From Falling Awake, Cape, 2016.
I bought a copy of Alice Oswald’s latest collection ‘Falling Awake’ when it came out last year, and the second poem in the collection, ‘Swan’, lodged in my brain and wouldn’t go away. I was captivated and annoyed by it; captivated by the language, the structure, the odd perspective or perspectives, and annoyed by what seemed to be a shift in the poem’s tone and shape in the final five stanzas. I was perplexed and moved, elated and intrigued by the disembodied voice within it, at the way the poem plays with line and time.
I kept returning to the structural and tonal shift that takes place in the poem, shortly after the stanza beginning ‘say something…’
I wanted the poem to end sooner, perhaps on
say something to the
frozen cloud of the head
Why? Because everything after this seemed to be a misjudged addition, an attempt to take the poem in an altogether different direction that didn’t ‘match up’ with what came before it. I admired the imagery, the spellbinding strangeness of the whole, but still felt it was almost two separate poems fused together.
‘Falling Awake’ has been described in one review as ‘a celebration of nature’. Setting aside the other poems in the collection, ‘Swan’ goes beyond celebration. It seems to be in part an articulation of shock, a celebration of the wonder of existence, a celebration of life itself. It is also a piece that records the traumatic realization that existence is finite, even as this realization (perhaps as incomprehensible to us as to a swan) is happening.
Several of the reviews I’ve read of the collection mention this poem among other stand out, and similar pieces like ‘Fox’ ‘Flies’ and ‘Body’, and all the reviewers mention a ‘dying’ swan. It is part of the mystery of the poem that this swan, the one that is
lifting away again and bending back for another look thinking/
may not be dying but already dead. ‘A rotted swan’ suggests decay has begun in earnest. In the assonant coupling of ‘rotted’ and ‘swan’, we have a juxtaposition of opposites; ‘rotted’ suggests discoloration, separation, falling away and all its associations with degradation and repulsion, while a swan is a creature of often dazzling whiteness and wholeness, the embodiment of grace as in the phrase ‘as graceful as a swan’
A rotted swan
is hurrying away…
Where is the swan now? How can it be that we are ‘in’ on her perceptions? How can she articulate (never mind that she is using English) her thoughts (she is ‘thinking’, not ‘feeling’) from a place of disembodiment? What to call this disembodied swan-voice? Ghost? Spirit? Soul? Consciousness? In Celtic tradition the Swan represents the Soul. Irish bards wore cloaks made with swan feathers.
When I was a nurse I worked with someone who would always open the window in a room where someone had just died. I hesitate to call her action a superstition. It was a belief, and the ritual was important to her.
Oswald’s swan is already inhabiting a spiritual dimension, ‘hurrying away’. She is drawn back, fascinated to ‘see’ herself from this detached viewpoint, confused, marveling at the strangeness of her vacant physical body, perhaps horrified and admiring its beauty and functionality.
The form of the poem serves to tell us how it might be read. There is no punctuation at all, and no capital letters apart from the opening ‘A’. In what I’ll refer to as the first section of the poem, it is as if the white space around the text might be thought of as the air or water upon which the physical body of the poem is floating or lifting. Another way of looking at the white space is that it is ‘eating into’ the text. Or perhaps the text is ‘eating into’ the white space. Certainly, the line breaks function to control time, to check or speed the flow of the poem, as well as extenuating or highlighting individual words. The repetition of isolated words serves to create, respectively, physical distance (the wings are ‘one here/ one there’) little shocks of realization or confusion (‘strange / strange’) and urgency or desperation (‘quick/ quick’.)
At first glance sections of the poem might look like they are strewn about the page in a ‘plane-crash mess’. However, the text is carefully set out to give the impression of randomness, reflecting perhaps, confusion, anxiety, disembodiment. Each word is precisely placed and white space, or its absence, used to control pace and emphasis. There are ‘breathless’ sections where the poem is speeded up, momentum gathering and propelling forward – ‘getting panicky up out of her clothes and mid-splash/ looking down again’. Here, the indent that follows ‘splash’ suggests a shift in perspective.
If you listen to this recording of Alice Oswald reading the poem, you can hear you how her pauses seem a little longer than might be expected. The white space, observed as silence, is as much a part of the poem as the words.
