Guest Review: McCauley On Oswald

Amy McCauley reviews A Reply to the Light by Peter Oswald

Peter Oswald’s A Reply to the Light is a many-headed book, but primarily it is as a document of psychology that it comes into its own. If the book is read as a journey through Oswald’s innermost motifs and obsessions, the book reveals much about a man cut off from experience; an existentially isolated figure who – at best – observes life from the periphery.

Take ‘Description of a Prostitute Seen Through a Window in Amsterdam’ for instance. The title alone might serve as a motif for Oswald’s position, or attitude as a poet.  Because frequently his poems describe scenes that are just beyond the poet’s reach; and time and again, both the ‘I’ and the eye appear to be physically and emotionally removed from the action. As if to emphasise this sense of distance, many of the poems contain either real or invisible windows between the poet and the contents of the poem. So in ‘Description of a Prostitute…’ Oswald writes:

She has submitted her own body

As evidence. It has been frozen.

She accepts the jurisdiction

Of everyone.

She has been locked

In a glass prison. (p. 10, lines 5-10)

This is more rhetorical gesture than description. In fact, the prostitute is no more than a symbol or a cipher – but for what remains unclear. There is little sense of depth to the scene and virtually no sense of the prostitute’s reality. There is little sense even of a wider mythic reality. ‘She has promised not to try to escape’ Oswald writes; ‘Here she sits till death comes!’ (p. 11, lines 15-16) The allegorical style feels somewhat one-dimensional, particularly when the poem lacks both emotional insight and psychological depth. There are, however, stanzas of disarmingly rich ambiguity, such as:  

No one has ever done

Anything against her.

A crime is no longer a crime

When it has been paid for. (p. 12, lines 33-36)

The suggestion of misogyny in ‘A crime is no longer a crime / When it has been paid for’ indicates where the power lies. The sense of the poet as voyeur – forever looking in from the outside – is powerfully felt. The prostitute – who ‘admits everything’; who ‘holds back nothing’ (p. 10, lines 3-4) – is ultimately a passive muse around which the poet constructs his

glass prison of language. But the duality in this stanza: the suggestion of the prostitute’s innocence – ‘Nobody has ever done / Anything against her’ – makes this particular moment amphibious and interesting. And at moments like this – when the slipperiness of language enters the scene – Oswald possesses the capacity to astonish. The final stanza glitters:

Over the burned dunes,

Through the grey acid streams,

Under the green sky of Venus

She runs and she runs. (p. 13, lines 49-52)

This stanza is representative of Oswald’s real strength – his vibrant, clear-headed visual motifs. And when Oswald’s images work best they are carried by a natural, rhythmic capacity for speakable language. Indeed, Oswald at his best writes poems you can hear both on and off the page. This melding of image with sound is to be found most abundantly in his writing about animals. A cat is ‘Leaping at bees / Like a fountain’ (p. 18, lines 9-10) in ‘To a Cat Dying of Poison’. A buzzard is a ‘Mad tramp gripping the pulpit, shrieking / Into the upturned faces of the fields and woods and / pools.’ (‘Buzzard’, p. 57, lines 8-10) And in ‘Rooks’ he writes:

But through us rises

Gossip of the veinwork of leaves,

And the twists of timber springing apart

And leaping together (p. 40, lines 39-42)

These are deliciously chewy lines for the eye and the ear. But ‘Rooks’ stands out not simply because of its rich, precise language: it is also one of the very few poems to adopt the point of view of someone or something other than the poet. As such, it is a real breath of fresh air. ‘Rooks’, however is the exception.

By and large, the book occupies two modes; the first mode resembling that of the Romantic poets. Here, Oswald’s lyric ‘I’ addresses nature with unrestrained lyric abandon. Curiously, he exhibits no sense of self-awareness, and as a result the writing often feels naïve and amateurish. ‘In Nights As Lonely As the Sun’s’ for example begins:

In nights as lonely as the sun’s,

I live my second innocence,

Dreaming about the moon’s white thighs,

In dark asphyxiated skies. (p. 37, lines 1-4)

This simply doesn’t feel like poetry being written in the year 2012. Later in the poem Oswald spells ecstasy ‘extasy’ (p. 37, line 11) – a quirk which, among other such eccentricities (liberal use of the comma; an insistence on capitalising words on a new line; the spelling of balloon ‘baloon’ (See p. 35, line 1 and p. 45, line 16); use of archaisms such as ‘beseeching’ (p. 41, line 6), or neologisms such as ‘profoundment’ (p. 17, line 10)) – serve to give the impression of a man writing out of his time.

Oswald’s second mode is clearly influenced by W.H. Auden and Louis MacNeice. He employs it in what might be called his public poems – those poems dealing with London for example, or with the nameless prisoners in ‘HMP’ – but here his writing all too easily slips into either rhetoric or sentimentality. As in his poems about women, Oswald’s London poems feel unreal and lacking in depth, as though the poet is shut off from experience by a glass wall.

Indeed, the pervasive sense in this book is that of a man struggling to enter fully into the world around him. It is of a man who strains for connection with the things and people he encounters. And it is of a man whose language often strays too close towards homage or pastiche. To be sure, there are moments of brilliance, but they are much too few and much too far between.
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