Carried Off to the World’s End: A Study of Alice Oswald in Five Parts




I.

“Tithonus once, the tale was, rose-armed Dawn / love-smitten, carried off to the world’s end // handsome and young then,” reads a translation of Sappho’s 58th fragment. Tithonus, as Sappho tells us, was Eos’ lover; Eos, the Titan of dawn, garnered him immortality, but forgot to finagle agelessness. And so, “yet in time gray age / o’ertook him, husband of immortal wife.” Or, as British poet Alice Oswald tells the tale in her most recent book, Falling Awake (2016):

It is said that the dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to make him immortal, but forgot to ask that he should not grow old. Unable to die, he grew older and older until at last the dawn locked him in a room where he still sits babbling to himself and waiting night after night for her appearance.

Oswald’s rendition of Tithonus’ miserable affair with the dawn comprises the second half of Falling Awake, which contains one long piece, “Tithonus,” and one short lyric, “And so he goes on.” Oswald calls “Tithonus” a 46-minute-long performance of the “sound of Tithonus meeting the dawn at midsummer.” Forty-six minutes, here, stands for the amount of time it takes on this particular Midsummer’s Day (the longest day of the year) for the dawn to turn into the full flush of morning; the poem begins at 4:17 a.m. (“when the sun is six degrees below the horizon”) and ends, then, at 5:03 a.m.

To be someone who can only be rendered as a sound of one’s own repeated actions. To be someone who perpetually meets the lover he has known for eons. To be someone who is wholly devoted to a transitive and always-dying time of day, the shoreline between day and night. To be someone whose story can best be told during a particularly anticipatory shoreline that precedes the year’s longest glare.

Of all of the things that Oswald’s Tithonus is, the fact that he both ages and is unable to die seems to be the most pedestrian thing about him. So too, in a way, is the fact that he is Eos’ lover (a fact that seems, in Oswald’s version, to be in the past tense; Eos appears to have tired of him). Oswald makes ordinary the two distinctive narrative points that structure the lore from which she pulls — and makes astonishingly strange, and startlingly specific, almost everything else.

These commitments to making-strange and to intense attention to detail touch Oswald’s Eos, too. In the original story, she’s essentially a Titan who, love-addled, made a silly mistake. She’s rosy-fingered, famously, in Homer; “early-born” in Hesiod. Other stories about her put her in bed with one man or another, or giving birth to one man or another. Sappho’s lingering “rose-armed” complicates this picture, but nevertheless the upshot is that Tithonus is “love-smitten.” In Oswald’s poem, she’s not personified in a particularly narrative manner: as the piece’s references to the degrees of the sun and to exact times of morning indicate, her Eos is as close to the meteorological as the mythological. At the same time, though, from Oswald’s very first description of the piece’s framework, we receive a bursting portrait of Eos that places her erotics closer to the vagaries and difficulties of her almost-namesake Eros than the pining of sentimental longing. If Oswald’s Eos is grief-stricken and yearning, it’s a cruel and dictatorial grief, and a yearning that looks much like disregard: frustrated with the fact that Tithonus is not “handsome and young” anymore and yet won’t just die, Oswald’s Eos imprisons him in a room. For what? His own safety, as he loses his bearings? Her freedom? The piece doesn’t say. What it does say is that Eos has penned Tithonus in a room where he can neither quite be with her nor ever be without her.

When in that room, rather than waking with Eos (as Oswald did to write this piece, rising every morning at dawn), Tithonus instead waits for her through the night, patient, mad, and in darkness, until her transient light fills his habitat. And then she leaves. And Oswald doesn’t tell us what Tithonus does in the day, but the last “sound” associated with him in the piece — the phrase “may I stop please” — and the fact that a short lyric follows that utterance, rather than a restful or a defeated silence, leaves us with a deep unease for him, and about him. The first stanza and a half of that short lyric reads:

