3.Avatar Review
     A Review of Poetry, Prose, and Art - Summer 2001

The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile,
by Alice Oswald
(Oxford University Press 1996)

Reviewed by Steve Harris

Alice Oswald is both a nature poet and a religious poet. For her, there is no real separation between the two -- she finds a complex harmony all around her; this, in turn, feeds her observations of the world. She doesn't seek to scientifically categorize this harmony but takes it on trust. Her poetic approach towards nature recalls Hopkin's belief that “nature is never spent” and that “[t]here lives the dearest freshness deep down things .” Like Hopkins, she senses the Holy Spirit's (or whatever the equivalent is in her cosmology) “warm breast.” She too writes of the unnamed, its “bright wings.” She is reconciled with nature where Wordsworth was not. Oswald, once a professional gardener, is particularly attuned to nature's shifts - however harsh. In the collection's opening poem, “Pruning in Frost,” she suffers the gardener's winter:

Oh I am
stone thumbs,
feet of glass.

Work knocks in me the winter's nail.

Oswald is able to transform her little sufferings into a kind of religious experience that is both contemplative and real, but also humorous, as she mocks herself before the Mediaeval kings with her Mediaeval “Pain” - with its allegorically capitalized “P”:

I can imagine
Pain, turned heron,
could fly slowly in a creak of wings.

And I'd be staring, like one of those
cold holy and granite kings,
getting carved into this effigy of orchard.

(Pruning in Frost).

Oswald's church is all around her. She finds her greenhouse is both a “hole” and the “sun's chapel,”even though it is raining outside. She marvels at what grows there:

Cucumbers, full of themselves,
the long green lungs of that still air,

image the fruits of staying put,
like water beetles in woodland puddles
and hoofprints.

Oswald also views herself as a hole. This is not a negative condition of being, but a willing abandonment of self, so that like her glass house chapel, she becomes filled with impressions of the physical world. She finds her delights in simple things. It is a kind of love that circles into her inner being while at the same time emanating outward, achieving a balance, much like prayer:

And I
am a hole in the glass house,
taking my time between the rows.

The leaves, the yellow blooms, the pots,
vanish through a loop of thoughts.

Some of the most beautiful poems of this collection can be found in Oswald's sonnets. Time and again she utilizes the repetition of words, such as “sea” and “moon” and “water” to great musical effect, particularly in a series of sea sonnets:

The sea crosses the sea, the sea has hooves;
the powers of rivers and the river's weir's curves
are moving in the wind-bent acts of waves.

And then the softer waters of the wells
and soakaways - hypostasis of holes,
which swallow up and sink for seven miles;

and then the boat arriving on the island
and nothing but the sea-like sea beyond.

(Sea Sonnet).

Oswald turns often to the sea in her poetry. In another sea sonnet, she startles the reader, pleasantly, with both imagery and inventive language. It is like sailing in a musical rainbow:

Grey, green and yellow, the sea and the weather
instantiate each other and the spectrum
turns in it like a perishable creature.
The sea is old, but the blue sea is sudden.

The wind japans the surface. Like a flower,
each point of contact biggens and is gone.
And when it rains the senses fold in four.
No sky no sea - the whiteness is all one.

(Sea Sonnet).

Oswald also has love sonnets. In one, she writes of how, late at night, she sits in her “growing soap ball of silence.” But, the night and the solitude focus her words; she is a lonely recluse transformed into a modern day Ariel singing near the sea:

I just can't think and I don't want to know
whether I've lost my heart to my resilience;
not care, not speak - the clock, the book, the chair
and this one self, beyond sufficiency,
gone like an oyster to the ocean's floor
to make of love the pearl's cold quality. . .
I choose to think of you but I can't say
whether its peace or makeshift that I live
in this last hour of the millionth day
which ends like this, just breathing to survive.
And I don't know and so I haven't said
whether it's you or nothing in my head.


And with Ariel, there must also be magic nearby. Oswald is a master of the teasing image -- the vivid clue that often leaves the reader poised at the edge of the intangible, whether it be the sea (above), or the floating terror of a bicycle accident, or towels that operate as semaphores for love:

and us on bicycles - it was so fast
wheeling and turning we were lifted falling,
our blue-sky jackets filling up like vowels


and my two eyes are floating in the fields,
my mouth is on a branch, my hair
is miles behind me making tributaries
and I have had my heart distracted out of me,
my skin is blowing slowly about without me

and now I have no hands and now I have no feet.

(Bike Ride on a Roman Road).

and if I love you this is incidental
as on the sand one blue towel, one white towel.

(Sea Sonnet).

In the collection's last piece, the long poem, “The Three Wise Men of Gotham Who Set Out to Catch the Moon in a Net,” Oswald turns to an 13th Century English folk tale about seven fishermen who went out to catch the moon, in order to prolong the spring. When they get back, they discover one is missing, presumed drown. But nobody has drowned, because each has not been counting himself.

In Oswald's retelling, instead of seven fisherman there is a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker. It is the butcher who first hears the moon's call: “O the moon - how many miles” he said “to catch a moon?” The butcher gathers his two friends, and out to sea they head. As they row, each, with childlike wonder, asks questions (“What is the moon?”), or speculates on the elusive nature of the moon: “They say,” said Baker, “if you oil the moon / the night goes twice as fast as if you don't.” In time, they grow confused and realize that the “sea had mastered them”:

How many miles? How many miles from Gotham?
How many fish, feet, hands? They couldn't count.
They only knew the waves were twice as high
and twice as endless as they wished and each
stroke of the oar, each splash, the green-souled waves
came cold alive with pricks of phosphorus
and whispered messages of random numbers:
“Three men, three men of Gotham in a bowl,
the man of Gotham in the moon, the sea,
the six or seven common brittle stars,
and one was blind and two was terrified,
meganyctophanes, four men of Gotham
was hard to balance in a bowl, the moon,
it wasn't even safe to raise a finger
to make a tally of the crew but always
three men three men of Gotham in the moan,
the velvet swimming crab, the file, the flatworm. . .

And so the three argue, in nonsensical language, as to how many were in the boat (“one, two, halibu crackibu”). They are now lost. At this point a fourth ghostly figure (“now dim -- now clear”) appears:

I am Old Careit is my freezing round
to work these seas many miles out and in
I walk swim fly half like an oyster catcher
the shaky water under me always

In the next stanza, we are told that there “were three men of Gotham.” It appears they have passed on into a timeless realm, chasing their moon, asking their questions. Further on, an unnamed narrator thinks she sees them on the water:

as I came down through Gotham,
that light which the horizons of all seas
imply beyond - a kind of agitated
surreal and weightless curve - I saw it move
to close the space above a tiny boat
and in that boat, I thought I saw three men
and one was standing like a cormorant
who dries his wings; the spinning of the earth,
the wind, the sun were pulling them away.
I heard their voices on the waves: “Look up”
“what's that? “it's water” it's the moon how far?
how many miles is it? if we go on
beyond the crack of the horizon, wind
has broken down the moon.

And those three are no doubt still chasing the moon in a time beyond time. The reader will find in the mysterious and beautiful poetry of Alice Oswald a number of enchanting seas on which to sail, magical seashores to walk, and secret gardens to explore. In many ways, through her cadences, surreal imagery, and settings, Oswald's writing echos the nursery rhymes of childhood - only these nursery rhymes are for adults.


© Copyright 2004 Avatar Review.