I read far too little poetry, but I make it a priority to get my hands on any new work by Alice Oswald—currently in the running to succeed Simon Armitage as Oxford Professor of Poetry—ever since I read and was bewitched by her A Sleepwalk on the Severn. This new book-length poem is a collage of water-stories, taken mostly from "The Odyssey". Several unnamed voices drift in and out of the poem, recognisably those of such mythical characters as Helios, Icarus, Calypso, Poseidon and Hermes, but mostly there is the sea, and a mesh of sound and light and water.
Nobody is Oswald’s most formally freehand work, a fragmentary gathering of murmurings searching for the excitement of new meaning. It started life last year as words running round the walls of a gallery showing watercolours by William Tillyer, and as a standalone poem swimming in white space it sometimes feels a little lost.
But it is best read as a tragic meditation on how the anarchic realm of the sea in Greek mythology brings human endeavour to the “simple mineral monologue” of tears. Oxford’s new professor is writing a book about Homer; few poets know the subject better.
Oswald is at the top of her form here – note the apparent effortlessness of the writing, the casual economy of a phrase like “breakneck cliffs”. There’s a marvellously comic exactitude at times but it isn’t allowed to undermine the prevailing sobriety. I loved the fond, accurate glimpse of “seals breathing out the sea’s bad breath/snuffle about all afternoon in sleeping bags.” And she writes beautifully about a distrait dawn and then there is the entertaining originality of this image: “and sometimes mist a kind of stupefied rain/slumps over the water like a teenager”. Occasional contemporary references (commuters, subtitles, a briefcase) are lightly judged, the seascape’s anachronistic driftwood.
The book’s meticulous vagueness and slippery approach to self could allow for rich psychodrama, if Oswald focused on the characters mentioned in her opening note. There are flashes of this: when we’re told the sea “incriminates the waves/ and certain fish conceal it in their shells” (italics mine), there’s a frisson on realising that the current speaker is Clytemnestra plotting her husband’s death.
But the poet can’t resist bringing in Philoctetes, Philomela and dozens more mythical party-crashers. Icarus appears in an alliterative flight that is, for Oswald, uncharacteristically over-egged... If it feels like something’s missing, that’s because it is: the music and pictures. This is the third published version of Nobody, and the first to present the poem alone. It began as a 2018 art-book, with Oswald’s words alongside the watercolours by William Tillyer that inspired them. Then there was a musical score for a reading Oswald gave with the pianist Joanna Macgregor, with photographs of the ocean and directions like “the voice returns but must struggle against the piano”. Oswald is a magnetic performer; I wish I’d been there.
[Oswald's] latest book stems from verse written to accompany the watercolours of William Tillyer. Fitting the original collaboration, Nobody — now edited for publication by the Man Booker-shortlisted poet Robin Robertson — is a paean to water, to the fluidity of language and the porousness between beings and stories... Both form and language echo the ceaseless drift, flitting movement and translucence of their uncontainable body — “How does it start the sea has endless beginnings” — and, as with any memorable trip, the effects of reading Nobody linger in and around the mind long after the experience has passed.