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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

Jane Simmons continues her series of reviews of contemporary women’s poetry.

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Jane Simmons is a retired teacher/lecturer who is now studying for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln. She has written several short stories and is currently working on her second novel and a collection of poetry. She is a member of the Lincoln-based Pimento poets and Outspoken Poets and regularly reads/performs her work in the Lincoln area. Although her main interests are poetry and prose fiction, she has written a short play which is to be published and performed in summer 2018.  Jane says she does not know how she ever found the time to go to work. Jane lives with her husband in a village outside Lincoln. They have one daughter – who is a vet, and Jane’s number one reader.

 

 

 

Alice Oswald: Falling Awake

Cape Poetry

ISBN: 978 1 910 70243 7

Alice Oswald read Classics at New College, Oxford before training as a gardener and working at Chelsea Physic Garden, RHS Wisley, and Clovelly Court Gardens.

In 1994, she was the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. Her first collection of poetry, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, won a Forward Poetry Prize in 1996, and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize in 1997 Her second book, Dart, won her the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2002. In 2004, Oswald was named as one of the Poetry Book Society‘s Next Generation poets Her collection Woods etc., published in 2005, was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize, and won a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. In 2009, she published both A Sleepwalk on the Severn and Weeds and Wildflowers, which won the inaugural Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and was also shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Memorial, a reworking of Homer’s Iliad, received critical praise for its innovative approach and stunning imagery, and won the 2013 Warwick Prize for writing.  Oswald was a judge for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016. In 2017, she won the Griffin Poetry Prize for her seventh collection of poems, Falling Awake. In September 2017, she was named as BBC Radio 4‘s second Poet-in-Residence, succeeding Daljit Nagra.

Falling Awake contains two poems based on stories from Greek mythology. The earlier of these, Severed Head Floating Downriver, tells the story of Orpheus after his failed attempt to win his wife Eurydice back from the underworld. After losing Eurydice again – by forgetting the instruction not to look back at her as she followed him from the underworld – Orpheus was torn to pieces by Maenads who threw his head into the River Hebron. The head continued singing and forgetting, filling up with water and floating away on the current of the river. The river in this poem introduces the idea of water which runs as a theme or motif through the collection of poems. The final poem, is the long performance poem Tithonus – 46 minutes in the life of the dawn. The goddess of the dawn fell in love with the mortal Tithonus and asked Zeus to make the young man immortal. However, she forgot to ask that he also be granted eternal youth. Tithonus continued to grow older but was unable to die. Eventually, the goddess locked him away in a room where he sat babbling to himself and waiting night after night for her appearance.

Other poems in the collection are nature poems: brief sketches of a scene; personal encounters with nature; people and communities in nature; poems about creatures and poems about water. It would be easy to be misled by the apparent simplicity of the subjects of some of these poems: a child hiding in a laurel tree; weeding between rows of beans in a vegetable garden; drinking from a pool; listening to a blackbird; hearing larks sing beneath a cold sun. However, Oswald uses language and imagery to make the reader re-appraise the everyday and see its beauty afresh. Of the larks’ song she writes

the dark sediment of their singing

covers the moors like soot blown under a doorway.

In other poems, the wind

wears surgical gloves

 rooks fly upwards

snipping at the clouds

we hear

the hiss of flowers closing their eyelids

each raindrop is

a snap decision

a suicide from the tower-block of heaven

and a bean plant emerging from the soil is

a rolled-up flag

then a bayonet a pair of gloved hands

then a shocked corpse hurrying up in prayer

Images such as these draw attention to what we have seen may times before but their effect goes beyond that of immediate recognition – they also repay close attention. This is especially true when images follow each other in rapid succession, as they do in the description of the growing bean plants. It is not just the individual images, but the combined effect of a sequence of contrasting images which invites this attention and closer examination.

Oswald regularly places herself in these poems. Sometimes she does this directly by writing in the first person, as in Fox

 

I heard a cough

as if a thief was there

outside my sleep

a sharp intake of air
and again, in Cold Streak, A Rushed Account of the Dew, and Shadow. Elsewhere, she does this indirectly, as in the use of this in the opening line of Flies

 

this is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence

 

and in Body

 

This is what happened

 

Either way, the effect is the same: the poet is presenting herself in nature, witnessing it. The poem becomes a testimony to nature and the reader is there with the poet in the act of witness. This effect – of witness or testimony – is enhanced by the frequent use of questions in the poems, and phrases such as I might know or I want to work out, where the poet approaches the subject in a spirit of enquiry.

