Thursday, March 08, 2007

Dart - mini-review of a great book

Dart by English poet Alice Oswald is a book I've carried around in my purse for months. You can dip into it at any point, as you can approach a river, and find something fascinating. The text includes quotes from the hours and hours of people she audiotaped talking about their work on the River Dart, fishermen, people who canoe, mill workers and water engineers, poachers and town boys. She was commissioned to create a community poem (take note, Poetry Foundation and NEA). The result was a masterwork, a book-length poem that reports and comments on Oswald's River Dart interviews and periodically breaks into a heightened lyric by one of the best lyric poets writing in English. But even the monologues are poetic. One of my favorites sections is the water engineer:

You don't know what goes into water. Tiny particles of acids and salts. Cryptospiridion smaller thana fleck of talcom powder which squashes and elongates and bursts in the warmth of the gut. Everything is measured twice and we have stand-bys and shut-offs. This is what keeps you and me alive, this is the real work of the river.



The river is also full of delicious surprises, and Oswald makes the most of them:

On a good day, I can hear the wagtails over the engine
Or I'll hear this cough like a gentleman in the water
I turn round and it's a seal

But it's the people in Dart that are most moving:

Who’s this moving alive over the moor?

An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.

Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the
military track from Okehampton?

keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders


Dart is as fascinating as a trip down a great river. I carry it in my purse and dip into it, at any point finding a whole story on a half-page, a high lyric, a song, a tragedy or a laugh. The minute I finished reading it I was furious at her for being so good and thinking of this book before I did, and grateful to her for adding another book to my great books list.

I grew up on the ocean in a fishing town. Dart rang a lot of bells for me (pun intended -- in the 1950s along the docks a lot of ship's bells range on those old-fashioned purse seiner boats of San Pedro's tuna fishing fleet). The only thing we had that River Dart doesn't have is a magnificently moaning foghorn -- Moanin' Maggie, it was called. I remember being awakened by it many mornings, and knowing even in my dreams it meant time to get up and get dressed for school, and that the walk to Seventh Street School would be a foggy one. We lived on the San Pedro hill, several miles away from the harbor, but Moanin' Maggie carried all the way up the hill. Probably carried almost to Lomita and Long Beach.



I should have interviewed all those fishermen and net-menders and boatbuilders before I left San Pedro. But I didn't have the idea of a long poem about San Pedro until that San Pedro no longer existed, had become the port for cruise ships and Toyota boats. Timing might be an essential ingredient of genius.