LYRIC COMPANIONS Alice Oswald “Nobody”

Context: Oswald’s texts sometimes make more sense when discussed philosophically. I refer here to William Desmond on porosity and being. “No ground, except the ungrounded ground of becoming, and even more primally, the ground of coming to be. This latter looks more like a nothing, a creative void. . . ” The Intimate Universal, 75.

Alice Oswald’s Nobody is a nihilist hero. Oswald, one of the great interpreters of the Homeric hero, draws on a durable tradition to give voice to the universal impermanence. Some critics find this insufficently personal. Which at first is the point.

I return to my hobbyhorse, the lyric narrative. I will apply my model to one segment, assuming the fractal character of poetic form. Once we learn how to read the segments, which may seem fragmentary, we might venture on the open waters of the whole book.

The opening halfline sets up the situation. There is a voice in the void. It speaks “these things.” Oswald’s phrasing in the first halfline is suggestive: WHO is IT? (Lyric meaning often turns on pronouns.)

And “these THINGS.” The Lucretian world of metaphysics is presupposed. The Nature of Things (not to mention Aphrodite).

The second halfline begins the development of the narrative, which began so quickly, so lucidly, by diving into the equivocal. Oswald’s lyricism enfleshes the possibilities in a full line evoking the “ground” of passage. (See the Context above.) Her classical training draws on the vision of the ground adumbrated by Pre-Socratic and Socratic lines of thought, which is reconfigured for our time by Simone Weil, Eric Voegelin, William Desmond, and others. It is the Between, or Metaxy, that world of assymetry between mortals and immortals characterized by “porosity,” or the permeability of things.

That resounding line begets a second image of the ground as the equivocal stage of the narrative introduces the more articulate dialectical phase. WHO is IT keeps silent? Behind the nature of THINGS are conscious beings, or beings of consciousness (aka Aphrodite). The “ground” however shaky, fluid, unstable, malleable, is perhaps intentional.

Modern thought, we thought, killed off the numinous gods eons ago, put out their lights with “natural science.” No?

The next image develops “dialectically” by negation: somebody/nobody. The charged field of the poem’s between gathers clarity in the murk as the image of a ring—symbol of conscious continuing beholding of one’s other, a “sign” of what may-and-may-not be a conscious ground: A witness, fallible as all things are in THIS world. The ring, fallen from its place like an eye out of its socket, drifts unseeing in the void. The bearer of the ring is nowhere, Nobody.

And all Nature roars into the gap opened by this falling away of the ground of relation, communication, possibility. Porosity hates a void. That’s just how things are. The roar of the surge is “speechless,” the ground of saying is opening into a void deeper than the one the ring held out against. Oswald’s imagination is dyed in the colors of the dyer’s hand. Homer lives.

The form of this segment/poem/fragment emerges with the turn of the poem away from/into the abyss of its making (that bit about the ring was a bit literary, right?). Rephrasing the question reveals a less nihilistic possibility, however strained. WHO, SHE, FRIEND. New cast of players for this reconfiguration. To what end?

We are reminded of the erotic nature of the nature of things in the “epic world.” However senseless and tragically wasteful this groundlessness, it is grounded in an incognito order of love. Odysseus returns to Penelope. And all hell breaks loose, again. Has the hero learned nothing from his suffering? This “outis,” This “Nobody”?

Oswald’s regrounding of the void in the nothing/something of the porosity is communicated by a show-stopping image (the singer, unlike the nihilistic philosopher, NEEDS to please). WHO is IT watching ME? Behind YOUR….

The lyric between, characterized by groundlessness and the fertile void, is agapeic: Eros may be the lot of wretched mortals, ringless as they may be, but the hopelessness presupposes a ground of friendship for the song to work. And whatever you say about Oswald, her poems, as fragments of a whole and as open wholes, WORK (sorry to shout, I’m almost done). IT presupposes creative even loving concern for others. Creativity always already presupposes its own possibility.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

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