And so he goes on dwindling away
maybe through too much prayer
is now too rarefied to tough
or settle anywhere

and falls to whispering here
as lost as dust

We’re also left feeling that unease for ourselves, and for what making poetry must, in Oswald’s vision, entail. I used the word “patient” to describe Tithonus, and Oswald herself has often spoken of the concept as one that is important to her; relatedly, in Falling Awake’s first poem, “A Short Story of Falling,” her speaker hopes that she “might know like water how to balance / the weight of hope against the light of patience.” But the aftermath of “Tithonus” throws an appropriately disconcerting air onto such a wish, much like one of the volume’s other poems, “You Must Never Sleep Under a Magnolia,” worries about the possibility that “Patience” may at one point “run out of // Patience.” Similarly, Oswald’s poems often are — and, we’ll later see, are sometimes explicitly titled as — prayers of a kind, although Oswald’s emphasis (as here in Falling Awake) tends to be the moment when such prayers grow risky. What becomes of Tithonus as he “falls to whispering here / as lost as dust”? How did he get there?

II.

The strangeness and specificity of such visions are characteristic of not only Oswald’s poetry but also her prose, like the nature column she writes in the London-based magazine about politics and culture called the New Statesman. Oswald’s nature columns ask the eerie questions and explore the shadowed spaces that much resemble those which fill her poetry, such as this tagline to a piece from February 2013: “What’s the difference between rot and decay?” This question, which could also serve as a summary of her story of Tithonus, leads into interwoven meditations on supernatural figures and detailed articulations of the facts of fungus. “After all,” Oswald writes, “ghosts have something in common with fungus. They are saprophytic and light-shy and thrive on rain and secrecy.” One month earlier, in a column about the moment in deep winter where the season begins to turn to spring, Oswald writes:

Seeds are simply obstructed leaves. If you bend a branch until it’s horizontal, the sap will slow to a stopping point: a comma or colon, made of leaves grown into one another and over one another and hardened. Out of this pause comes a flower, which unfolds itself in spirals, as if the leaf form, unable to keep to its line, had begun to pivot.

“Singular lives, transformed into strange poems through who knows what twists of fate — that is what I decided to gather into a kind of herbarium,” Michel Foucault once called archived internment records in the Bibliothèque Nationale. This approach to thinking about the lives and the poetry of humans and nonhumans is one that Oswald shares, saying in an interview with Granta Books’s Max Porter, “I think the best nature poets are Homer, Ovid, Shakespeare, because they include the human and the non-human in the same picture. How can you categorize that?” Whether in poetry or prose, Oswald’s multispecies and multi-object herbariums — like Foucault’s, and like the ones written by the poets she considers “the best nature poets” — are uncompromising and precise visions of a haunting range of experiences and obscure actions.

And, yes — as Oswald says of the work of Homer, Ovid, and Shakespeare — they are difficult to categorize. The first words of “Tithonus” are actually silence: it opens with a page mostly filled with blank space. Approximately two-thirds of the way down the page, that space is interrupted by a dotted line positioned about an inch-and-a-half away from the page’s left margin. The line runs vertically, and follows the repeating pattern of five small dots followed by one small line, quite like the markings on a ruler. The line runs throughout the piece. Most of the piece’s text is on the right side of this line, like the very first phrase that breaks the silence: “as soon as dawn appears.” But, now and again, on the left side of the line appears a single word: “Music.”

Dan Chiasson writes in The New Yorker that this dotted line suggests a variety of things: “an upended horizon, a thermometer, a musical score, a lifeline on an I.C.U. monitor.” It’s also a ruler, a metronome, a blinking aircraft warning tower, the dawn-adjacent wall of the room in which I imagine Tithonus lives. As though its markings are the only measurements that can guide or pace “Tithonus,” as soon as the dotted line appears, the book’s page numbers disappear. They are more or less entirely absent from the last half of Falling Awake.

The idea that this dotted line is a figure for a wall in Tithonus’ room is the one that sticks with me the most. The poem’s speaker, after all, is the sound of Tithonus meeting the dawn, and the line is the most consistent aspect of the poem, with all of the poem’s sounds coalescing around it. More still, if the line is a wall of Tithonus’ room, it indicates — as the piece’s text also does — that although Tithonus and the dawn are irreconcilably distinct and separated, the boundary between them is also a porous one, comprised of as much white space as barrier.

