Weeds and Wild Flowers, by Alice Oswald, with etchings by Jessica Greenman. Faber and Faber. £14.99.
Readers on this side of the Atlantic will be tempted to compare the personified flora of British poet Alice Oswald’s Weeds and Wild Flowers with Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris. But not for long. Oswald, whose diction is less distilled than Glück’s, is also earthier, and she means, as she says in a prefatory note, to amuse herself “using the names of flowers to summon up the flora of the psyche” (or as Kingsley Amis’s psychiatrist in Stanley and the Women says, “The rewards for being sane may not be very many, but knowing what’s funny is one of them”).
Some of the subjects in Oswald’s comic Arcadia waylay us in the first person; more are sketched from the third’s safe remove (the scribe lurking behind the sweet peas), as in “Stinking Goose-foot has grown human. / It could happen to anyone.” They form a cast of local types—truculent, freakish, yearning, bored—such as Heaney (more of a people-poet than Ted Hughes, to whom Oswald is often compared) might revel in: a motley lot of mechanicals and tiggy-winkles, repositories of local lore and ancestral gripes. Consider “Thrift,” whose nursery-rhyme jingle might seem ingenuous were it not slyly undermined by the poet’s tone:
Born by the sea.
Used to its no-hope moan.
Forty or thereabouts.
Lived on her own.
But she worked she worked
to the factory rhythm
of the sea’s boredom.
Its bouts of atheism.
If poetry is to teach and delight, Weeds and Wild Flowers is compellingly delightful, with its human types and tonal shifts, from irony-tinged pathos to feigned disgust. Its vegetable loves are essentially survivors, denizens of a rural England where gardens and gardeners muck about in plots or pots—made visual by Jessica Greenman’s delicately proliferating etchings and drawings (not illustrations but parallel play). This is not North American wilderness, fierce and sublime; nor is it the polyglot modern city implicit in Carol Ann Duffy’s poems; it is a village of the mind (signs of postmodernity tucked out of sight) where live-and-let-live is the watchword, and life goes on the same as it has, apparently, for centuries, as in this (perhaps) pub scene from “Bastard Toadflax”:
Very swollen eyes.
Gets fidgets often.
at unsuspecting lasses.
Tips chair, untips chair.
Sits in damp places
flattering and heckling.
Many a helpless motherly lass
smoothes down her dress,
cooks quantities of porridge.
And mentions marriage.
slides over one eyebrow.
The greatest pleasure in reading Oswald, however, may come from her sound figures (rhyme, half-rhyme, assonance, alliteration), employed as connective tissue. She moves effortlessly, and with quiet wit, from short-lined, playful quatrains (as in “Thrift” above, with the three consecutive rhymes recalling Skelton or Rossetti’s Goblin Market) to longer-lined free verse stanzas. Here’s “Fragile Glasswort”:
But why does she not come back to discuss the whole business?
Certainly she is blessed with a certain hard softness.
Rigid but liquid. So very tense and splintery
you’d think she had a prong frozen into her of some ancient injury.
And “Narcissus”—“half flower, half self,/that invisible self whose absence inhabits mirrors”—exhales a ghost of a sonnet, paratactic, minimally punctuated, with its roots in myth and the musings of Ted Hughes’s wodwo:
for a while I was neither one thing nor another,
a waterflame, a variable man-woman of the verges,
wearing the last self-image I was left with
before my strength went down down into darkness
for the best of the year and lies here crumpled
in a clot of sleep at the root of all nothings
Oswald’s subjects have been chosen with an eye and an ear to their improbable (but Google-able) names and opportunities for linguistic play. “Procumbent Cinquefoil” expands thanks to rustling fricatives and vowel modulations:
Flat on my face forever now.
and folded in its wings.
“Dense Silky Bent” weaves silky sibilants and labials (“dressed in rustling softness/with long washed hair”); and “Red-veined Dock” laments in long vowels (“I know I know”) and off-rhymes:
feeler of glands
with your soap-sweet hands
dear blood-stained Dock.
Tender, mocking, rueful, always warm and conversational, the flower-characters are ordinary folk, planted in some never-never land on the continuum between realism and allegory: somewhere, that is, like the play within the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
A Human Pattern: Selected Poems, by Judith Wright.
Carcanet Press. $23.95.
