Nobody by Alice Oswald
After Dart, a single poem about a river, and Memorial, Alice Oswald’s rendition of Homer’s Iliad, poetry could have divined Nobody, a single poem about the Homeric sea. This sea is ‘sensed’, we feel its colours fluctuate from “black to turquoise”. Initially the poem accompanied a series of watercolours by William Tillyer, and although it has been rewritten to be a more “mobile” version, it kept the mark of Tillyers fluid, unsettled, bluish wordless spaces.
The sea is our epic antagonist. The vast, immortal sea is no match for a human being with his “tiny thought-form”, nor for the poet, however cunning, eloquent or gentle she may be. Encircled by the sea sits Nobody’s poet, ordered by Agamemnon to guard his wife, but removed by her lover Aegisthus to a deserted island. The other war hero’s wife, Oswald goes on to explain in a foreword, stays faithful, even though he is cursed to a long journey over the seas and will only return after ten years. In the “murkiness” between these two fates the poem drifts. “Its voice is wind-blown, water-damaged, as if someone set out to sing The Odyssey but was rowed to a stony island and never discovered the poem’s ending.”
If he doesn’t, we don’t either, that’s the point. But don’t expect—Oswald is a classicist—a saltwater washed reworking, reimagining, or ironic borrowing of the Odyssey. “As the mind flutters in a man who has traveled widely”, as the poem sets out its destabilising journey, “and his quick-winged eyes land everywhere/ I wish I was there or there he thinks and his mind/ … flashes through all that water”. So the narrative subject is the mind, not the man. The man has perhaps lost some fighting spirit; the mind is lost at sea, “floating on the sea-surface wondering what next”.
As if that isn’t alarming enough, we first encounter Odysseus drowning: “with the purple sea circling his throat always/ thinks he can hear something which nevertheless escapes him”. It is the sea goddess Ino, who comes to rescue him, “Poor man she says poor man it’s obvious/ the sea in its dark psychosis dreams of your death”. Odysseus survives, albeit for more suffering by preventing him from his homecoming: “poor man she says poor man it’s obvious/ you can sniff it everywhere the shabby weirdness/ of the sea-god leaning intimately over/ and turning his shadows against you/ poor morsel of cork you bob about/ throwaway in all this what is it grief grief grief”.
But it is not the suffering of injustice:
one person has the character of dust
another has an arrow for a soul
but their stories all end
in the sea
The suffering is of uncertainty. Not only do we not know the ending, “it’s been the same answer to the same question/ nothing”. We do not even know how it began.
How does it start the sea has endless beginnings
is the repeated doubt that stands alone, as if lost, on a blank page. The repetition of ‘how’ questions, “How does the dawn trawler call out to the night trawler”—the sea won’t pause for question marks, or points or commas—and paradoxes, “a woman began to dream she began to wake”, and parataxes are “making up poems about us patchwork unfinished”.
Wind, rain, snow and tide fill this “ever-replenished” erratic realm, and—no less sea ignorers than gods and weather—birds. Some birds were humans first, before they were punished or saved by the gods; others do not lend themselves to interpreting omens. “There are so many birds and most of them mean nothing”. Although danger always lurks, Oswald’s descriptions are not overwrought but on human scale, “at ear-pressure depth”, and their accuracy is grippingly casual: “and sometimes a mist a kind of stupefied rain/ slumps over the water like a teenager”. Often her cadanced rhythms take sharp curves, “be amazed by that colour it is the mind’s inmost madness”, and unexpected turns, like in the association with teen suicide when, “almost glad to give up”, Icarus begins to fall. Anachronisms like briefcases with documents, airplanes and hotel life remind us: “And yet again water still in acute discomfort”. Often one or two sole words sink towards the bottom of the page: “stones”, and elsewhere, “drowned him”.
We will meet Helios, Hermes, Alcyone turned into a kingfisher, Nausicaa, Calypso, Philoctetes with his wounded foot, in constant agony, alone on another island and—like Odysseus but unlike the poet—cursing his fate,
as if I waded inward
thirty yards from the surface of myself
but it’s not myself it’s just dark purple
it’s not my feet it is the hours that move
We meet Clytemnestra and her Aegisthus too,
those lovers lurk in their indoors wondering
can he hear us now that poet has he finished
his poem about us what kind of a sting in the ending
will he sing of the husband if he is in fact
on his way here knowing by now the craggy out-jut
of that shallow place where the seals bob about like footballs
Borrowings from Homer are in fact displacements. Oswald is at her best here, her intertextuality erases the physical origin. Not the flesh of her cheek but “her mind slipped like snow off a leaf”. The sea’s “image” (my favourite depiction:) “it has the texture of plough but with no harvest”. The “bronze fish-hook flickers into life and out again” stands in for Homer’s epithet of the ‘bronze sword’ of death.
But even if “Fate/ that great failure of the will” has muted the voice of the unnamed poet, he has to live on. Like Odysseus, with “all this water between us/ and is its blind the kind of blind blue eye”, he is in the unique position to sing his own song, to be the mindful narrator of his own story.
even now a stranger is setting out
onto this disintegrating certainty this water
whatever it is whatever anything is
under these veils and veils of vision
which the light cuts but it remains
The sea upsets stories; it’s stories that save us.
Human Relations & Other Difficulties by Mary-Kay Wilmers
This selection of essays by the London Review of Books co-founder and editor for four decades, Wilmers (The Eitingons, 2009), illuminates the committed course of a perspicacious literary critic. The book opens with a personal lookback on Wilmers’s first weeks of motherhood, early seventies, while feminism roared. “I got depressed,” she says, “because instead of maternal goodness welling up inside me, the situation seemed to open up new areas of badness in my character.”
In the more general essays Wilmers indirectly investigates her own role as a cultural creator. This age has produced uncertainty as a serious term of critical acclaim, she notes, ”on countless occasions novels are praised for making it clear that nothing is clear.” Wilmers, a stern critic, is crystal clear. But, as John Lancaster, who got to know her in 1987 as an editorial assistant, explains in his introduction, “she’s never more translucent than when she is ambivalent.”
The red thread in the seemingly eclective collection of essays, most of them published by LRB, is women. Not gender as such has Wilmers’s concern, but gender relations. “It’s matter of expectations and how they can be met.” In a society where affluent ladies were utterly useless, how did Alice James, younger sister of William and Henry, shape her unhappy, unsuccessful and bedridden life into an identity? Wilmers excells in her accounts of troublesome women. She scours through authors’ lifes, world renderings, motivations and quirks, in her deceptively effortless writing style—a coherent text is a designed object—erudite, even pedantic, and with a keen sense of summing up; “being a James was complicated business.”
Although Wilmers lacks patience with human frailty, “Jean Rhys didn’t really change much after the age of nine,” in another notable essay she attacks the now infamous memoir of Rhys’s friend David Plante. Plante’s malicious depiction of ‘difficult women’ serves no other purpose, Wilmers states, than that they “can make you like yourself better for liking them.” The concluding essay is on Marianne Moore, whose mother glommed onto her, “every time you want to say something about Marianne, you find yourself confronted with her mother,” but who still revelled in the world.
Further targets of Wilmers’s embracing curiosity, which is not limited to elderly female writers, include Patty Hearst, Freud, and the LRB-illustrator Peter Campbell: “He was unusual in getting equal pleasure from the world and from its representation“—one could argue that the same applies to Wilmers.
Lasting insights for fellow critics and literature lovers.