Woods Etc, by Alice Oswald

A move from river to woods leaves this poet a little lost in the trees

Woods etc (which is shortlisted for next month's Forward Poetry Prizes) is sometimes a disappointing successor. The Hughes influence is more clearly apparent, but here it's as much a matter of his vices as his virtues.

Thus "Story of a Man" recalls Hughes's portentous vignettes, and the sense that sometimes the particular poem mattered less than the habit of poetry.

It is unclear why Oswald's work has tended this way. She is clearly much more than anyone's imitator. There may be something in her subject matter - broadly speaking, natural history - which tempts writers towards prophecy and that slightly pious air of knowing better which tends to raise some readers' hackles.

Woods are at the heart of the book - walked through, stood in, listened to, oddly immune to disaster - and Oswald's world is almost wholly rural. Her observations are often satisfying, without the need to nudge them towards metaphysics. See, for example, the formation of a leaf: "the slow through-flow that feeds/ a form curled under, hour by hour/ the thick reissuing starlike shapes/ of cells and pores and water-rods".

Alongside this is an effort to address time, mortality and the way that consciousness itself seems to have rendered us homeless in the world. The most successful of the mythological pieces here is "Sisyphus": "unable to loiter, an unborn creature/ seeking a womb, saying Sisyphus Sisyphus". The problem is reformulated more tranquilly in the delightful "Psalm to Sing in a Canoe": "may we come to know that the length of water is not quite the same as the passing of time".

Equally interesting are Oswald's excursions into outer space, tracking Voyager 1 or visiting Mercury, a violently inhospitable planet where the winds "go on howling/ For gladness sheer gladness".

All this is worth the price of admission. As for the rest, if Woods etc seems unfinished, then perhaps greater editorial intervention would have helped. Why hurry the book? Alice Oswald is a poet for the long run, not for any passing fashion.

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