We might begin, as I did, with the premise that the right side of the line is the world outside of Tithonus’ room, where Eos actually lives and which Tithonus can never fully inhabit. In that right side erupt timestamps marking the passage of dawn, fleeting refrains, and breathless verse paragraphs that roil over their slim margins, such as: “and now a gorse bush as I glance towards it a sort of swelling yellowness a smelling somehowness / barely keeps still enough to be certain / while a fern unfolds growing outside the timezone” and “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.”

This is a place where Eos runs freely; Tithonus, in his room, will never feel “green ropes of wind white silks of field,” and we know even from the piece’s framing narrative that he won’t ever be able to inhabit, or run with, the dawn. Often, this contributes to the atmosphere of deep grief in “Tithonus,” which doesn’t seem to me to come from Eos (as, say, the myth’s earlier iterations may imply) but rather (fittingly, considering the piece’s title) from Tithonus. The piece’s numerous repetitions — its anaphoric use of “as soon as” being among the most moving — sound like prayers, which are by definition utterances issued in the hopes of something that does not exist or isn’t currently being experienced.

Yet, Tithonus finds a way to inhabit and run with the dawn all the same. What we hear on Eos’ side of the wall is being told to us by the poem’s “I,” that “sound of meeting” itself, rendered in something like what I imagine the “babbling” of Oswald’s Tithonus might sound like. Occasional declarative bursts or moments of defiance — “I am,” one entire right-side verse paragraph reads, and a preceding one contains only the phrase “the survivor” — remind us that Tithonus is the only reason we have any sounds or visions of Eos at all.

Which brings us to the left side of the line, the other side of the wall. This is Tithonus’ space: like a barren room with only one babbling person inside it, it’s starkly empty in comparison with the other side, devoid of birds and birdsong, lacking in gorse bush and fern. It is easy to picture a defeated and decrepit figure slumped in this space, living for only what he can glimpse outside of it, murmuring and incanting “as soon as,” hoping for something else.

But, once again, that’s not exactly, or only, what Oswald gives us, because there is in fact a word that emerges on the left side of the line: “Music,” “Music,” “Music,” “Music,” and “Music.” True: It’s a lacunary, nonspecific word. Also true: It’s sparse, particularly in comparison with the bustling verse paragraphs on the right side of the line. Still, though, the left side of the wall is far from empty. Tithonus’ solitary existence is not only about the porousness of the line separating him from his beloved and from the rest of earth, but it also, of its own accord, has a stubborn, mystifying, possibly faded, undeniable “Music.”

III.

When dawn turns to day, “Tithonus” ends, and the page numbers come back for one fleeting one-page poem, which doesn’t have a title on the page but is listed in the volume’s contents by its first five words, “And so he goes on.” The letters of this final poem fade into invisibility; the type lightens as the poem progresses. As I earlier mentioned, this poem is about Tithonus, who “goes on dwindling” and “falls to whispering” even after the end of his dawn-time ritual. It closes on a “unanimous unrest” and an unanswerable question:

what is the word for something
fashioned in the quick of hearing
but never quite
but never quite
appearing

These final words of the poem make dramatic the poem’s increasing typographical lightness, with “appearing” printed, as I cannot reproduce here, in the very faintest shade of typeface in the book. As the poem asks us for the answer to a mystifying riddle, the poem itself slowly ceases to appear. Oswald described fungus as “light-shy” and conceptualized flowers as spirals that unfold themselves; Falling Awake, which is shot through with light yet ceases to exist shortly after the break of dawn becomes full-fledged day, could be described similarly. The first half of the book, well before “Tithonus,” begets similar descriptors, even if its aesthetic is less outwardly mimetic. Falling Awake’s first poem, “A Short Story of Falling,” tells us that “it is the secret of a summer shower / to steal the light and hide it in a flower // and every flower a tiny tributary,” its rhymed iambic pentameter couplets tumbling through “the story of falling rain / that rises to the light and falls again,” ending without a closing punctuation mark as though to allow its last sounds to reverberate through the partially hidden glimmers and shadows of the “strange twists of fate” (to borrow Foucault’s phrase) that populate the volume’s successive pages.