 

In other poems, Oswald moves away from the use of first person to third person, presenting other people in nature. Village is one such poem – or part poem, presenting fragments of a longer poem originally published elsewhere. Although it is written in the third person, it presents the named inhabitants of the community directly to the reader. This is Thomas Lytch

 

that’s him in the rain now

very chilblain slow with a lump on his toe

somebody with a tread like that

The sympathy which she extends to the human characters in the landscape, she also extends to the creatures who inhabit the natural world. Their suffering, death and ultimate decay are all part of her essentially compassionate observation of her subjects.

I notice the fatigue of flowers

weighed down by light

It would be mistaken to see her presentation of suffering as unrealistic or in any way sanitised or romanticised. Oswald can celebrate the beauty of birdsong, but still

 notice the lark has a needle

pulled through its throat

or describe a dead swan

hurrying away from the plane-crash mess of her wings

observing her smashed body and destroyed beauty.

The whole collection is imbued with a sense of transience – from the mythological character Orpheus, through the lives of the creatures in the natural world, to the lives of the human beings who also populate its landscapes. In Slowed-down Blackbird, we see

three people in the snow

getting rid of themselves

breath by breath

the image vividly evoking the painful, physical difficulty of undertaking a long walk through winter snow. Here, the human suffering is shared by nature: the trees are

 exhausted

tapping at the sky

while overhead an observing blackbird is at a loss for song

——————trying over and over its broken line
——————trying over and over its broken line

This last observation, with its repetition, could equally well be interpreted as the poet herself at a loss for words.

Repetition is a device which the poet uses elsewhere to equal effect. She describes the motion of a hoverfly in

another place

and another

and another

Oswald is a poet whose observations are not limited to the visual; she seems particularly sensitive to the sounds of the natural world and these are described, not just in lexical snatches and fragments, but also through repetition and poetic techniques such as alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. The effects achieved are only enhanced by the almost total absence of punctuation which is characteristic of almost all the poems in this collection.

I usually end my reviews with a complete poem – but not generally the opening poem from the collection. Oswald’s her book-length poem Dart, about the Devon river of that name, won the 2002 TS Eliot prize. Water flows through Falling Awake too, beginning with the opening poem, A Short Story of Falling. I would go so far as to say that this poem reminds me of poems by William Blake; it is a poem of apparent simplicity, but that simplicity is only achieved through the exercise of great poetic skill

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

 

And every flower a tiny tributary

That from the ground flows green and momentary

 

Is one of water’s wishes and this tale

Hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

 

If only a passerby could pass

As clean as water through a plume of glass

 

To find the sunlight hidden at the tip

Turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

 

Then I might know like water how to balance

The weight of hope against the light of patience

 

Water which is so raw so earthy-strong

And lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

 

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

Jane Simmons continues her series of reviews of contemporary women’s poetry.

Alice Oswald: Falling Awake

Cape Poetry

ISBN: 978 1 910 70243 7

 

Alice Oswald read Classics at New College, Oxford before training as a gardener and working at Chelsea Physic Garden, RHS Wisley, and Clovelly Court Gardens.

In 1994, she was the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award. Her first collection of poetry, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile, won a Forward Poetry Prize in 1996, and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize in 1997 Her second book, Dart, won her the T. S. Eliot Prize in 2002. In 2004, Oswald was named as one of the Poetry Book Society‘s Next Generation poets Her collection Woods etc., published in 2005, was shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize, and won a Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. In 2009, she published both A Sleepwalk on the Severn and Weeds and Wildflowers, which won the inaugural Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry, and was also shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize. Memorial, a reworking of Homer’s Iliad, received critical praise for its innovative approach and stunning imagery, and won the 2013 Warwick Prize for writing.  Oswald was a judge for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2016. In 2017, she won the Griffin Poetry Prize for her seventh collection of poems, Falling Awake. In September 2017, she was named as BBC Radio 4‘s second Poet-in-Residence, succeeding Daljit Nagra.

Falling Awake contains two poems based on stories from Greek mythology. The earlier of these, Severed Head Floating Downriver, tells the story of Orpheus after his failed attempt to win his wife Eurydice back from the underworld. After losing Eurydice again – by forgetting the instruction not to look back at her as she followed him from the underworld – Orpheus was torn to pieces by Maenads who threw his head into the River Hebron. The head continued singing and forgetting, filling up with water and floating away on the current of the river. The river in this poem introduces the idea of water which runs as a theme or motif through the collection of poems. The final poem, is the long performance poem Tithonus – 46 minutes in the life of the dawn. The goddess of the dawn fell in love with the mortal Tithonus and asked Zeus to make the young man immortal. However, she forgot to ask that he also be granted eternal youth. Tithonus continued to grow older but was unable to die. Eventually, the goddess locked him away in a room where he sat babbling to himself and waiting night after night for her appearance.

