Sunday, May 28, 2006

Poem Excerpt: Alice Oswald

OswaldA few weeks ago, after David and I'd left Reggie's reading with the Baltimore poets, we ran into James O., a fellow writer and Canadian native, who asked me if I'd ever read the British poet-gardener Alice Oswald's long poem Dart (Faber, 2002). James told me in the most enthusiastic terms that I had to read this work, and described Oswald (at right, photo © Kate Mount, from British Arts Council) as the [TS] "Eliot" (!) of the 21st century, or something along those lines. I later said to David that not even Eliot would want to be the Eliot of the 21st century, if that were possible, but the aim of James's comparison was clear enough.

DartI haven't yet found a copy of Dart in the bookstores, and also have yet to purchase it online, but I did come across a packet of information on Oswald, who's variously described as one of the leading younger British poets, a nature "mystic," an heir(ess) to nature poet Ted Hughes, and a versifier who sees "Virgil" and "Homer" in her work. Oh, and fiction writer and critic Jeannette Winterson wrote a rapturous short review of this book. Truthfully, none of these factlets beyond Winterson's critique particularly makes Oswald that appealing or draws me to her poetry, but after James talked her up so fulsomely, I am going to seek out this belauded volume as well as her strongly praised first book, which has one of the most British titles I could imagine, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (Oxford, 1996).

Given the title of the book, I thought it might be about people "darting" around London or some other metropolis, a poem about the speed, multiplicity and simultaneity of contemporary life, and so forth, but it's a modern pastoral of sorts, or at least at points, about the world around and embodied in a British river from whose name the place names "Dartmouth" and "Dartmoor" derive. One of the bits about her that I found online was her interim report from her funded project to begin the writing of the millennial Dart River community poem that became Dart. She says about the project

Last year [1998], I applied for money to write a poem about the River Dart. My idea was to orchestrate it like a kind of jazz, with various river-workers and river-dwellers composing their own parts. The result was to be a river's story, from source to mouth, written by the whole Dart community.

After working at this for a couple of months, I began to think it was people's living, unselfconscious voices, not their poems, that were most awake to the river. At any rate, some people were overflowing with poetry and some people had a beautiful, technical way of talking about the river; but the two didn't often coincide.

It includes the following snippet, which has its moments, especially the mellifluous (or, given that it's a river, mellifluent) 10th stanza.... (There is more on the site, and I think I will give the entire 48 pages a go.)

From Dart:

Who's this moving alive over the moor?

An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.

Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?

keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

the source of the Dart - Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor,
seven miles from the nearest road

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all thtlt lies to hand is his own bones?

tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots. ..

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who's this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking...

the walker replies

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out, so now I've taken to the moors.
I've done all the walks, the Two Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won't let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I've marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks

Copyright © Alice Oswald, 2002.

1 comment:

  1. interesting. I have just read abt this book on a Welsh blog and would like to find it. However dont think it is readily available in the US. Thanks for this post. Quite interesting.