Oswald’s attention to the shapes that poems can take on a page affects each aspect of their composition and design, from aspects that poets less frequently employ, like the lightness and darkness of the typeface, to those that are more frequently engaged (albeit often not with as virtuosic a range as Oswald consistently displays), like form and the substantive body of white space. When the poems in Falling Awake appear structured by invented rather than inherited formal principles (a dubious distinction, especially for a poet like Oswald), those inventions seem to simulate different ways in which light can scatter, shoot through, or hide in different substances, organisms, places, and people. At times, she seems to take the impulse of concrete poetry and marry it with her deeply figural sensibilities; “Swan,” as such, isn’t shaped like a swan, but progressing through it feels like wandering through an autopsy of one particular bird “whose one dead eye / is a growing cone of twilight.” In “Severed Head Floating Downriver,” “a lime-green light troubles the riverbed / as if the mud was haunted by the wood.” As the poem, which declares itself voiced by “water,” ebbs and flows across and down the pages, our own heads join the one in the poem as we also bob along its jumps on the page. The midline spaces in “Dunt” (a poem which has appeared in a few other places over the last 10 years, changing somewhat each time) make the poem flicker with ambiguity every time it asks us to “try again,” winding its way through the “low-burning glint of stones” inside it.

Oswald’s use of more “inherited” formal structures also entails meticulous attention. The quatrains of “Cold Streak” give the poem its “dazzling stubbornness / of keeping to its clock.” The two stanzas of “Two Voices” are each a sonnet, and make, thematically, the shape of an hourglass, with one beginning with the exclamation “I own the dawn!” and the other ending with “there’s nothing there.” The point where the first sonnet ends and the second begins looks like this:

[…] Glancing out
I notice nothing answers except light,
whose answer makes the earth’s hairs stand on end
and shadows fall full-length without a sound.

What is the word for wordless, when the ground
bursts into crickets? There’s a creaking sound
like speaking speeded up. A skeleton
crawls across leaves, still in its cramped position.

“Speeded” here is a remarkable moment; it fulfills the requirements of the line’s iambic pentameter (unlike, say, “sped”), but it also works as the undeniably correct choice. Oswald doesn’t always make her use of inherited forms invisible: she remarked, in a Guardian interview with Claire Armitstead, that she has lately “begun to envisage her work not as poems so much as ‘sound carvings,’” and, accordingly, we readers often know of what materials her texts are made. As here, she sometimes makes the decision to draw special attention to them. When she does, those decisions draw out some other aspect of the text; “speeded” rather than “sped,” for example, draws out that “creaking sound,” turns our eyes to the “skeleton […] still in its cramped position.” Preceding the stanza break, Oswald has already told us that “nothing answers except light”; after it, the poem’s mystifying quest for an obscure word (not a rare gesture in Oswald’s work, we know) is only met with the sound of a deathly footfall, moving in a halted thud over fallen leaves.

IV.

Oswald’s very first book, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile (1996), follows a structure much like Falling Awake’s, and in its center is a poem titled “Prayer” that will resonate with readers of the newer volume (recall even the fear in “Tithonus” of “too much prayer”):

And all I ask is this — and you can see
how far the soul, when it goes under flesh,
is not a soul, is small and creaturish —
that every day the sun comes silently
to set my hands to work and that the moon
turns and returns to meet me when it’s done.

The reader of Falling Awake, and especially the one who knows about how Oswald composed the volume’s longest component, recognizes this desire for “the sun” to set the poet’s “hands to work.” Gap-Stone’s “Prayer” is a sonnet, and Gap-Stone’s long poem, which immediately follows, is called “The Three Wise Men of Gotham Who Set Out to Catch the Moon in a Net.” In a way, then, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile and Falling Awake share interests in both content and methodology. “The moon is the nothingness of light, warmth reduced to its deficiency; it illuminates by mere reflection without itself being an origin,” writes Roland Barthes in S/Z (1968-’69). Fifty years after Barthes, echoing the “Prayer” in Gap-Stone, Oswald will bid “good morning” to the “first faint breeze of unrest” — a “bodiless” breeze, a light “so barely there” that can only be seen when it is seen through — in her poem “Sz” in Falling Awake.

