Dart by Alice Oswald
Winner of the TS Eliot award, Alice Oswald's Dart is a long (48 page) poem based around recordings of conversations that the poet held, over a three year period (1999-2002 one presumes), with the people who live and work on the river Dart in Devon. The poet moves between reality and imaginings, between the poetic and what could almost be verbatim prose interlinked between "historic and mythic voices; drowned voices, dreaming voices". Prefacing her work, Oswald describes the poem as "a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea".
There is an attempt here to be both faithful to the voices that the poet has recorded (and re-ordered in her writing) - voices that populate the banks of the river, this "huge rain coloured wilderness ... this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound" - and to be faithful to the river itself. There is a strong onamatopoia to the piece - the words swell, swirl and eddy; and there is a powerful drive as the poem shows the river moving from source to sea - as we move along we learn some of the history of the riverways and meet its characters, like Jan Coo, a watery green man, or perhaps a drowned boy haunting the woods, water bailiffs, a boat builder, tin miners, a sewage treatment worker, a stone waller, fishermen, ferry men, a naval cadet ...
"Who's this moving alive over the moor?" the poet asks at the outset. Not the river, actually (but, of course, also the river), but a walker, "An old man, fifty years a mountaineer" and the first of our voices. And the voices - as you'd expect, taped as they were - retain their authenticity as they are "worked up" into a poem; the quotidian, so carefully arranged, stands up as poetry; and the voices are what give the poem its great strength.
but that was way back, when a chap made his living
from his wits,
when I still had my parting in the middle and you could
forty thousand pilchards in one draft
We start with the old man. And we end with Proteus, the sealwatcher, the sea and the seals themselves
with their dog-soft
who's this moving in the dark? Me.
Me the poet? Me the reader? Me the seal? Me the Dart? "[A]ll names, all voices" All of them.
Oswald's poem has, quite rightly, been highly praised. The artful combination of voices, the simple prose through to some stunning lyricism is beautifully handled. Highly recommended.
and nothing lies as straight as that stone's route
over the water's wobbling light;
it sank like a feather falls, not quite
in full possession of its weight