Book review: Falling Awake by Alice Oswald

Alice Oswald. Picture: Contributed
Alice Oswald. Picture: Contributed
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Alice Oswald makes startlingly original imaginative leaps in her seventh poetry collection

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald | Cape Poetry, £10

After reading Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an ecstatic letter to the younger man, in which he praised him for his “free & brave thought” and said that in his verse he found “incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be”. The same could be said of Alice Oswald’s seventh collection, Falling Awake, shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize, in which she not only makes some startlingly original imaginative leaps, but also manages to find the words to describe the scene when she lands.

Take her poem “Vertigo”, billed in the first line as a “two minute life of rain”, in which she takes us soaring up into the early morning sky and shows us individual raindrops waiting to fall to earth: “no turning back / each drop is a snap decision / a suicide from the tower-block of heaven”. An unremarkable everyday occurrence is transformed at a stroke into countless miniature dramas.

Similarly, in “A Rushed Account Of The Dew” she writes: “I want to work out what it’s like to descend / out of the dawn’s mind / and find a leaf and fasten the known to the unknown / with a liquid cufflink / and then unfasten / to be brief / to be almost actual”. It’s one thing to wonder what it must be like to be a dew drop – and how many people in the whole sweep of human history have ever stopped to think about that? – but by describing what she sees in her mind’s eye in such a tactile way, the poet also gives us a sense of what it might actually feel like.

Oswald is sometimes referred to as a “water poet”, not least because she cemented her reputation (and won the 2002 TS Elliot Prize) with Dart, a book-length poem that followed the river of the same name from source to sea. As described above, there’s no shortage of water in Falling Awake, and rivers feature prominently too, although here they tend to be places of death and decay, another prominent theme. In “Severed Head Floating Downriver” we follow Orpheus’s head as it bobs along the River Hebron after he is dismembered by the Maenads, while, as its title suggests, “Dunt: A Poem For A Dried Up River” charts the gradual degradation of a doomed watercourse until it is a mere “puddle midden”.

The crowning glory of the collection is “Tithonus”, originally conceived as a 46-minute performance piece, in which the poet imagines the titular character from Greek mythology, granted immortality by Zeus but doomed to grow ever older, slowly being driven to distraction by the breaking of a midsummer’s dawn – a gradual awakening of the natural world that is rendered, as you would expect, in all its minute and multifarious splendour.

• Alice Oswald, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 19 August