Also uncannily relevant throughout Oswald’s work is the strange vision of a soul that “Prayer” holds, and the way that vision prompts Oswald to spiral — much like the way she thinks of flowers emerging from tendrils, and tendrils from seeds — through a structure of alternately exploring, advancing, negating, and destroying her own “Prayer.” No sooner does she write that the soul is independent of the body — “it goes under flesh,” as if at other times it might not be there — than she stresses also that it is not one bit disembodied, not ethereal nor comprised of some mystical essence but rather “small and creaturish.” No sooner does she call it “the soul” than she immediately adamantly declares that it “is not a soul.”

There’s a way of reading Oswald, I think, that proceeds through her body of work by focusing on this spiraling structure of affirmation and negation. She repeats the gesture in moments small and large, with regard to questions of genre and subject alike, through her long career, which spans almost 10 books and edited collections, as well as numerous awards, including two Forward Prizes, the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Ted Hughes Award, and other honors. (After winning the T. S. Eliot Prize for her second book, Dart [2002], she later went on to withdraw Memorial [2011] from the short-list after learning that the prize had come to be funded by donors whom she ethically opposed. Australian poet John Kinsella also withdrew from the short-list in the same year.)

Dart is a study of the River Dart in Devon, England. Oswald tells us that she’d been “recording conversations with people who know the river,” and that her ensuing volume uses “these records as life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters — linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea. There are indications in the margin where one voice changes into another.” So, for example, about halfway through the poem, “stonewaller” contributes:

You get this light different from anything on land, as if you’re keeping a different space, you’re in a more wobbly element like a wheelbarrow, you can feel the whole hearth ripping, the hills shifting up and down, shedding stones as if everything’s a kind of water

Then, abruptly, we hear “boat voices”:

Oceanides Atlanta Proserpina Minerva

yachts with their river-shaking engines

Lizzie of Lymington Doris of Dit’sum

bending the firey strands under their keels, sheathed in the flying fields and fleeing the burden of being

But in much the same way that Oswald’s soul isn’t a soul, and her “Tithonus” isn’t spoken by Tithonus but rather by the sound that one of his actions makes, Dart doesn’t quite let us think of these as the voice of a stonewaller or the voices of boats. “These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”

Which brings us to Woods etc. (2005). The “etc.” in the volume’s title is a provocation, meaning something closer to the additive sense connoted by the Latin definition of “and the rest” than the contemporary gesture of dismissal — although “etc.” inescapably contains both of those gestures. The book’s title poem is made of four squat quatrains, and is one of many in Oswald’s work that could serve as an ars poetica (this essay itself has already contained at least four). The poem is broadly about the consistencies and the vagaries of rhythm-keeping, and its speaker declares,

that my feet kept time with the sun’s imaginary
changing position, hoping it would rise
suddenly from the scattered parts of my body
into the upturned apses of my eyes.

Not unlike the “soul” in Gap-Stone, Oswald’s speaker here is both whole and not. It is strong enough to keep pace with what it imagines the sun does, yet is “scattered” all the same.

Then, as if to pick up on the idea of “the rest” that comes with the woods, in her next book, Weeds and Wild Flowers (2009), Oswald gives us a text that most overtly calls to mind Foucault’s version of a herbarium, taking on individual species of flowers and the emotions and personae that they seem to conjure. Weeds and Wild Flowers is an illustrated book co-written with the artist Jessica Greenman — except that, to Oswald, it’s not an illustrated book at all. Her author’s note performs Oswald’s characteristic function of telling us that what we think we’re looking at isn’t exactly what we’re looking at, as it reads: “It is two separate books, a book of etchings and a book of poems, shuffled together.” (This description, as well as Oswald’s subsequent assertion of the book’s cohesiveness, reminds me of the experience of reading Oswald’s entire body of work. It can be strung into a consistent narrative like the one I’m writing now, but it also can be read as a series of dramatically distinct approaches and interests. A very simple example even comes by way of the title of her New and Selected, which is Spacecraft Voyager 1. Oswald isn’t often thought of as a poet of outer space, but she takes the phrase and the connotations of her New and Selected’s title from the last two poems of Woods etc., “Excursion to the Planet Mercury” and “Sonnet.” In a way, then, the dimension of outer space has been lingering in Oswald’s work at least since 2005 — and nevertheless its presence as a volume title is a surprise, even to a long-acquainted reader. The astronomical dimension will come back to us later, in Falling Awake’s cover design: a black background, dotted with glimmers like stars; a multicolored vertical line, positioned one inch or so to the right of the line in “Tithonus.”) “What connects them both,” Oswald continues of Weeds and Wild Flowers, “is their contention that flowers are recognizably ourselves elsewhere” — a remark that hearkens Louise Glück’s comment, in The Wild Iris, that “human beings leave / signs of feeling / everywhere,” including in “flowers / scattered on the dirt path.” To Oswald, Greenman’s etchings and Oswald’s own poems take different attitudes toward the idea of “flora of the psyche,” from humor to credence, each piece both affirming and negating itself while affirming and negating its companion. As Oswald will later say in “A Rushed Account of the Dew” in Falling Awake, “oh pristine example / of claiming a place on earth / only to cancel.”

