Voices of a River: Dart by Alice Oswald

By Rob Packer

The River Dart
Copyright Derek Harper and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Through hazy recollections of wellies and gauges of widths, depths and flows, years ago I spent a day of a school geography field trip studying the River Lemon, a Devon river running from Dartmoor to Newton Abbot. I thought these memories safely buried until I came across Alice Oswald’s 2002 book-poem, Dart, in a library. These memories provided a vague reference point reading the poem, as it traces the course of the neighbouring and larger River Dart and creates what Oswald calls “a sound-map of the river, a songline from the source to the sea”.

The work is the result of three years of recorded conversations between the poet and people working on the river. As the reader follows the river downstream, the narrative—to be “read as the river’s mutterings”—jumps from person to person to river to person and is nicely bookended by two old men: the first a rambler on Dartmoor, the second a sealwatcher who morphs into Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea. In one five-page stretch that I found the high point, Oswald moves between river swimmers, a water treatment plant, a river dream, a dairy, a sewage works and the mythical arrival of Aeneas’ grandson, Brutus, to found the British people.

For Londoners, Devon often seems the epitome of rural England, bucolic, carefree and clean; Oswald’s Dart, however, is a hive of industry where human contamination of nature is ever present. In parts, the narrative is hostile to man’s influence and is most acute in the juxtaposition and intermingling of the dairy and sewage workers. Particularly ominous is the sewage worker’s comment “if there’s too much, I waste it off down the stormflow, it’s not my problem”.

Equally menacing is the river’s own capriciousness, changing from docility to threat—the number of drowned is genuinely surprising. To a kayaker, one of the Dart’s many victims, the river dissimulates playfully “come falleth in my push-you where it hurts / and let me rough you under, be a laugh”, then menacingly continues “I can outcanoevre you”. It doesn’t, however, make sense to reduce the poem to a man-versus-nature narrative: it obscures its sheer documentary power of this very varied book.

Like the narrative voices of the river, the poetry moves from free verse to prose and back, with occasional blasts of rhymed iambic stanzas or alliteration, recalling Anglo-Saxon metres. It feels a cliché to say it, but this does feel like a real river with its fits and starts. The prose feels colloquial and verbatim with its wool merchants, salmon poachers and fishermen, while the verse, and some of the neologisms in particular, feel fresh and inventive. Dart is both an impressive piece of research and writing, but perhaps its biggest achievement is how Oswald keeps things coherent throughout despite the constant changes in perspective and form: the potential watery formlessness coalesces into something solid.

Alice Oswald, Dart, Faber & Faber 2002

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