From the opening assonance (at least aurally) of ‘rotted’ ‘swan’ ‘from’ the language is working hard.
a horrible plastic
This ‘horrible plastic’ brings to mind a cheap white synthetic compound, discarded and dirty. Interestingly ‘mould’ comes from Old English ‘molde,’ related to Old High German ‘molta’ soil. There is also perhaps a suggestion of something ‘mouldy’ in ‘mould’.
The metaphors for the parts of the swan are manufactured objects; the plane-crash mess,’ ‘clothes,’ and ‘plastic mould’ are inorganic, cold, and inanimate. Used in this context they suggest the abject and degraded. Not only accurate as metaphor, they also contribute to the ‘strangeness’ articulated by the disembodied voice. The swan is
leaving her life and all its tools
with their rusty juices trickling back to the river
All is mutable, transient. And yet the spiritual ‘consciousness’ Oswald intermittently inhabits and speaks of and from, is not yet gone, suspended in time. She is
lifting away she is taking a last look thinking
and regarding her own body. She ‘sees’ ‘the clean china serving dish of a breast bone’, the kind of serving dish a cooked bird might be served up on. The quill points of feathers are ‘thickly-symmetrical’ suggesting not only their power when utilized by the live swan, but also the fact that humans utilized quills to write and draw. The feathers, or part of them, are now components. The quills are
threaded in backwards through the leather underdress
of the heart …
A ‘leather underdress’; another ‘human’ object, this time perhaps bringing with it ideas of archaic and restrictive dress. This fracturing, mixing and overlaying of human and avian references, the use of synthetic objects to describe the parts of the swan, all contribute to the sense of the alienation, detachment, perhaps amazement or fascinated horror.
Existence is transitory, mutability and decay are ever-present and parallel with adaptation and function. When one thing ends, another begins. The ‘rusty juices’ are trickling back to the river .
and that surely can’t be my own black feet
lying poised in their slippers
There is an infantile innocence and lack of sophistication to this. A swan in a children’s picture book or rhyme might speak in this way. Slippers are deeply personal domestic objects, synonymous with comfort, the home, and relaxation. The sense of vulnerability that arrives with ‘slippers’ and the simple confusion in that questioning ‘voice’ contrasts with the earlier coldness of objects – ‘cockpit’, ‘serving dish’ ‘clips’ etc.
The miraculous physiology of the swan is in once sense, ‘a waste.’
what a waste of detail
However, Oswald, having assembled this detail, is not going to ‘waste’ any of it. It is preserved here, in these elusive, disturbing, shifting mosaic of images that are interspersed with utterances from a dislocated consciousness.
Recently I came across a dead duck by the side of the road. There were no obvious signs of trauma, but its position at the roadside suggested a strike by a passing car. I was fascinated by the pristine and still water-repellent feathers, beaded with rain.
Oswald’s poem continues
‘what heaviness inside each feather’
What is this ‘heaviness’? Could it be the subject of the poem, which is about as ‘heavy’ as it gets; that of ‘being’ and ‘non-being’?
These words, isolated in the white around them, seem to be imploring, desperate, frantic. Who or what is being implored to say something? Is it the reader, the disembodied swan, the poet herself, or maybe all three? It seems as if someone or something needs to say ‘something’ however inadequate, however impossible, to register life and the leaving of a life.
That ‘quick/ quick’ also has an echo of Ted Hughes’s skylark, (which possibly recalls Shelly’s ‘To a Skylark’) , as it scrambles
In a nightmare difficulty
Up through to nothing
Its feathers trash, its heart must be drumming like a motor
As if it were too late, too late
Dithering in ether
In Paul Bentley’s excellent analysis ‘The Poetry of Ted Hughes’, Bentley suggests that the ‘nightmare difficulty’ here is also that of the poet as he wrestles with language and concepts in an attempt to capture the ‘real’ nature of the lark’s flight.
Hughes wrote that Shakespeare’s language has ‘the air of being invented in a state of crisis, for a terribly urgent job’ . This seems like an apt description of the first section of Oswald’s ‘Swan’.
In a recent interview Oswald said “poetry is not about language but about what happens when language gets impossible.”
