahnd (As a whole, the reception attending Oswald’s new volume Falling Awake, which has been unanimously positive, has lacked critical nuance. ... From ‘Vertigo’: ... The diction is loaded with unspecific, abstract terms that carry little momentum, and fails to retain much dynamism as a result. Poetry, after all, needs to be engaging if it is to produce an emotional or intellectual response, and these lines feel vague and flat in this regard. ... The weakest aspect of Oswald’s language is its reliance on image, simile, and personification, without ensuring that each figure has been earned, justified, by the text. ... An odd tendency of the book is to start developing a quieter, more stable metaphor and then pit it against a jarring simile ... The poems occasionally culminate in writing that feels limp and nonchalant. ... It is rare to read a collection in which a poet with such obvious skill leaves you with the impression of clumsiness; ultimately the book is one of the most uneven poetry collections I know of.)
  • Robert Baker (Drawn to popular forms such as the ballad, Oswald understands a poem to be first of all a “sound-map,” a shape of sound in air. ... Almost all the poems of Falling Awake are entirely without punctuation)
  • Lucy Mercer (Through a philosophical route then, I will quickly attempt to cover how Oswald has boldly approached time in Falling Awake via a two-part of methodology, which I have termed ballast and dropping. ... So, ballast. The first section of Falling Awake comprises of a number of poems that are mostly close observations of the movements of immediate (‘natural’) and universal objects )

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