Back to the crisis of living – time and trauma in Alice Oswald

alice oswald

Lucy Mercer

“Try to imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up […] now try to imagine what it was like to wake up having never gone to sleep.” — Alan Watts

Alan Watts’ invocation to wake up ‘without sleep’ perhaps encapsulates the transition the extraordinary Alice Oswald has made journeying from her acclaimed collection Memorial (Faber, 2012) to the new Falling Awake (Cape, 2016). If Memorial was a traumatic exhumation and reburial of the dead, Falling Awake is, though not uncomplicatedly, an attempt at recuperation. As the ‘falling’ of the title might suggest, this is a collection concerned with time, and more specifically, a state of paradoxical waking. In it we find Oswald sharply controlling the fields of her own poems’ temporality: rearranging events, pausing, stretching, giving priority to omission or breath. Why is she interested in doing so? I think Falling Awake can be seen as part of a constellation in the poet’s ongoing scrutiny of the structure of beings in the world (ontology). And as these ontological structures are in the continual changing process of becoming, the poet inevitably moves towards an examination of the relation between being and time. Can poems render a sense of being in the world, with time passing as it really is? Is temporality sutured to being, or is it more hermeneutic? Or is temporality only hermeneutic?

Clearly Oswald’s preoccupation with time casts Falling Awake in a reading light that is philosophical as much as poetic; much like the visionary work of Stéphane Mallarmé, whose complicated poem ‘Swan’ (Le Cygnet) might be seen as groundwork for Oswald’s own ‘Swan’. There are resonances here too of Mallarmé’s obsession with number that structures his meticulously laid-out masterpoem Un Coup De Des. Indeed Falling Awake is a collection that’s difficult to review, as any passage-lifting upsets Oswald’s strictly arranged project. The book is its own composite clock, with a stitched timeline running through its major second part ‘Tithonus’ — a day in the life of the Dawn — as well as a heavy visual emphasis, with poems fading to white. Yet like Mallarmé, Oswald is somewhat hermetic, which means there’s also a way in: I think she has carefully arranged the clock in Falling Awake to invite us to look at how she lays out the clock.

Through a philosophical route then, I will quickly attempt to cover how Oswald has boldly approached time in Falling Awake via a two-part of methodology, which I have termed ballast and dropping. This is not to say that Falling Awake is proposing a new philosophy of time — it’s a project of speculatio in the medieval sense of an examining mirror, of holding a sensing mirror up to how we dwell in time.

So, ballast. The first section of Falling Awake comprises of a number of poems that are mostly close observations of the movements of immediate (‘natural’) and universal objects — clouds, flies, plants, rain, villagers. If time is most apparent to us during and after moments of death, this section of Falling Awake is somewhat morbidly necromantic. As she watches these material processes of self-emergence, the poet attempts to give her subjects ballast or a slowing down of death and death-like states, as well as emphasising the persistence of motion. Why is Oswald attempting to do this, to slow down the ‘falling’ of time? The answer I think, might be found going back to Mallarmé, and more specifically to his ongoing battle with a feeling, of a ‘horrible [poetic] sensibility’ that had propelled him into crisis in 1866, ‘an illness that I simply don’t understand’, he wrote in a letter. ‘Clearly I’m on my way back down from the absolute.’ This seems much like Oswald’s comment in interview that the exercise of writing and performing Memorial gave her ‘a certain amount of post-traumatic stress’. It’s a heart-wrenching litany of loved bodies wounded, turned to earth, where even ‘Hector died, like everyone else’, coming back to his distraught wife Andromache; ‘sightless/ Strengthless expressionless/ Asking only to be washed and burned/ And his bones wrapped in soft cloths/ And returned to the ground.’ These invocations in Memorial led the poet to a place that couldn’t be retained — a Mallarméan brush with the absolute — that we find in its repeated final stanza:


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


We find the same feeling here as that experienced by the seven-year-old Elizabeth Bishop as she falls into the pages of the National Geographic waiting for her Aunt Consuelo ‘In The Waiting Room’: ‘the sensation of falling off/ the round, turning world./ into cold blue-black space.’ The temptation for Oswald at this point must have been to shriek like Ted Hughes’ Shelley, ‘Trying to thaw while zero/ Itself loses consciousness.’ But, as the speaker in Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Aeneid muses: ‘It is easy to descend into Avernus‘. How to get back out, to the crisis of living?

