Alice Oswald’s element is water. Her unforgettable Dart...was about a river, and this electrifying new work – a single poem with a frightening undertow that reminds one a little of the mood of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner – is an encounter with the sea. It is out of this world – and in it. It is mythical and realistic, ancient and modern ... In any contest between words and sea, the sea will win no matter how elegant, ingenious, devious (and Oswald can be all of these) the writer. She knows it will keep replenishing itself, each breaking wave potentially a new idea ... At times, there is an alarming sense of being subsumed into sea, of time helplessly swallowed whole ... Oswald is at the top of her form here – note the apparent effortlessness of the writing, the casual economy of a phrase like 'breakneck cliffs'. There’s a marvellously comic exactitude at times but it isn’t allowed to undermine the prevailing sobriety ... A prevailing sense of danger in Nobody is, if anything, heightened by the Homeric authority with which Oswald writes about fate...And the last lines of each section thin out to a single word or two, deposited on the shore of the page like a handful of shingle – one poem even ends with 'stones'.
Part of what makes the poem gripping is its anonymity, or as Woolf would say, its 'impersonality.' The 'Nobody' who speaks is both the nameless poet and the many-voiced sea, but the characters’ stories are alluded to without their names. They are given only in the endpages, typeset as in ancient Greek with no spaces between words, just letters flowing continuously in a current, some names bolded and some names in faded font ... Every choice in the book is made toward a fluid, Dionysian collapse of boundaries, with the illicit lovers in the background propelling not the narrative arc exactly, but the narrative desire ... Where the sea is compared to a blind blue eye, so desire is blind and vast and infinitely dangerous. The scale of desire in the face of the universe, or the scale of the universe in the face of desire—two infinities are somehow trying to come into relation with each other. This desire encompasses our yearning for language: not only for a present language that will convey this vastness, but for languages that have passed away that might really have done so. Woolf’s rhapsody was grounded in not knowing Greek. Oswald writes a history of human desire called Nobody. These absences form a powerful vacuum. We know, as when we see the rapid withdrawal of water along the shoreline, that a tsunami is on its way.
I am, by chance, reading Nobody by the sea. This morning, the tide is coming in aslant, while a black cormorant skims the waves in a straight line, from left to right, as if it were writing a sentence. I keep looking out the window, partly to rest from an exertion that feels like swimming in open water, but partly to ask the waves for help in deciphering Oswald’s dreamlike dissolves ... Nobody is written in disappearing ink. None of its phantoms have a stable contour, and if you are not a student of the classics you can chafe at Oswald’s donnish presumption that you should recognize their fleeting apparitions ... The tension in Nobody is generated by bewilderment, as one shimmering mirage supplants another. It unsettles your senses the way some avant-garde music does, and its vexing beauty invites surrender to incomprehension. But rarely does it unsettle your heart. Oswald’s perceptions are variously too personal, unique to her; or too impersonal, too purely literary; or, in the case of her phantoms, too disassociated to forge a sustained connection between sensation and insight. The intimacy of her best work is absent. I even felt, at times, that she had devised the poem as a cognitive experiment to test a reader’s tolerance for disorientation ... As an experiment, however, Nobody dramatizes Oswald’s audacity with language.