Other poems in the collection are nature poems: brief sketches of a scene; personal encounters with nature; people and communities in nature; poems about creatures and poems about water. It would be easy to be misled by the apparent simplicity of the subjects of some of these poems: a child hiding in a laurel tree; weeding between rows of beans in a vegetable garden; drinking from a pool; listening to a blackbird; hearing larks sing beneath a cold sun. However, Oswald uses language and imagery to make the reader re-appraise the everyday and see its beauty afresh. Of the larks’ song she writes

the dark sediment of their singing

covers the moors like soot blown under a doorway.

In other poems, the wind

wears surgical gloves

 rooks fly upwards

snipping at the clouds

we hear

the hiss of flowers closing their eyelids

each raindrop is

a snap decision

a suicide from the tower-block of heaven

and a bean plant emerging from the soil is

a rolled-up flag

then a bayonet a pair of gloved hands

then a shocked corpse hurrying up in prayer

Images such as these draw attention to what we have seen may times before but their effect goes beyond that of immediate recognition – they also repay close attention. This is especially true when images follow each other in rapid succession, as they do in the description of the growing bean plants. It is not just the individual images, but the combined effect of a sequence of contrasting images which invites this attention and closer examination.

Oswald regularly places herself in these poems. Sometimes she does this directly by writing in the first person, as in Fox

 

I heard a cough

as if a thief was there

outside my sleep

a sharp intake of air
and again, in Cold Streak, A Rushed Account of the Dew, and Shadow. Elsewhere, she does this indirectly, as in the use of this in the opening line of Flies

 

this is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence

 

and in Body

 

This is what happened

 

Either way, the effect is the same: the poet is presenting herself in nature, witnessing it. The poem becomes a testimony to nature and the reader is there with the poet in the act of witness. This effect – of witness or testimony – is enhanced by the frequent use of questions in the poems, and phrases such as I might know or I want to work out, where the poet approaches the subject in a spirit of enquiry.

 

In other poems, Oswald moves away from the use of first person to third person, presenting other people in nature. Village is one such poem – or part poem, presenting fragments of a longer poem originally published elsewhere. Although it is written in the third person, it presents the named inhabitants of the community directly to the reader. This is Thomas Lytch

 

that’s him in the rain now

very chilblain slow with a lump on his toe

somebody with a tread like that

The sympathy which she extends to the human characters in the landscape, she also extends to the creatures who inhabit the natural world. Their suffering, death and ultimate decay are all part of her essentially compassionate observation of her subjects.

I notice the fatigue of flowers

weighed down by light

It would be mistaken to see her presentation of suffering as unrealistic or in any way sanitised or romanticised. Oswald can celebrate the beauty of birdsong, but still

 notice the lark has a needle

pulled through its throat

or describe a dead swan

hurrying away from the plane-crash mess of her wings

observing her smashed body and destroyed beauty.

The whole collection is imbued with a sense of transience – from the mythological character Orpheus, through the lives of the creatures in the natural world, to the lives of the human beings who also populate its landscapes. In Slowed-down Blackbird, we see

three people in the snow

getting rid of themselves

breath by breath

the image vividly evoking the painful, physical difficulty of undertaking a long walk through winter snow. Here, the human suffering is shared by nature: the trees are

 exhausted

tapping at the sky

while overhead an observing blackbird is at a loss for song

——————trying over and over its broken line
——————trying over and over its broken line

This last observation, with its repetition, could equally well be interpreted as the poet herself at a loss for words.

Repetition is a device which the poet uses elsewhere to equal effect. She describes the motion of a hoverfly in

another place

and another

and another

Oswald is a poet whose observations are not limited to the visual; she seems particularly sensitive to the sounds of the natural world and these are described, not just in lexical snatches and fragments, but also through repetition and poetic techniques such as alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia. The effects achieved are only enhanced by the almost total absence of punctuation which is characteristic of almost all the poems in this collection.

I usually end my reviews with a complete poem – but not generally the opening poem from the collection. Oswald’s her book-length poem Dart, about the Devon river of that name, won the 2002 TS Eliot prize. Water flows through Falling Awake too, beginning with the opening poem, A Short Story of Falling. I would go so far as to say that this poem reminds me of poems by William Blake; it is a poem of apparent simplicity, but that simplicity is only achieved through the exercise of great poetic skill

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

 

And every flower a tiny tributary

That from the ground flows green and momentary

 

Is one of water’s wishes and this tale

Hangs in a seed-head smaller than my thumbnail

 

If only a passerby could pass

As clean as water through a plume of glass

 

To find the sunlight hidden at the tip

Turning to seed a kind of lifting rain drip

 

Then I might know like water how to balance

The weight of hope against the light of patience

 

Water which is so raw so earthy-strong

And lurks in cast-iron tanks and leaks along

 

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

 

 

 

 

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Born in Merseyside,educated in Edinburgh and London and living in…