There is a restlessness in this poem, as Oswald attempts (or shows her attempt) to breach a gap,
the gap between what language signifies and a state of being, of unconscious.
What does one say, what can anyone say about death, about the point of departure from life to the departing self, to a consciousness left behind or leaving?
The first section of ‘Swan’ might be seen as what Bentley refers to (in reference to Hughes) as an ‘verbal scraps’ that do not constitute ‘a language’ , but rather an ‘extenuated state of language’ that, while labouring to represent the bird (in Hughes case, a skylark) , ‘continually glances askance at its own arbitrary, makeshift status.’ Perhaps the ‘something’ being said is this poem; a memorial, a recording, a tribute, a stay against time, against silence, against death.
The ‘swan song’ voice of the poem is left behind as we move into its final stanzas. These are contrastively neat, offset to the right of the page to leave a block of white space at the left margin. I mentioned earlier how these final stanzas seemed out-of-place to me when I first read this poem. I saw them (and still do) as a rupture, a break or estrangement from what has come before. This might be because the earlier section of the poem seems in part a struggle to make sense of an emotional experience, whereas this last section feels like a turn towards a colder more alienated reality. There is a coldness to the tone and a finality and formality of a ritual observed; a detachment, one born of ‘knowing’ and certainty rather than from the sympathetic or empathetic identification with an experience of confusion, anxiety, surprise, grief, embodied in the disembodied voice of the first section.
A chilling calmness seems to descend as the poem becomes more narrative and literally begins to descend in regular stanzas. These contrast with the brokenness, the spare and spaciousness
proceeding lines. The poem condenses and concentrates into trim stanzas, offset by that slab of white. There is a fairy-tale horror (as well as beauty) in the ‘frozen cloud of the head’ (the poets head? the readers head? the swan’s?) whose ‘dead eye/ is a growing cone of twilight.’
Note how the ‘o’ sounds are slowing the poem; ‘ frozen’ ‘cloud’ growing’ ‘cone’ ‘snowing’. A cruel (?) spell is cast, and suddenly we are in a scene in which a bride has only ‘just’ set out even though it is late (‘twilight’) and ‘the middle of winter ‘to walk to her wedding’
in a ‘little black-lit church’ (I read this several times as ‘back-lit’; an intentional trick with, or of, the light?)
where it is ‘so cold’ (those ‘o’s again)
and ‘the bells like iron angels’
(what use are angels made of iron?)
‘hung from one note’
(this is not a joyful wedding peal)
‘keep ringing and ringing.’
In that ‘ringing and ringing’ one might read an unanswered phone call or perhaps the ‘wringing’ of hands.
Incredibly, all this takes place inside ‘the one dead eye’, which again put me in mind of a Ted Hughes poem in which the ‘Thought Fox’, enters the ‘hole in the head’.
The bride could be the poet or the swan. A bride might be construed as a symbol representing qualities of hope, faith, fidelity and or innocence. She is setting out on a hopeless mission, starting late and going out into the snow in her white dress.
Why is the church ‘black lit?’ Perhaps this poem is itself a kind of church, a structure of ‘black lit’ words that illuminate and contain. And why the ‘one note’? Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.
In Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, the poet longs to join, perhaps to fuse, with the celebrated and ‘immortal Bird!’, to escape ‘weariness, the fever and the fret’ of human existence. Listening to the bird sing, it seems to the poet that now seems as good as a time as any to die. And in writing the poem Keats perhaps achieved a temporary flight, borne along on his own music. However, Keats imaginative flight and the poem take a turn earthward in the final stanza.
Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!’
The ‘fancy’ he has created ‘cannot cheat so well.’ The last stanza of Keats’ ode might be read as a statement that poetry can only help us escape ‘reality’ for a short while. I think it possible that Oswald’s final stanzas are performing a similar function.
Is this a nihilistic ending? Perhaps. However, it also seems that the images in this poem are so memorable, the shock and emotion present in first part of the poem make it seem at the same time a confirmation, an affirmation that the body, that consciousness, did and does exist. As in Hughes final line of ‘The Thought Fox,’ there is incontrovertible evidence that something, someone has been here. Words on a white page denote that consciousness has been at work, that imagination has asserted itself and once again left its mark. ‘The page is printed.’