I read Dart by the British poet Alice Oswald because it is a long-form poem about a river. Supposedly Oswald is Jeanette Winterson's favorite poet, so that was a good recommendation, I thought. I have been interested in river history and ecology since my first job, fresh out of college, as a tour guide at the fish viewing facility on the Connecticut River in Holyoke. Dart did not disappoint; indeed it is now one of my favorite books, one I can imagine reading again and again. Oswald’s playful and expansive uses of language and metaphor, as well as her seamless blending of the mundane and transcendent, bring her characters and the river they speak of vividly to life.
The poem’s form is shaped by its content. The genesis of the poem was interviews that Oswald conducted with people who live and work along the Dart River in England. She wove their first-person voices into distinct characters whose edges blur throughout the section-less poem. Oswald varies the form organically, according to which voice and character are speaking. At one point she alternates between a forester, who speaks in paragraphs, and a water nymph, who speaks in quatrains:
and here I am coop-felling in the valley, felling small sections to give the forest some structure. When the chainsaw cuts out the place starts up again. It’s Spring, you can work in a wood and feel the earth turning
woodman working on your own
knocking the long shadows down
and all day the river’s eyes
peep and pry among the trees (11)
Another formal technique Oswald uses frequently in Dart is the list, with which she creates a feeling of multiplicity, grandeur, and scale. Her lists are often alliterated or assonant, giving them a more sonorous weight, as in this section about a wool mill:
tufting felting hanks tops spindles slubbings
hoppers and rollers and slatted belts
bales of carded wool the colour of limestone
and wool puffs flying through tubes distributed by cyclones
wool in the back of the throat, wool on ledges,
in fields and spinning at 5,000 rotations per minute –
and look how quickly a worker can mend an end
what tentacular fingers moving like a spider,
splicing it invisibly neat look what fingers could be – (19)
Dart is innovative in form, and also in the language that constitutes the poem. Oswald uses lyric description to its fullest, infusing science and social history with metaphors that bring even the driest topics to life. Here, she discusses water purification:
This is the thirst that draws the soul, beginning
at these three boreholes and radial collectors.
Whatever pumps and gravitates and gathers
in town reservoirs secretly can you follow it rushing
under manholes in the straggle of the streets
being gridded and channeled up
even as he taps his screwdriver on a copper pipe
and fills a glass. This is the thirst that streaks
his throat and chips away at his bones between lifting
the glass and contact whatever sands the tongue,
this draws his eyehole to this space among
two thirds weight water and still swallowing. (25)
The poem runs the gamut in terms of topic (mining, industry, fishing, seal-watching, swimming, drowning, myths, dairy production), and it also presents a wide array of characters using journalistic detachment and a poet’s ear for contradiction. At one point, a speaker points out that the legal fisherman by day is probably also a poacher at night:
That’s your legal fisherman, he’s watching and listening,
he’s got a seine net and he hauls out from the shore and
back in a curve, like this.
But more than likely he’s got a legal right hand and a
rogue left hand and when he’s out left-handed,
he just rows a mesh net straight across the river – a bloody wall.
In twenty minutes he’s covered the cost of the net,
in an hour he’s got a celebration coming.
That’s where the crack is, that’s when fishing pays. (38)
The most brilliant moments in Dart come when Oswald describes those people who have some very intimate knowledge of an aspect of the river. The crystal-clear lens of lyric is perfectly suited to these things that can only be approached through direct experience or through metaphor. Of the ferryman and his route, she writes:
I work the car ferry, nudge it over with a pilot boat,
backwards and forwards for twenty three years.
Always on the way over – to and fro –
and feeling inward for a certain sliding feeling
that loosens the solidity of the earth,
he makes himself a membrane through which everyone passes into elsewhere
like a breath flutters its ghost across glass. (43)
And of the whitewater kayaker to the current:
We can’t hear except the booming of our thinking in the cockpit hollow and the river’s been so beautiful we can’t concentrate.
they walk strong in wetsuits,
their faces shine,
their well-being wants to burst out
In the water it’s another matter, we’re just shells and arms, keeping ourselves in a fluid relation with the danger. (14)
Oswald blends the mundane with the transcendent, cramming in as many contradictions as possible without judgment. She touches on arguments between polluters and conservationists, poachers and bailiffs, commercial fishermen and seal-watchers. Woolen thread that is spun in a plant near the river and dyed using the river’s water becomes a metaphor for the river itself and all of its stories: “We stretch and wind it on a spinning frame – a ring and travel arrangement twists it in the opposite direction and we end up with two-ply, a balanced twist, like the river” (20).
Dart is a wonderful synthesis of disciplines, a living organism, an interdisciplinary course in history, science, geography, myth, and poetry.
Oswald, Alice. Dart. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2002.
ps- I found my copy on UK Amazon