In Falling Awake, this task — of working out what might be slowed down or given ballast — is initially given over to death-tricking Orpheus, who is the singer of the first poem in the book ‘A Short Story of Falling’ (‘It is the story of the falling rain/ to turn into a leaf and fall again’), and who reappears in the last poem dissolving into the all-encompassing white of the page:


        whose hearsays half-thoughts
        twinkling on and off
        I never quite make out or not

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


The poem fading to white here reminds me of Canadian artist Rodney Graham’s film Rheinmetall/ Victoria 8 (2003), in which a typewriter is slowly dusted with a snow-like substance (Graham incidentally, is a Mallarmé fan too). The ‘snow’ falls on the mountainous landscape of the typewriter, slowly obscuring the letter-keys, just as Oswald dissolves Orpheus’ voice. For both this dissolution of use-at-hand by blank(er) material conveys a sense of temporality — yet we are aware that Orpheus, and the typewriter, continue as (submerged) beings.

This communal typewriter-landscape is important, because like her contemporaries the pre-Socratics, Oswald’s poetic examinations continue to be channelled through strictly metaphysical imagery, by which I mean meta – a discourse of the structure of the thing itself, and physics – nature: questioning what nature is as a state of being. The nature we find here in these twinkling, dissolving footsteps of Orpheus is what is most constantly inconstant (in the world), what in the Heideggerean sense is left ‘to come and stand and remain standing of itself’: most often, for the poet as throughout all her work, water, leaves, flowers, classical myth, animals, stones, people. These metaphysical and classical admixtures allow the poet to open up her settings from the small Devon village where she lives to the boundless, like the cosmological visions of Anaximenes and Anaximander, or the meditations of Basho.

Such regionality is integral to the poet’s project, since as Gaston Bachelard says, ‘after Einstein’s relativity, metaphysics had to retreat to local time, everything having to do with the external proof of unique duration as a clear principle of the ordination of events was ruined.’ The local time key to Falling Awake allows the ballast to take specific forms of stretching of local event, as in ‘A rushed account of the dew’ (‘I who can blink/ to break the spell of daylight’), ‘Shadow’ (‘it is faint/ it has been falling for a long time’) and ‘Alongside Beans’, where beans are growing, ‘breaking out of their mass grave’.

‘One does not always stay intact’ says Judith Butler. Yes, but in and alongside the project of undoing, or emergence, that is physis, what in-itself remains standing in narrative passages that must also move forward? What constitutes the remaining (or being) that is ‘nature’? ‘Alongside Beans’ presents mantras of event-occurrence that are in-themselves what remain, not as repetitions, but every-time ‘another’ and ‘another and then another’


        and after a while a flower
        turning its head to the side like a bored emperor

        and after a while a flower

        singing out a faint line of scent
        and spinning around with the same obsession with its task
        and working with the same bewitched slightly off-hand look
        as the sea

	covering first one place

        and then another

        and after a while another place

	and then another place

		and another

			and another place


But, they must keep moving — just as being must keep becoming. Here, the beans’ pure-movements distort the poem much like the memento mori skull that stretches fantastically across Hans Holbein’s painting ‘The Ambassadors’. In ‘Swan’, this stretching is in the poet’s weighing down on the momentary last-instances of a ‘rotted swan’, seeing her own body in the moment of death; ‘climbing out of her cockpit’ (like the similarly time-obsessed Howard Hughes, perhaps!), out of the ‘horrible plastic/mould of herself’. In opposite to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s lovely small poem, ‘the lark ascending is invisible mending’; in ‘Swan’ the ascent is a reluctant, paused, undoing as the swan looks


        at how thickly the symmetrical quill-points
        were threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
	  of the heart saying




We find traces of this swan in Oswald’s beloved Ted Hughes, in particular in some of the bird-portraits in his A Primer of Birds. Hughes’ own ‘Swan’ however is more sickly, focusing on metamorphoses of ice and enchantment. Oswald, while retaining ‘the iceberg wall’, outdoes him. As the swan climbs out of her own mess of high form, we go with her towards the moment of death, up into the blind subzero sky; ‘quick/ quick/ say something to the/ frozen cloud of the head/ before it thaws’. This ‘quick’, quickness, pursuit of speed, or running alongside at speed, of breath-at-a-stretch is indispensible here. As are the many textural materials that make up ‘Swan’. We begin to wonder — is texture, quick texture itself, the speed of time, or the pace of being? Plastic-cockpit-quill-leather-frozen-eye! With the heavy textures of her swan’s form pursuing the technical outlets of time, Oswald then forces the moment of death into a rather extraordinary conclusion: she holds it back and refuses it with the even-heavier materials of metal and sound,


        but how can she reach
        the little black-lit church
        it is so cold

        the bells like iron angels
        hung from one note
        keep ringing and ringing


