Alice Oswald: A Sleepwalk on the Severn

April 11th, 2009

When I sat down to read A Sleepwalk on the Severn, I immediately got up again, and began to read out loud, on my feet. Half way through I went outside and finished reading the poem in the porch.


Alice Oswald is a kinetic poet. She moves her reader. The ‘muscular unsolid unstillness’ of the moon is also the flexing volatile energy of the poem, where ‘I too am living.’

Poetry is neither a silent nor a sit-down art. Although its language frames silence in the way that a Barbara Hepworth sculpture frames a hole, poetry begins in the mouth before it hits the page. It is an oral form, -something that needs to be said – from a period in human history when record keeping was an art and not an act of administration. Early English poems such as The Battle of Maldon, or Beowulf, are memory banks. How can we remember if we cannot recite?

The poem, repeated through time, acted, and still does, as a kind of mouth to mouth resuscitation, breathing life into the past, and letting the past live on for later generations

And speaking out loud – which is how poetry is made, because the poet does not sit in silence, but tests words in the air, works better if you are standing up.

Alice Oswald is a stand-up poet. A Sleepwalk on the Severn follows the journey of the poet – called the Dream Secretary – after the moon in her five phases; new, half, full, void, reborn.

The moon is always moving; ‘I saw the moon/ Wandering asleep along the mudflats’, and so is the poet, using her legs to get at the poetry. ‘Every night I walk this way.’

I love the physicality of Alice Oswald’s work, which is not the same as the physicality of Hughes or Heaney; she is a woman, and in women the centre of gravity is different, which alters the walk, the way of standing, and so the way of breathing, and so the way of speaking in verse, because breathing, which signals the rhythm of the body, is central to the poem. Try reading a poem out loud and this is very clear.

Alice Oswald is not a woman poet, (whatever that is meant to mean), but as a poet who is a woman, her body contact with life is not male, it is angled otherwise. Passing her mind through her body, and her body through her mind, the experience of the world she offers back to us is unmistakably through the female, but it is universal too. Our literary prejudices have not quite made room for the female as universal – we think of her as particular, and that bit smaller. But here is a major poet, a great poet, no question, and she is a woman writing as a woman. We will have to deal with her uncompromising ‘moonhood.’

But like Hughes, like Wordsworth, she’s out in the world, walking, walking, at dark, at dawn. Language is in the legs, in the mouth, in the body total. Unless it is, it can’t reach the totality of the listener/reader. The mind/body, spirit/sensation split is very great in modern life, but the totality of poetry is part of the possible healing. ‘Night after night/The same night, I’m always/Trying to lift my body off its hook’
The body unhooked can be restored to mind, to spirit, to emotion, to totality – to more than the ‘bone-web.’

Alice Oswald is often described as a nature poet, and her previous collections, Woods, Dart, The Thing in the Gap Stone Stile, position her away from recent urban realism and towards a wider language of human experience. Yes, most people in the West now live in towns and cities, and won’t be wondering what the moon is up to on the river, yet the moon exerts as powerful a pull on our imaginations as she does on the tides. Forty years ago this year we landed there, fulfilling a dream that was much more than a space-race.

I’d like this poem to be given free to every inner city school kid to celebrate the moon landing. We’ll be hearing everything about the thin slice of moon life that was the landing, but the moon is huge, and her five phases, tracked so beautifully by Alice Oswald, lodge the moon inside as well as outside, our inherited moon, our dreamed and dreaming moon ‘Sometimes you see the whip-thin/Tail of a waning moon start/Burrowing back into blackness’

We can expect poetry to be relevant to our lives, but our lives include the inner and the mythic, the creative and the inventive. Our lives are lived on planet earth, however much tarmac gets between us and the soil, and our lives are lived with the moon and the stars above our heads, whatever the street lighting. Tarmac and street lighting are not more relevant than the estuary marsh or the moon, only more pressing, which is a very good reason for poetry to remind us of other truths.

Reminding and record-keeping as functions of poetry are playfully present in A Sleepwalk on the Severn. We would expect a Dream Secretary to note well, and she does, not just for us the reader, but for the Moon herself, who can’t always remember who she is or where she’s been. ‘She’s asleep apparently. She’s been walking since Dusk. She looks exhausted. Don’t touch her. Keep moving the stones out of her way.’

This is a Moon who is classically mutable, a tidal moon, a wavering moon, a dangerous moon, tied to the feminine, a goddess of complete being, and making men wary because she is so, but also a modern moon – and this is where Alice Oswald is so good – because within the reminding and the record-keeping comes the re-making. ‘Girls by the docks/Made of the moon/And clothed in the moon. That is near to Yeats and belongs to the classical moon, then, in the next lines we find ‘Glittering moody girls/Arm in arm and murderously/splayed over benches and low walls.’ Now we’re in tight urban realism that develops into ‘And scratch with your cat’s nails/Kylie Hatez Men/On the litter bin.’ Then, a moonswing back to the beauty of ‘the implacable goddess of love/with your life in her fist’, but ‘fist’ is perfect, and hand would have been so weak. One word destroys the cliché and carries the well-known symbol forward.

Alice Oswald has developed the style she began experimenting with in DART; a style of many voices. She is married to playwright Peter Oswald, and no doubt their natural influencing of each other has caused her to explore the possibilities of drama in verse. She hasn’t taken the Yeats/Eliot route of verse-plays, and she tells us in her notes to this poem that it isn’t a play, but a poem in seven registers, which are the various voices the poet speaks through – a chorus, a birdwatcher, the wind, the Moon herself, and so on. I particularly like the wind, who has his own stage directions, such as ‘restless, neurotic, with flute,’

The she works with form, that she is not afraid of risk, gives her poetry a boldness, and has done from the start, when she used the sonnet form for The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile.

DART was wonderful, and won Oswald the TS Eliot prize, but for me, what she has achieved here is even more remarkable. She is stripping away all the time, while adding richness. There is such sureness here, poured through such searching. Nothing is taken for granted – not one single word – every word tested for flight before it is let go.

At the same time Faber is publishing WEEDS and WILDFLOWERS, poems by Alice Oswald and charming etchings by Jessica Greenman. This is a decorative book and a book for dipping and diving. The poems are gorgeous, of course, but lighter, gentler, the poet at play. It is a book for rainy afternoons and pleasurable reading. With her usual capacity for saying exactly the right thing that we had not thought of, Alice Oswald says in her notes, ‘My hope 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.’

It is a wonderful image, characteristically visual, and seriously Alice Oswald, this idea that naming itself, Adam’s task, is a bag not big enough for its contents, and that we will all, sometime, flowers and humans alike, burst out into the other names, the secret names, the silence that Alice Oswald believes surrounds the words.

But it is the words that give us that strange sense of the hole/whole, beyond.