Alice Oswald’s second volume, Dart (2002), is a long liquid poem made of voices. Some were drawn from the people who live and work on the river of that name, whom Oswald spent three years recording. Their babble mingles with other voices, mythic and actual, some asleep, some drowned. It is ‘water’s soliloquy’. The sailmaker and the sealwatcher have their say, so too do stones and salmon, but all voices ‘should be read as the river’s mutterings’.
That poetry might borrow its shape from water is an idea pursued in Oswald’s new collection. The guiding theme is flux, which is both a fact and a kind of vanishing act: ‘my voice being water/which holds me together and also carries me away’. The poems vary in form, slip-shape (to borrow her term), unwilling to settle, as though performing the mutability they describe, like water which is only ever partly itself. Readers of Dart and Memorial may miss the majestic coherence of their book-length poems, but a collection must be judged on its own looser terms. The pieces included here are held together by Oswald’s luminous, almost alien powers of observation. Their subject is that curious category, the natural world, the name we give to all that isn’t human.