Nobody by Alice Oswald
The new book from the greatest living British poet
This is a book-length poem – a collage of water-stories, taken mostly from the Odyssey – about a minor character, abandoned on a stony island. It is not a translation, though, but a close inspection of the sea that surrounds him.
There are several voices in the poem but no proper names, although its presiding spirit is Proteus, the shape-shifting sea-god. We recognise other mythical characters – Helios, Icarus, Alcyone, Philoctetes, Calypso, Clytemnestra, Orpheus, Poseidon, Hermes – who drift in and out of the poem, surfacing briefly before disappearing.
Reading Nobody is like watching the ocean: a destabilising experience that becomes mesmeric, almost hallucinatory, as we slip our earthly moorings and follow the circling shoal of sea voices into a mesh of sound and light and water – fluid, abstract, and moving with the wash of waves.
As with all of Alice Oswald’s work, this is poetry that is made for the human voice, but this poem takes on the qualities of another element: dense, muscular and liquid.
one person has the character of dust
another has an arrow for a soul
but their stories all end
in the sea
Oswald was elected as the Oxford University Professor of Poetry in 2019.