Review – Alice Oswald, Falling Awake

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald. Cape Poetry, Jonathan Cape, 96pp. £10.00


One of my favourite poems in Falling Awake is the first, “A Short History of Falling”, with its lilting cadences and lovely musical returns of sound and idea:

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

That’s like a fairytale, using a childlike simplicity of language to evoke vast, complicated  processes and to hint at mysterious yearnings and arguments within the self.  In fact, though, the precision of the language makes it not really simple at all. In lines 9 and 10, “if only I a passerby could pass / as clear as water through a plume of grass”, repetition of “pass” brings out the contrast between passing by and passing through, suggesting a yearning for a more intimate involvement in the natural world than is possible to the human mind. “Clear” suggests innocence but also emptiness, a mind too dissolved in natural processes to see or reflect on them; a mind, in short, that hasn’t fallen awake.

Its beauty makes the poem a pleasure to read and reread, and it means something subtly different each time. In some ways it’s untypical of the book because its lyricism depends on remoteness from the gritty physicality that gives density to Oswald’s pictures of the natural world. However, it is typical in its emphasis on the cycle of rising and falling that suggests the ceaseless interchange of life and death. In terms of technique, repetition with variation is fundamental to the volume, which is full of recurring natural processes and reflects them in repeated sounds, words, phrases and lines. It’s also typical in the way it projects human feelings and characteristics onto the nonhuman world. This can be immensely vivifying, as in the opening of “Swan” where there’s a startling imaginative vigour to the anthropomorphising of the swan’s ghost:

A rotted swan
is  hurrying away from the plane-crash mess of her wings
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .one here
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . one there

getting panicky up out of her clothes and mid-splash
. . . looking down again

As we read, a scatter of fleeting images of a swan’s corpse, a swan taking off and a fleeing woman looking back are brilliantly superimposed, animating each other visually. At the same time, we ourselves are drawn into the swan / ghost/ woman’s viewpoint by the layout of the lines.  This flickering between swan and woman comes off brilliantly because both are so visually present to the imagination and each seems to be working as metaphorical vehicle for the other. Admittedly a problem does arise later in the poem when the thoughts attributed to the ghost seem to be wholly human and the visual images wholly swan, so that instead of converging imaginatively the two ideas come apart.

In interviews Oswald lays great stress on oral tradition and oral performance. Her care to make us grasp how the poems should sound makes her pay keen attention to how visual presentation will impact on the reader’s inner ear. You can see this in my quotation from “Swan”.  Paradoxically, the silent reader is actually given more to see than the listener can hear: it’s flicking our eyes between the separated phrases, pausing after short lines and rapidly running through long ones that makes us become the swan / woman as we read.

Oswald experiments formally, but not in any merely academic way: her experiments always seem to be motivated by the desire to find the best way of expressing the matter in hand, so her forms vary with her purposes. At one extreme there’s “Tithonus”, whose “stanzas” may be as short as the word “die” and that measures time by a marginal stave. In performance, apparently, it lasts exactly the length of a midsummer dawn. At the other there’s the superb “Two Voices”, the book’s only punctuated poem, each of whose two stanzas consists of an iambic pentameter sonnet-in-couplets.  One describes a cockerel crowing at dawn, the other the ground bursting into crickets. Both play sound and explosive action against stillness and light against darkness in brilliantly subtle, imaginatively swerving ways. Arresting though its actual descriptions are, the real triumph of the poem seems to me to be in the way it pushes us into a kind of blank space between or beyond these contrasting images, a space echoing with the absence of something that it’s brought us to the brink of imagining. This process is virtually explicit in the second section, which begins

What is the word for wordless, when the ground
bursts into crickets

and ends

like light itself which absent-mindedly
brushes the grass and speaks by letting be,
but when you duck down suddenly and stare
into the startled stems there’s nothing there.


I hope I’ve suggested how much this book is full of impressions and sensations of physical life, of actually or fictively living things that seem to be snatched up whole by the words, so that their wriggling, leaping, twitching and looking about are felt in the very texture of the writing. Among so many possible examples, choice must be random. I’ve quoted the swan and the startled grass. I can’t resist adding this beetle from “Tithonus”:

. . . . you should see the beetle’s fingers
feeling forwards for the levers of the
. . . . they begin to chafe they begin to
click they begin to blur they begin to

In short, Falling Awake is a book to treasure. I don’t think it will replace Memorial as my own personal favourite of Oswald’s books because, for all its anthropomorphism, it lacks the involvement with individual human lives that makes Memorial so electrifying. Having said that, it marks a widening of Oswald’s formidable powers of expression and will reward many rereadings.

I would like to thank Patricia Oxley for permission to reprint this review, which appeared in Acumen 87.


Leave a Reply