Trapped in this vacuum of ‘ringing and ringing’, we are forced to watch and rewatch the swan falling apart. Oswald’s entrapment of this moment reminds me of the Medieval saint Bernadette Soubirous’ account of her childhood vision of the Virgin appearing:

I heard a noise. Looking up I saw poplars beside the torrent and brambles in front of the cave quiver as if the wind was shaking them, but all around nothing moved and suddenly I saw something white…and this white was…a white girl…a white girl no bigger than me. She greeted me, bowing…

Soubirous’ blurring of figure with landscape, like Graham’s snow, or Orpheus’ fading footsteps, heightens the sense of that the temporal moment is somehow overlaid, or mismatched, onto the beings carrying them. Paul Virilio says of such testimonies of seeing the Virgin appear, that ‘another designation of meaning suddenly emerges, a background which would be already a kind of dissolving view […] all is calm, and yet: this world as we see it is passing away.’ The revelation in ‘Swan’ perhaps is that it’s the whole world — in its textures — that is passing, not just the bodies that irreversibly melt in Memorial into their more-concrete graves. In Falling Awake we find being (given ballast) dropping away from this passing of linear time in an irregular way: the swan, the beans, the shadow, begin to take on stranger trajectories than initially assumed. They begin to perform a resistance through the act of narrative, against itself. The reason perhaps, is in a familiar complaint of many poets: why should anything ever die, and even worse, die in pain? This mere fact of existence, as we find in Oswald’s earlier poem ‘Song of a Stone’ from Woods etc. ‘is a bloody outrage!’ Is the poet attempting to change the course of events somehow, even if it is just in the poem-event itself? The swan falls to bits and starts again, and falls to bits again. In this careful retelling and retelling we are sure that we can put her back together again. Maybe we can. And here’s another! Another runner bean, coming up out of the ground.

But in the end, attempts to mess about with time can only run headlong into ethical dilemmas. If they could, should things be reversed — the tragic bodies we find in Memorial, harrowing deaths from history? Oswald seems to decide to shy away from the kind of lurid (and somewhat disconcerting) messianism found in, for example, the speculative philosophy of Quentin Meillassoux, who quite seriously proposes the ex nihilo emergence of a God capable of such resurrections in the future. Oswald, whilst questioning and stretching temporalities, avoids this because the price of resistance is too high — not only in the discarding of the new, but because living well also means being finite. Ultimately, this is the message of ‘Tithonus’, the second part of Falling Awake. ‘Tithonus’ is the counter-reversal to Memorial: focused on the life of a man who cannot die. It’s an examination of the beginning, the moments when we literally wake up in the morning, bearing witness to the experience of dwelling, or dropping, or being inside, ‘the heart of everything, which is the heart of everything.’ (Virilio).

Oswald tells us in a prefatory note to the poem, which is also a multi-sensory live performance involving a nyckelharpa, 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’. The poem charts the by-now five-thousand year old Tithonus (as of course, he’s from the Odyssey) meeting the dawn at midsummer. And, crucially, in this note Oswald inserts the first numbers that form the mathematical backbone to the poem:

His voice starts at 4.17, when the sun is six degrees below the horizon, and stops 46 minutes later, at sunrise. The performance begins in darkness.

These numbers lead to the timeline-stitch (that also look like the stitches in a heart) that runs throughout the left margin of ‘Tithonus’. Their presence is absolutely vital, I think, to Oswald’s whole project of interrogating time in Falling Awake. To understand why, we might turn to some curious statements that Alain Badiou makes on poetry in Being and Event:

The Greeks did not invent the poem. Rather, they interrupted the poem with the matheme […] The radical change introduced by the mathematical supplementation is that the immemorial nature of the poem—which was full and innate donation—became, after the Greek event, the temptation of a return, a temptation that Heidegger believed […] to be a nostalgia and a loss, whereas it is merely the permanent play induced in thought by the unrelenting novelty of the matheme.

