Book by ALICE OSWALD
It’s possible to call a river an organ of speech. It has a mouth, and a source, and down the length of its body the sounds it makes go through physical transformations, changing the tones of its voice.
British poet Alice Oswald begins her book-length poem Dart by asserting this comparison between the poet’s voice and the river’s. She asserts that the people living along the Dart who lend their speech to the book’s personas function as “life-models from which to sketch out a series of characters—linking their voices into a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea… These do not refer to real people or even fixed fictions. All voices should be read as the river’s mutterings.”
This note gives just a glimpse of the complex labor of translation behind this work—one that surpasses the conventional personification of natural forms. Oswald, who spent two years recording the conversations of people who live and work on the Dart, set out to transform the voice of the river into English through the way its familiars talk.
Like other good translations, the language of these voices does not obscure the original source it seeks to fashion into English. The lines and the rhythms of their speech have the syntax of the river in them—they stretch the boundaries of English sentences as they reach toward the speech of the Dart. And as the muttering of the river comes into English, it simultaneously slips back out of English and into River. The poet is a human translator of inhuman patterns of sound, pushing language toward its onomatopoetic origins:
o I wish I was slammicking home
in wet clothes, shrammed with cold and bivvering but
in that brawl of mudwaves
the East Dart speaks Whiteslade and Babeny
the West Dart speaks a wonderful dark fall
from Cut Hill through Wystman’s wood
put your ear to it, you can hear water
cooped up in moss and moving
this jabber of pidgin-river
drilling these rhythmic cells and trails of scales,
will you translate for me blunt blink glint.
But excerpting these lines is a little like taking a cup of water from a great river, both diminishing it and making it easily consumable. Individual moments don’t give a sense of the way the poem barrels from opening lines to the ending’s gentle, questioning dispersal, suddenly uncontained, floating into caves on the coast with the seals:
Slip-shape, this is Proteus,
whoever that is, the shepherd of the seals,
driving my many selves from cave to cave…
Proteus is the god of the sea who knows the answers to questions but evades the asker, the reader of the water. He changes shape much like a river or a poem, becoming more elusive the more you press him. Any really good poet like Oswald shares some of his qualities—not letting her poems be reduced to easy symbols or rote thematic gestures. If you put your finger in the river to pin-point something, the water ripples around the spot. Even the roles of the speakers (naturalist, river nymph, poacher, fisherman) are noted in the margins as they shift, creating small eddies where the larger course of the poem turns.
Proteus’s name is not only evasive—it’s also fundamental, from proto, primordial. He represents the cycle of creation and death, the primordial soup, and the fear of degrading into its ingredients.
For the river is also a fear-monger, a source of uncertainty, the fertilizer of myths.
You cast behind then forwards in two actions. Casting into darkness for this huge it’s like the sea’s right there underneath you, this invisible
now I know my way round darkness, I’ve got night vision, I’ve been up here in the small hours waiting for someone to cosh me but
it’s not frightening if you know what you’re doing. There’s a sandbar, you can walk on it right across the weirpool but
But, but. No matter how well you know the river, it can behave in new and dangerous ways. It is not to be trusted.
The question of trusting a river brings us back to that personification of geography that is so familiar in poetry—brooks warbling sad music for disappointed lovers, for example, or leafy pools mirroring the memories of childhood. There is nothing facile or narcissistic in Oswald’s personification of the Dart. Here, what remains of that tradition is the end of the Narcissus myth—the danger of falling in and drowning if you stare too intently into the water. The voices in the poem must not humanize the river too much, since those that identify with it too closely are in danger of being consumed. A confident canoeist begins to speak as the river once he has fallen into the rapids, the voice of the water taking over the dying man’s mind:
come warmeth, I can outcanoevre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head
But where does this dangerous personification leave the poet who has translated a river?
Perhaps the character closest to the poet is the voice of the water abstractor. This job title might seem fantastic, but is in fact quite real—the person who is in charge of extracting water and testing it for safe human consumption throughout the watershed. He stands in the treatment plant meditating on the burden of transforming the river from wild force to faucet:
I added extra chlorine
have you countervailed against decay?
have you created for us a feeling of relative invulnerability?
I do my best. I walk under the rapid gravity filters, under the clarifier with the weight of all the water for the Torbay area going over me, it’s a lot for one man to carry on his shoulders.
He’s up against the river’s biological profile, not the macro-level of myths but the Proteus microbe, the amoeba of the same name which lives in freshwater environments. These creatures, along with other parasites and pollutants, challenge intelligence of any human-made conduit:
You don’t know what goes in to the water. Tiny particles of acids and salts. Cryptospiridion smaller than a fleck of talcum powder which squashes and elongates and bursts in the warmth of the gut… This is what keeps you and me alive, this is the real work of the river.
Like the water abstractor, Alice Oswald has made herself the custodian of a wild and dangerous force, but unlike him, she doesn’t have to tame it. She “abstracts” the river into poetry without sanitizing it, focusing instead on the humility that belongs in any human attempt to control or predict natural forces.
By the end of the poem, it is the Dart speaking, but also everything in the ecosystem it has touched, a convergence of man-made effects, ancient stories, and natural phenomena. The individual actions and consequences that seem harmless when isolated become something else when multiplied. This is a “Me” that humans fear—a force compounded from many chance events, capable of drastic and unpredictable change:
who’s this moving in the dark? Me.
this is me, anonymous, water’s soliloquy,
all names, all voices…
This Me can be subdivided, but with water, that becomes a pretty artificial exercise. What Alice Oswald has made is truer to the river’s original sound—a blend of tiny interactions, roaring toward the sea.
Laura Marris’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prelude, Washington Square Review, Meridian, DMQ Review, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere.