In Dreams Begin Responsibilities: Marianne Boruch & Alice Oswald
|Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, by Marianne Boruch, Copper Canyon Press. 108 pp., $15.
| Falling Awake, by Alice Oswald. W.W. Norton. 81 pp., $25.95.
Last October I visited the Benedictine Abbey of Pomposa in Italy’s foggy, fly-ridden Po Delta, not far from Dante’s burial place in Ravenna. The abbey was a cultural cornerstone under the Carolingian dynasty, in the ninth century, and by the fourteenth century had acquired an almost unprecedented repository of medieval manuscripts that included copies of Horace’s Epistles and Virgil’s Georgics. Dante sojourned there, as did the Benedictine reformer Saint Peter Damian before him, whom Dante, in his Paradiso, eventually placed among the contemplatives in Saturn. And it was here that Guido d’Arezzo invented modern musical notation. The abbey is, like so much of Italy, a place where you feel medieval and modern history pressing in on all sides, and the wheel of time quickly turns dizzying.
Even in the off-season, tourists flock to the relatively remote abbey, and I didn’t have to strain to pick up parts of each tour guide’s patter. One guide, more philosophical than the others, kept floating deep, unanswerable questions. The helpless tourists just stood there, silent and mystified. One or two scanned the plains, studying fish nets in the distance. At a certain point the guide waved three fingers in the air—really stirring the pot this time—and asked, “What do we mean when we say something is beautiful?” Once again his question was met with silence, a silence all the more embarrassing given that in Italian the word bello is a vague catchall on par with American English’s “great.” It’s a safe bet that everyone in that group had already used the word a half dozen times that morning.
“What is beauty?” asked the guide, this time letting the word hang in the air a moment before providing his own answer. “Harmony,” he said. “Symmetry.” The group nodded. A straightforward enough answer, sure, and delivered confidently. But, when you think about it, how disappointing.
Is that beauty?
“Not clear or this quite,” writes Marianne Boruch in her poem titled, precisely, “Beauty.” As Boruch reveals in her characteristic, complete-sentences-need-not-apply way, beauty appears not to lie—or lie exclusively—in the Apollonian austerity of Romanesque architecture. Instead, the poems in her ninth collection, Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, display a belief in the messy and unrehearsed, following the advice of the art teacher in another poem, who urges her students to “[b]lur it more, gloom it up.” The result is a book of rough brushstrokes, not quites, topographies always slightly out of focus:
Two brush-stroked boats, so-so weather, more detail
forward than aft, heavy
on shaded bits as
simple reflection, the mast dropping in water blurred.
Nearly all of the 60-plus page-or-so-long poems in Boruch’s collection exhibit such studied frumpiness. They are composed of uneven stanzas, sentence fragments, whiplash enjambment, “so-so weather” and non-sequiturs. They prefer to let beauty in through the back door rather than trumpet its arrival. Beauty or truth, that is, or whatever punch a poem is traditionally expected to pack.
The smudgy quality of these poems finds a mate in the English painter J.M.W. Turner, whose own atmospheric paintings were occasionally chided for appearing indistinct. Both Boruch and Turner make an art of haze and, in doing so, expose our inner haziness:
J.M.W. Turner. Three brushstrokes. Late in life. The middle
of nothing. He didn’t call it painting.
He called it Boats at Sea.
I dreamt others laughed: Good God! Why not call it
Men in Fog? And one of them, an aside—wouldn’t that be Ruskin?—
no, Fog in Men.
Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing collects an awe-inspiring, Benedictine abbey’s worth of subjects. We are treated not only to Turner but to Scottish antiquities, Gregorian chants, thirteenth-century popes. Gustave Doré makes an appearance, as do Dante and, on more than one occasion, Dickinson. In Boruch’s hands, however, the history lessons are never dreary. Historical time feels fluid rather than remote. Whatever her subject matter—a video shot with a cellphone, Galileo’s telescope—her true subject, I think, is the transformative process of processing the world. She is a master of mulling matter over and making that mulling audible to her readers. Her poem “Beauty” finds her thinking through a display of the digestive systems of several anatomical specimens:
Not clear or this quite. But here’s a glass case
hunger made. How anything digests.
Tiny circuit boards
eked out of
cricket locust leech
One grasshopper. One.
I can’t help but hear Elizabeth Bishop’s “Crusoe in England” in that repeated “one”: “…there was one of it and one of me. The island had one kind of everything…” Boruch is every bit as democratic as her predecessor; if she could, she’d smuggle one of everything onto her island too:
… a young crocodile, or that sea cucumber’s
The intestinal worm’s interior charms,
infinitesimal. A lizard
swallowed wildly too—a june bug took
that route, unlucky gnat after gnat after gnat.
