Dart by Alice Oswald

Published by Faber and Faber 6.99

Review by Cameron Self

Dart is unusual in that, although it comprises a sequence of poems, it is essentially one long poem - detailing the journey of the River Dart from its source on Dartmoor to the sea.

It is also unusual in that it includes the voices of many people who were interviewed and recorded by Oswald over a two year period. All of these people's lives are connected in some way with the river, either as walkers, fishermen, sewage workers, ferrymen, water abstractors, boat builders etc. These different voices (although possessing a somewhat similar poetic tone) give a first hand immediacy to the poem. From the sewage worker, for example, we hear the admirably graphic:  'I fork the screenings out - a stink-mass of loopaper and whathaveyou, rags cottonbuds, you name it.' Or from the stonewaller: 'You get upriver stones and downriver stones. Beyond Totnes bridge and above Longmarsh the stones are horrible grey chunks, a waste of haulage, but in the estuary they're slatey flat stones, much darker, maybe it's to do with the river's changes.'

Between the voices are more formal poems, written by the author. These untitled poems vary in form from free verse to intricate quatrains and triplets and even feature sections of  rhyming couplets. The overwhelming feel of them, however, is of something appropriately free flowing - one might even say stream (no pun intended) of consciousness. In this sense they are quite reminiscent of Thomas' Under Milk Wood.

On the down side, however, the poem does have a slightly 'bolted-together' feel about it. (Though perhaps no more so than The Wasteland which it  is obviously influenced by.) Also, I have to say that when you first open Dart, the 48 pages of closely printed text is somewhat daunting and will certainly discourage some potential readers -  which is a shame as it is full of some lovely descriptive work e.g. 'trampling around at first you just make out/the elver movement of running sunlight/three foot under the road-judder you hold/and breathe contracted to an eye-quiet world/while an old dandelion unpicks her shawl.'

If you like River by Ted Hughes you'll almost certainly like this. Coincidentally the Dart was one of the rivers  that also inspired him.

8/10

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