Alice Oswald’s odd, brilliant ode to the English countryside

160912_r28661-1200x1200-1472749149Dan Chiasson at The New Yorker:

Oswald, born in 1966, is the daughter of a renowned garden designer, and read classics at Oxford. She lives with her family near a bend in the River Dart, in Devon, the misty setting for “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” In an interview, she has said that she likes “the way that the death of one thing is the beginning of something else,” an Ovidian mind-set equally fit for the gardener and the translator. Her nature poems tend to be revisions of earlier poems on the same subjects: John Clare’s “Badger” has become “Body,” in which the sleep of the dead “under their mud roof” is disturbed by a badger “hard at work / with the living shovel of himself”; you can hear Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—” amid the “horrible trapped buzzing” of Oswald’s “Flies”; Andrew Marvell’s “On a Drop of Dew” bequeaths to Oswald “A Rushed Account of the Dew”; Ted Hughes’s “The Thought Fox” stalks Oswald’s “Fox.” This isn’t simply influence or homage, though Oswald is generous about crediting her forebears. The deeper urge is to collaborate with the dead, whose descriptions of badgers and foxes and flies are part of a timeless continuum that now includes Oswald and her readers, each new mind capturing the world according to its distinct angle and music.

A poet whose thoughts are saturated with prior literature recognizes the actual, living fox by mentally matching it to the fox on the page, a reversal of the usual perceptual order—observe, then describe—that threatens to fog up her vision. There is an impulse in these poems to inventory the natural world without the palliatives of conventional description; the paradox, as old as classical pastoral and georgic, is that our nature is to describe, an imperative that seems perfectly unnatural when measured against the unselfconscious work of bees or ants or oxen.

more here.