Thursday, April 7, 2011

alice oswald

When I taught in England in the 90's, I was truly surprised to find how few of the books I grew up on--picture books and classic middle-grade novels both--were known at all in the UK, and how many British classics were, in turn, unknown to me. I guess it was surprising because of the place of authors like A.A. Milne and Beatrix Potter in the American canon, which could lead a reader to believe that their lesser-known British compatriots were better represented on the library shelves. I just assumed that similarly, Arnold Lobel and Beverly Cleary and their compatriots would be represented in English libraries, but no one there had ever heard of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler!

Although the Atlantic is perhaps not so deep a divide these days, when it comes to poetry the crossover may still be difficult. I think so because of a beautiful book, not published here, given to me by my English mother-in-law. It's Weeds and Wild Flowers by Alice Oswald. Her name was new to me, but for the past 15 years or so (her first book came out the year I left London) she has been rising to the top of the milk can of British poetry.

This collection, for adults but accessible to the YA audience, is striking in its conception, mood and presentation. Each poem is titled with the uncommon name--in most cases unfamiliar to me--of a common plant; Oswald then develops each into a character described in a voice which is so spare and so intimate that when I went to find out more about Alice, I was a little shocked to realize that she actually has an "ordinary" human family. Her deep knowledge of each of these plant-people had me believing that these were her relatives.

Here's a poem for April, not my favorite in the book, but which well represents the prickly surface of her carefully structured pieces.

First of April – new born gentle.
Fleeting wakeful on a Greenleaf cradle.
Second of April – eyes half open,
Faint light moving under lids. Face hidden.
Third of April – bonny and blossoming
In a yellow dress that needs no fastening.
Fourth fifth sixth – she somehow stands
clutching for balance with both hands.

Seventh of April and tiredness shows.
No rest for three days in unwashed clothes.
Asks (eighth of April) for a little water.
Asks asks until the lips dry out. No answer.
Ninth of April. Head flopped over.
Contorted with headache. Seated figure.
Twelfth of April – eyes half closed.
No light moving under lids. Tense pose.

April the thirteenth. Almost dead.
Face like wet paper. Hanging yellow head.
Still there. Still dying. Fourteenth of April.
Face fading out. Expression dreadful.
Fifteenth sixteenth. So on so on.
Soul being siphoned off. Colour gone.
April the seventeenth. Dead. Probably.
Skull in the grass. Very light and crumbly.

~ Alice Oswald from Weeds and Wildflowers, 2009

The monotone etchings by Jessica Greenman intensify the experience of reading this book--simple yet deeply detailed, restrained yet wild the way we are inside our seed-bearing heads.

The schedule says we're all converging at Madigan Reads this week for Poetry Friday.


  1. What an interesting observation about poetry crossing the pond. I guess it shouldn't surprise, as there are SO MANY poets here in the good ol' USA that no one has heard of. Fine poets. WONDERFUL poets. I enjoyed this poem - the "skull" at end is heartbreaking, isn't it? So fleeting. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi, Heidi. I've heard the same comment from Canadian children's authors. The pop culture crossover doesn't extend to kids' lit. Strange.

    I loved these lines (depressing, but what observations!):

    April the thirteenth. Almost dead.
    Face like wet paper. Hanging yellow head.

  3. Thanks for introducing us to Alice Oswald. What an interesting style. It feels like a detached description, yet the sadness intensifies as the poem progresses.

  4. I posted a few weeks back about a collection from across the pond. Very different style from what we're used to in American children's poetry, and most we've never heard of. This is such an interesting approach. I agree with Jama, so detached, and yet so intense in emotion. It does make me want to read the others.

  5. What a striking description of a life. Heartbreaking in that line: "Dead. Probably." Oy. I would love to read more of her work!

  6. I love this poem and particularly like "Fourth fifth sixth – she somehow stands/clutching for balance with both hands."

    Thanks for the introduction to a new-to-me poet!

  7. Love this.
    I had to go back and re-read, and re-read.
    Time-lapse poetry.

  8. When I lived in England, I found the same thing... I knew of Paddington Bear and others but I was shocked that I'd never heard of so many of the British classics: Noddy the Elf, for example.

    Great poem, thanks for sharing.


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