Cumulatively, Oswald’s declared “hope” for Weeds and Wild Flowers is “that the experience of reading and looking at the book will be a slightly unsettling pleasure, like walking through a garden at night, when the plants come right up to the edges of their names and then beyond them.” Which, remarkably, is a comment that also carries us forward to her next volume, A Sleepwalk on the Severn (2009), which is a book-length poem (like Dart) commissioned for a project for the River Severn. To Sarah Crown in the Guardian, A Sleepwalk on the Severn is “unmistakably” a “tributary” of Dart — but, as Crown also suggests, in Severn Oswald’s not looking at the noise that the water makes, but rather at how water and voices alike are changed by the moon, not unlike Gap-Stone and yet rather distinct all the same. At one point, Severn’s “chorus,” horrified to have dreamt it was the moon and staring aghast at the “hooded” lights which “congealed” after having “murdered each other” in the woods, mutters, “I was like that: visible invisible visible invisible.”

V.

Oswald’s commitment to refusing to flinch means that abruptly, signs of violence detonate within sequences that do not prepare us for them. In Falling Awake, one large example is Eos’ cruelty and Tithonus’ destruction; there’s also the singing head of Orpheus floating in “Severed Head Floating Downriver,” or the uncompromising story of the “bewildered” dead in “Body,” a sort of grim correspondent with Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” Lowell’s defiant “wedge-headed” skunk gives his speaker his only moment of fortitude and pleasure in the poem; Oswald’s speaker, on the other hand, studies the “living shovel” of the badger and ends up comparing his “trembling” run to the vain hope that “in a broken jug for one backwards moment / water might keep its shape.” I end the prior section on the hooded figures in the woods of Severn for a reason. It’s a visual that is reminiscent of a great number of scenes from different genres of American and British literature: the River Dart, as Chiasson reminds us, is also the setting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; in terms of references from the other side of the pond, it’s hard not to hear some of Nathaniel Hawthorne in it, too. But it’s also a scene from sociopolitical history, repeated terrifyingly over and over again. I doubt I would be the only American in 2017, particularly writing during and after the presidential election, to hear the Ku Klux Klan in it, for example, and the blooms of violence that emerged on and after November 9, startling and all the same familiar, “visible invisible visible invisible.”

In his reading of Oswald’s “Swan” in Falling Awake, Chiasson references Emily Dickinson’s wry remark that you can only find the “Music” when you “Split the Lark.” The idea reminds me again that the left side of “Tithonus” — the line itself being a cleaving of a kind — is filled with “Music,” “Music,” “Music,” “Music,” “Music.” It accounts for the way Oswald doesn’t seem hesitant to herself intrude upon her larks — her birds, her songs, her games — with stark moments of distress, making her, in some ways, “a poet of terror,” as Chiasson describes her.

It’s not new for a poet to speak about the fears and implications of pain and mortality — but Oswald wouldn’t want it to be. On the one hand, a certain amount of conversing with death and the dead is inevitable for a poet, particularly one who has, as Chiasson also points out, a deep relation with literary history; Oswald is one of our most unabashed interlocutors with the long-dead voices of centuries past. At the same time, though, for Oswald, there’s also a way in which her commitment to literary history is as much a part of (rather than the cause of) the way she tackles the topic. Expanding on her idea of poetic praxis as “sound carving” in her Guardian interview with Armitstead, Oswald said, “I like the idea that sound carving suggests there’s something there already.” And earlier in the same interview, when she says her much-quoted remark that she “like[s] the way that the death of one thing is the beginning of something else,” she prefaces it with the remark, “I love erosion.”