Boruch’s attention to the overlooked and creaturely remind me of both Bishop and Marianne Moore, about whom Boruch has written wonderful essays that orbit their subjects in a manner comparable to the way Boruch’s poems orbit theirs, which is to say, meanderingly, curiously. Closer in temperament to Bishop than Moore, Boruch chews her scenes slowly. Rather than leap, her poems seek their shapes gradually, mimicking the process of those digestive systems:
…Each dark night of little
gut machinery, same
turning thing into that other thing. Enter leaf, root,
flesh of world great and recognizable,
mangled, profoundly stranged, soaked, crushed
through gorgeous tubes…
Were I pressed to say what accounts for beauty—in art or elsewhere—weirdness would rank pretty high on my list. By weirdness I don’t mean an affected whimsy. I mean real idiosyncrasy, the singular way in which an artist perceives the world—leaf, root—and returns it to us “profoundly stranged.” Boruch is nothing if not genuinely strange, plenty weird, so completely herself that in one poem she’ll pat Galileo on the back and say “Good job!” and in another dispense seemingly random facts, as she does, for example, in the poem “Water at Night”:
Not that I understand things.
Angels don’t walk toward the ship, old engraving
where moon throws
a river of light, how angels would walk the ocean
if they wanted to walk.
They don’t. They hover. A lot of space
between them and what
shines like waves. Which can’t
be a choice, for angels or
the engraver who was in fact
Gustave Dore after sleeping off
the ancient mariner Coleridge left behind under
guilt and regret and an albatross’ weight.
Which isn’t much, but they are
big animals, four feet across counting
the wind involved
Who else but Boruch would feel compelled to stop and tell us the approximate wingspan of an albatross? The information comes, like a bird, out of thin air. It is by risking asymmetry, by including so-called inessential or unearned information, that Boruch’s poems feel most alive. Her trust in instinct gives her visions a visionary quality.
However stranged and blurred they may be, the poems in Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing rarely give way to gloom, at least for this reader. Even in the face of loss, Boruch appears more beguiled than dismayed by the realia of reality. How could it be otherwise with a poet whose most frequently employed words are as up- and offbeat as “relish” and “howbeit”? Or who coins terms that verge on the cornball, like “life-glad” and “lovely-cool”? Boruch is not only alert to the primal pleasures of the physical world but to the physical pleasures of language itself. Charmingly, she admires our curious American idiom:
Perfect strangers. I’ve always loved
the perfect part, as if news of the world is
a matter of pitch, and pure.
Or draws our attention to a funny foreign expression:
I like best the Brits saying cheeky. Well, that
was rather cheeky of you …
“Wanderer,” she calls the word thereabouts, “glory-run of letters.”
If it is sometimes difficult to tell the trivia from the essential in Eventually One Dreams the Real Thing, if you have to swallow a lot of gnats before coming across a june bug, well, implies Boruch, such is life: “Each all every small point / can’t be good, can’t be / the worst of it.” Reading the book is like rummaging through a yard sale, or, for that matter, visiting an Italian abbey: all the fun is in the process of wading through the piles of stuff, the good stuff and the so-so stuff. That’s the beauty of it.
Like Boruch, English poet Alice Oswald has an egalitarian spirit. Falling Awake, her seventh book of poems, draws from a common poetic reservoir: the natural world. Her new poems are, like her old, populated with foxes and blackbirds, and plotted with pools of water, plumes of grass, the “democratic dew [that] gives equal weight to everything.” The human kingdom, when it is glimpsed, is glimpsed only occasionally, gliding by on the “wings of their macs.”
Just as her previous book, Memorial, a version of Homer’s Iliad, jettisoned the epic’s heroes in order to bring into stark relief its foot soldiers, Falling Awake expands the confines of the nature poem to make room for the smaller creatures lying in our backyards or buzzing about the house. Her poem “Flies” begins:
This is the day the flies fall awake mid-sentence
and lie stunned on the window-sill shaking with speeches
only it isn’t speech it is trembling sections of puzzlement which
break off suddenly as if the question had been shot
Oswald, an ecologist and gardener, said of this poem on a recent Poetry magazine podcast, “I’m incredibly interested in the way insects speak…I listen out very carefully for…marginal and inarticulate and unintelligible voices. It seems to me that insects have really captured that market.”
