By Anna Blackburn, CutBank poetry editor
The woods of Alice Oswald’s Woods etc. at times yield pathways like those I walk here in Montana. Glacial creeks cutting through the abrupt yellow tamaracks, giant Scots pines fur to the tailbones of mountains; in her poems we are sensitized to the immensity of granite and ether. Yet at other times I find myself in landscapes like the deciduous northeast, where each curled fern and dislodged rock seems wakeful to my presence, in the way that a dull stone becomes luminous if dipped in water. Amidst the simple objects of Oswald’s terrain the mind opens into surprising chasms of feeling, those insights “like glass, concealed but not lost in light” (“Poem for Carrying a Baby Out of a Hospital”). Through her organically pitched rhythms, we are shuttled into deeply inhabited lyrics of the natural world, untethered mythologies, and whimsical fable-like meditations on the circularity of life. Poems of earthiness and imaginative reach.
Oswald’s logic is ecological: consciousness migrates through animal, vegetal, and mineral forms. As metamorphosis counters the gravity of death (a stone becomes a flower becomes a circle of light becomes…), we feel the tension between the eternal whole and the perplexed groping of our lives; in these poems the individual must travel “the whole series of endurable pains” (“Autobiography of a Stone”). Oswald summons elemental personalities with violent intimacy:
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties
like an old woman taken by the neck and
shaken to pieces.
This is the dust flower flitting away.
This is the flower of amnesia. It has opened its
head to the wind, all havoc and weakness, as
if a wooden man should stroll through fire…
How fragile our connections, she argues. Like “the wind-bitten dandelion,” each thing “a flower of no property… / worn away to its one recalcitrant element” (“Head of a Dandelion”).
Yet, as Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, “stars and blossoming fruit trees; utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity.” Reading these poems, I feel myself invoked in states of acute limitation (as Sisyphus, who “has to think one pain at a time, like an insect / trapped in a drop of water”), even as I am asked to occupy the field (“Sisyphus”). The field may be an artery of consciousness, a birch grove, a system of galaxies. Though full of their own voices, such spaces assert the pressure of silence. This silence functions like the creative landscape of a canvas; though the world in its instability is the medium of exploration, Oswald’s poems also celebrate the void between forms, the potential underlying each expression. Against this eternity we feel the awe and humility of mortal life: traversing “Five Fables of a Length of Flesh” and floating with Voyager 1 “among those homeless spaces gathering in that silence / that hasn’t yet had time to speak” (“Sonnet”).
Anna Blackburn is an MFA candidate in poetry and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. She grew up in Vermont and earned a B.A. in Writing and Literature at Marlboro College.