As actions, eroding and carving bear some similarities — they even often apply to similar materials, like stone and wood — that help us parse the singular characteristics of Oswald’s relation to these time-tested poetic concerns. While “the death of one thing” becoming “the beginning of something else” is reminiscent of a broad range of writerly interests and methodologies (both outside of and within Oswald; it even recalls her nature column on fungus, since a saprophyte is a plant or organism that lives on dead or decomposing matter), the manner in which Oswald keys this interest of hers to the idea of “erosion” is a plot twist. Erosion, after all, is probably more commonly considered sheer destruction and loss than the more regenerative optimism of the afterlives of literary history or a gleefully thriving fungus. A fungus, or even a bird of carrion, happens upon a death and turns it into life. It’s not a unilaterally thrilling vision, but there’s a reason that vampires and zombies make for more popular television than would a real-time camera trained on a sand dune for eternity. In “erosion,” both death and beginnings are ever-present; neither of them is, exactly, the job of the poet’s to create, and neither of them becomes or transforms into anything, certainly not anything redemptive.

Taken together, “carving” and “erosion” suggest that Oswald thinks the poet’s job is something closer to facilitating and attending to the inevitable and gradual whittling-away. And Oswald isn’t particularly jovial about what such a task entails: in Falling Awake’s “You Must Never Sleep Under a Magnolia,” she reminds herself starkly: “Alice, you should / never sleep under / so much pure pale // so many shriek-mouthed blossoms.” Tithonus’ despair is certainly musical and Eos’ cruelty lush and vibrant, but Oswald doesn’t let us think that despair is the cause of music, or cruelty the origin of lush vibrancy. (This may be a good moment to remind ourselves of the beginning of Falling Awake’s final poem: “And so he goes on dwindling away / maybe through too much prayer.”) It’s not even quite that splitting the lark reveals music — it’s something a bit closer to the idea that both the lark and music are always in the process of splitting, and the poet’s job is to interact with what remains of both of them at any given time or space.

In an interview titled Speech Begins After Death, Foucault is asked about his own experience of writing and how it has shifted, or not, through time. “For me,” his answer eventually leads him to say, “writing means having to deal with the death of others, but it basically means having to deal with others to the extent that they’re already dead. In one sense, I’m speaking over the corpse of the others.” Later, he suggests that we write “to write the last book in the world” — “a paroxysmal intent to exhaust language” is present in even “the most insignificant sentence.” This methodology, as well as its exhaustion, is also Oswald’s, especially at this particular moment. Falling Awake follows Memorial, a poem made out of Oswald’s erosion-carving of the Iliad. In Memorial, the Iliad’s main narratives disappear. In their place are lists of the names of the scores of undecorated others who die in the book — “lowly lives reduced to ashes in the few sentences that struck them down,” as Foucault would describe the interment records out of which he hoped to make a herbarium — as well as fuller verse renderings of the circumstances of their deaths, punctuated by haunting and doubled versions of the epic’s Homeric similes, like so:

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads

Memorial then ends with a few such similes rendered singularly, without their double, on individual pages:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than the leaves

Then, Oswald doubles one simile — one that is reminiscent of Falling Awake’s cover image — one more time before the book’s end. It is printed once on the 80th page of Memorial, on the left side, and again on the 81st, on the right:

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone

Falling Awake, which also has 81 pages (after their long absence in “Tithonus,” the page number that returns, mostly faded, for “And so he goes on,” is “81”) is, then, an enactment of the way in which Oswald’s speech begins after death, how to come Awake after a Memorial. After having exhausted language once, Oswald has returned to exhaust it again, her own voice speaking over the corpses of the world’s ever-present erosion, whistling and whittling away at its sides, and challenging herself and her readers to conceptualize what new shape can come when the last reiterated “whip of sparks” in the world and its many spheres has “gone,” and then gone again.

¤

Sumita Chakraborty is poetry editor of AGNI, art editor of At Length, and a doctoral candidate in English at Emory. Her poems and prose have appeared in a number of journals, including Boston ReviewGulf CoastThe JournalWitnessRain Taxi, and others.



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