Hard to categorize these poems, which trace Australian writer Judith Wright’s development from her first book, published in 1946 when Wright was thirty-one, to her last collection in 1985. It’s tempting to say that Wright (1915–2000), a near contemporary of Elizabeth Bishop, started out colonial and ended up post-colonial, were it not for the thorny question of whether the descendants of European settlers in countries like Australia and Canada can claim postcolonial status. By “colonial” I mean that Wright’s early-to-middle poems sound a lot like the Romantic and post-Romantic (but still pretty Romantic) British poets she’d have read in school—Blake, Tennyson, Hardy, Yeats—without a scrap of Marianne Moore’s vivifying Modernism or Bishop’s meandering, associative, probing descriptions. The seven quatrains of Wright’s snake poem, “The Killer,” might owe something to Emily Dickinson:
The day was clear as fire,
the birds sang frail as glass,
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.
He has vanished whence he came,
My nimble enemy;
And the ants came out to the snake
And drink at his shallow eye.
Still, if the corseted stanzas, with their inversions and apostrophes (“O move in me”), have a whiff of the hand-me-down, Wright’s subjects are brand new. As Heaney reveals rural Northern Ireland to us, so Wright trains her refreshingly flinty eye on the settlers of rural Australia. “Remittance Man” is not Heaneyesque in its irony or in its way of telling rather than evoking with sensuous detail and rich music, but it too delineates the contours of life in a place most people who aren’t natives of that place don’t think much about. These poems with their laconic jibes have an anvil ring of truth:
The spendthrift, disinherited and graceless,
accepted his pittance with an easy air,
only surprised he could escape so simply
from the pheasant-shooting and the aunts in the close;
took to the life, dropped easily out of knowledge,
and tramping the backtracks in the summer haze
let everything but life slip through his fingers.
There’s a yarn-spinning side to this, and a pastoralism that owes little to the Romantics’ taste for the picturesque: it makes you wonder if people everywhere fall into recognizable types and only landscapes differ. Wright was to become an activist for the environment and for Aboriginal rights; among the genre poems in A Human Pattern, the 1985 sequence “For a Pastoral Family” captures descriptively and discursively the moral ambivalence of the settlers with their easy remorse:
And after all,
the previous owners put up little fight,
did not believe in ownership, and so were scarcely human.
This is dry, like the landscape. Exhilarating in its range and rage, Pattern has war poems more overt than Moore’s and Bishop’s (“Tunnelling through the night, the trains pass / in a splendour of power . . . / the trains go north with guns”); ethnological-historical poems (“The song is gone . . . / lost in an alien tale”); some of the canon’s earliest poems by a woman about selfhood, including “Naked Girl and Mirror,” a forerunner of Plath’s “Mirror,” as well as agreeably factual and/or tender poems about marriage and motherhood (including a brutally honest one about taking the kids and jumping off a cliff). Wright’s favorite genre, however, might be the landscape poem, as in “Eroded Hills” (1953):
These hills my father’s father stripped;
and, beggars to the winter wind,
they crouch like shoulders naked and whipped—
humble, abandoned, out of mind.
Of their scant creeks I drank once
and ate sour cherries from old trees
found in their gullies, fruiting by chance.
Neither fruit nor water gave my mind ease.
In the sixties (occasionally earlier) Wright sloughs the skin of colonialism: her poems grow more spare and conversational; she adopts free verse (“harder to bring off than rhyme,” she writes in a 1976 poem called “Tightropes”); she allows herself to speak more often in the first person, and her subjects have a dailiness and spontaneity that belie their seriousness. Romantic inversions and apostrophes are discarded, adjectives pared, closure less strained after—as if Wright had reached middle age and decided to chuck the clutter “until the house was clean, / cupboards scoured, shelves ransacked and bare” (“Cleaning Day”). These later poems feel open to whatever turns up: “A degree or two of fever, a dose of aspirin,” people one doesn’t much like, her fury at the artist’s impotence (“I want to have been in every hand and skin, /. . . . / My hair and fingers crisp with jealousy”).
Great grandmothers, aunts, mothers—a woman writer needs all the ancestors she can get. But Australian poet John Kinsella, in his introduction to this volume, suggests that Wright was an important muse for younger Australians of all sexes. Is she, as he claims, “a world poet”? Maybe he’s overstating the case. When we say “world poet,” we think of work that effectively transcends tribal boundaries—though it may spring from them—and addresses large human questions. Then there’s the writing side of the equation. Wright’s reach is not, finally, so great, and her style is belated. What’s clear, however, is that she is an invigoratingly acerbic, lyrical, visionary, and self-probing addition to the canon and deserves to be read wherever people read “English” poems—which is maybe what Kinsella meant.