Every time I read a book of poetry I wonder why I don’t read more poetry. I was prompted to read this collection after it won the poetry category of the Costa Book Awards and I’m so glad I picked it up. The title “Falling Awake” feels apt as Alice Oswald has a dizzying way of turning the world upside down, making it fresh and inverting expectation with her stunningly beautiful acrobatic language. Many of the poems in this collection focus on nature whether that includes animals, insects, the weather, the setting/rising sun or the transformation of the seasons. A few draw in references to figures from Greek mythology such as Orpheus and Tithonus. Their inclusion melds with the tone of the other poems giving a striking perspective on time’s movement and how we perceive the world as it flows around us.
Most of the poems are quite brief, but the most sustained poem is at the end of the collection and is written as a sort of performance. It concerns Tithonus, son of a water nymph who asked Zeus to make him immortal. His wish was granted but he continued to grow old so he persists through life and we’re told that we can hear his “babbling” thoughts for a period of 46 minutes with an accompaniment of music. This poem seems to encapsulate the major themes of the entire book which often presents consciousness as if it were a Samuel Beckett play. The thoughts and physicality of the subject are raggedy: “so the voice stumbles and the feet can’t get comfortable and the eyes flicker” but still time persists “first this: the sound of everything repeating / then this: the sound of everything repeating”. It gives a powerful sense of the claustrophobia Tithonus feels stuck in the nightmarish scenario of living in a decrepit state for infinity. But at the same time we can relate to it because like him we wake up day after day, contending with a world which partly changes but mostly stays the same.
These same sentiments are echoed in ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River’ where “a Roman water nymph” seeks to change limestone into a river. I believe Oswald is describing a statue in this poem which is frozen in place with legs and one arm lost. But nevertheless, this being is caught in a repetitious state and continuously fails. There remains the expectation that things might change or work at any moment with the continual prompt to “try again” and “go on”. Again, this feels very reminiscent of Beckett’s writing. In ‘Evening Poem’ I wondered if Oswald was at all influenced by Marghanita Laski when she states how someone appears “as if you’d sprung from the horse-hair of a whole Victorian sofa” which felt similar to Laski’s novel about a woman who falls asleep on a chaise-longue and wakes up in Victorian times. Several poems convey this sense of tumbling through time which is both limited and infinite or slightly disordered like the state between sleeping and waking.
I felt one of the most powerful lines in the book came towards the end of the Tithonus poem. Tithonus describes that there is “the makeshift character that springs from speaking and looking on and letting everything pass and then the loneliness of being left here endless lost to my lethargy like a dripping tap”. This so beautifully encompasses the nature of being, how identity is formed through our interactions with the world and how there is a quiet centre to life once we are alone again. It makes me feel how no matter the intensity of our connections with other people or how fully formed we might appear in their eyes, each of us are ultimately a primal kind of being when left on our own. Only a few of the poems give a sense of community or a polyphony of voices such as ‘Village’ where a number of voices express the devolvement of civilization as if the world is being returned to nature.
“Falling Awake” is filled with curious insights into how we perceive the world around us, the cyclical rotation of days and the sometimes hazy border between the conscious/unconscious mind. Reading Oswald’s poems is invigorating because it makes you want to listen more closely.