Also like Boruch, Oswald’s powers of description tend to “strange” their subjects. Her metaphors are not so much accurate as they are transformative. In the poem “Body,” a dead badger is likened to a suitcase, its grin “an opened zip.” Or, in the abovementioned “Flies,” insects are poetically reborn as cigarette butts:
this is one of those wordy days
when they drop from their winter quarters in the curtains
and sizzle as they fall
feeling like old cigarette butts called back to life
blown from the surface of some charred world
Unlike the flies, Oswald’s metaphor stands on all six legs. Besides the visual and sonic equivalence (you can hear the embers sizzle), and the obvious allusion—though not obviously expressed—to rising out of the ashes, there is also a transformative, synesthetic quality to the simile that collapses the distance between observer and observed. Whereas a lesser poet might say that the flies look like cigarette butts, Oswald grants the flies agency, telling us they feel like old cigarette butts. It is a subtle shift, but one that makes a world of difference. By saying the feeling belongs to the flies, Oswald charges the poem with a sense of their creaturely presence, giving them, as it were, a second life, if only on the page.
But the page offers a kind of immortality, or at least a platform to communicate with the dead. Oswald engages the dead, her literary forebears, with quiet confidence. “Called back” are the words on the gravestone of Emily Dickinson, whose “I heard a Fly buzz—” informs “Flies.” I also hear in “Flies” an echo of Sylvia Plath’s “Wintering,” itself a poem about the resurrection of buzzing insects. (In Plath’s case, bees.) Plath’s poem begins “This is the easy time, there is nothing doing…” Not, I think, incidentally, “Flies” is paired in the collection with “Fox,” Oswald’s unsettling poem about a late-night visitation from the title creature, a clear allusion to Ted Hughes’s “The Thought-Fox.”
A collection of Hughes’s animal poems edited by Oswald also appeared this past year. In a memorial lecture about the late poet, Oswald remarked on the meter and texture of Hughes’s poems, and singled out for praise their “imaginative grasp of the present—that ability to speak strictly within one moment and not through a misted screen of remembered moments.” Oswald’s language possesses a similar present-tense urgency. One poem opens: “May I shuffle forward and tell you the two-minute life of the rain / starting right now lips open and lidless-cold all-seeing gaze.” Oswald, too, has a knack for creating vivid compound nouns. Clouds are “high, prehistoric space-ferns.” One speaker’s stare is described as “bone lintel.”
The effect of such an imagination is both revivifying and terrifying, an effect the collection’s paradoxical title prepares us for. Behind the misted screen, we see the mortality of all matter. Yet there is a desire on the part of the poet to replenish the landscape through the medium of language. We sense that desire in the originality of expression, as well as in the repetitious forms of longer poems, like the closing monologue, “Tithonus: 46 Minutes in the Life of the Dawn,” or “Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River.” The latter is an ode to the River Dunt (a “runnel no deeper than my boots”) that runs through the poet’s home in Gloucestershire. It begins:
Very small and damaged and quite dry,
a Roman water nymph made of bone
tries to summon a river out of limestone
very eroded faded
her left arm missing and both legs from the knee down
a Roman water nymph made of bone
tries to summon a river out of limestone
exhausted utterly worn down
a Roman water nymph made of bone
being the last known speaker of her language
she tries to summon a river out of limestone
little distant sound of dry grass try again
For another twenty stanzas the poem tries again and again to summon the river by that same imaginative grasp of the present Oswald praised in Hughes. She recreates the “slithering” and “shuffling” sounds of a landscape as it may have been when it brimmed with life. The rabbit man, “rickety low in the willowherb,” is summoned. As are “two otters larricking along.” For a moment, the words ring out, and each image rises before our eyes. The “little stoved-in sucked thin low-burning glint of stones.” The five valleys with their “cows and milking stools.” For a moment, we feel propelled forward, part of the physical world, in the grip of its flow.
Why is this important, I wonder, this attention to language, image, form? Why do I find Oswald’s ability to call up a place—a place that is no more or may have never been—a necessary addition to my life? While we’re at it, I might as well ask why I cherish the psychic peregrinations of Boruch. I sound like that tour guide at the Abbey of Pomposa, I know, asking impossible questions, my fingers forking the air. But the questions nag, now that October is long past, and the results of November won’t be reversed, and another year, as I write this, has come to an end. Important things seem to have been rendered irrelevant by recent events. Oswald asks aloud the same question in her lecture on Hughes. “Because we’re not just here to think about literature,” she writes, “We’re here to try to wake up.” It is the intense engagement with the world—via an intensity of language—that makes both poets’ work, to me, more not less indispensable. Their engagement admits of plurality and strangeness—falling awake, dreaming the real thing—and holds out to us imaginative possibility where others would deny such.
Will Schutt is the author of Westerly, winner of the 2012 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize. His poems and translations have appeared in Agni, A Public Space, The New Republic and elsewhere. He lives in Baltimore.