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Nobody by Alice Oswald review – given up to the fateful waves

Alice Oswald is at the height of her powers in this single poem inspired by stories from The Odyssey

Alice Oswald’s element is water. Her unforgettable Dart (2002) was about a river, and this electrifying new work – a single poem with a frightening undertow that reminds one a little of the mood of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner– is an encounter with the sea. It is out of this world – and in it. It is mythical and realistic, ancient and modern and was originally commissioned to accompany a series of watercolours by William Tillyer (it has been rewritten to be a more “mobile” version). In a foreword, Oswald relates the contrasting stories from The Odyssey that inspired it. In one, Agamemnon pays a poet to spy on his wife and the poet is then banished to a stony island which allows for the seduction of the wife (Agamemnon is murdered 10 years later). In the other, Odysseus’s return, after a decade away, is luckier – his faithful wife is waiting for him. The poem exists, Oswald maintains in a foreword, in the “murky” region between these outcomes: “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.” In Oswald’s hands, the poet on his island is at once trapped and free (is this a fair description of what it is to be a poet?). His thoughts are his escape as he surveys his Mediterranean prison.

The poem is, in part, an experiment with scale. No human figure can compete with the sea. Throughout literature, poets have tried to get the upper hand with the sea but Oswald understands no single phrase can hope to possess her subject. In any contest between words and sea, the sea will win no matter how elegant, ingenious, devious (and Oswald can be all of these) the writer. She knows it will keep replenishing itself, each breaking wave potentially a new idea. Her “plough but with no harvest” idea is thrillingly accurate but then she moves on. At times, there is an alarming sense of being subsumed into sea, of time helplessly swallowed whole:

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