Now, Oswald is a trained Classicist and so the ‘Greek event’ in her poems, is as natural as breathing. She’s also committed to an oral form of poetry and a possessor of extremely sharp metrical skill. So these thoughts of the Greek insertion of mathematics, of the revolving matheme that initiate the sunrise in ‘Tithonus’, are pertinent. And Tithonus’ suture or timeline, that the poem plays off against in its large gaps of blank page, containing its staggered little stanzas of the fleeting, gasping thoughts of Tithonus himself, might corroborate this Badiouian sense of the mathematical number containing the ‘lost presence’. The poem opens:


         as soon as dawn appears

         as soon as dawn appears

         4.17 dressed only in her clouds

         and murk hangs down over hills
         as if guilty

         two rooks quite high above steel
         blue still a star
         and something similar to laughter
         moves up from below making ducks

         two sounds you can hear at this
         tucked-up hour
         when a man rolls over and pulls
         his grief to his chin and his feet have
         no covers
         first this: the sound of everything



The two appearances of dawn, the two rooks, two sounds, the repetitions — and the insertion of 4.17, which as the poem progresses tumbles into various speaking voices, also feels — to go back to ancient philosophy — a return to the question of whether beings derived from one or many, or the one and the multiple. Tithonus, with his counter-shadow the mathematical dawn, or the mathematical dawn with her counter-shadow Tithonus — suggests at a kind of evolving ‘many’, also found by Badiou, in his quantum-like response to this age-old dilemma: being is neither one, nor multiple.

What has to be declared is that the one, which is not, solely exists as operation. In other words: there is no one, only the count-as-one. The one, being an operation, is never a presentation. It should be taken quite seriously that the ‘one’ is a number. And yet, except if we Pythagorise, there is no cause to posit that being qua being is number.

If this statement seems beyond obscure, it might help to relate this to the idea of dropping into the heart of things. Oswald structures ‘Tithonus’ around a clock using numbers that (as Badiou thinks) may serve as a sort of blueprint for how beings operate, though maths and number are obviously in-themselves not the same as being. In fact, they are as symbolic as poetry itself. Against these insertions Oswald runs temporal events of living things, propelled by their emotions. A dissolving picture appears of fragmented temporal trajectories, calls-and-answers, withdrawals and unveilings — all emerging from a submerged, but present and persistent, many. Who cares about the one and many, you be might thinking by this point. Well it matters — in the many we find the emergence of novelty, or the possibility of novelty — painful and pleasurable as it is in turns.

Like the protagonist in the 1968 TV series The Prisoner, Tithonus is put forever in a state of paradoxical waking by this disconcerting alarm clock of presence(s) — in this case, the passage of time created by the dawn. Yet, I believe Oswald also turns what Badiou dismisses as the ’empty suture’ of the poetic event back in on itself using what Virilio terms ‘picnolepsy’ (from the Greek, picnos: frequent). As ‘Tithonus’ progresses, it becomes clear that these moments of picnolepsy — what Virilio describes as the moments inbetween, of forgetting — are in fact the focus, rather than the permanent thoughts around them;


         so the thought goes on recycling 
         itself and the mouth opens and the
         body begins to shrivel into some-
         thing more portable
         which is me old unfinished not
         yet gone here I go again

         as soon as a hand whose hand as
         soon as the fingers feel for the clock

         4.22 the village is lost in its veils
         a few dreams lean over the lanes like


These picnoleptic images, with their interplay of forgotten becomings, I think, hover much closer to the relation between being and time, or the living state of dwelling in time, than Badiou — who prizes certainties — would care to admit. The moments when you are looking for something you have put down, or absentmindedly repeat an action, or half-awake make a cup of tea, just as ‘the beetle’s fingers/ feeling forwards for the levers of the earth’, become braille, for a minute or so. This sense of how being relates to time passing as it really is can be found in the process of reading Falling Awake just as clearly as we can find it hinted at in the mathematical keys of Being and Event.


         then at last whatever it is

         5.03 as the sun saws the morning
	 into beams


Bernadette Soubirous said of the passing of her vision: ‘You should refer to what I first said. I could have since forgotten and others also could have forgotten….’ Falling Awake is the important documentation of such a forgetting. The poet’s project, I think, is to show us that our temporality is not necessarily totally sutured to ourselves as beings-in-the-world. If you’re poet but also a full-time mother like Oswald, you must go to work at night (‘taking a life a night’ as Michael Hofmann says) or, as in ‘Tithonus’, in the first of mornings. At these unusual times of day, in the illuminatively darker and clearer hours when the world is pausing and forgetting and moving, these disparities emerge, becoming ‘waves of forms and folds/ being added to leaves’ — opening out onto wider, stranger things.

Lucy Mercer

About Lucy Mercer

Lucy Mercer is a writer based in London. Her poems have been published in Oxford Poetry, Ambit and Poems in Which among others. She's a contributor to the forthcoming reader Ecocriticism, Ecology, and the Cultures of Antiquity (Lexington Books, 2017) and is studying for an AHRC funded PhD in the 'Ecological Poetics of Emblems' at Royal Holloway. Her radio show on poetry and antiquity was recently broadcast at the Serpentine Gallery.