Sunday, 12 October 2014
Alice Oswald Performs Tithonus: "As Soon As Dawn Appears..."
Susanne Nilsson, Flying at Dawn. Used under Creative Commons license
In a literary world where words like "stunning", "powerful" and "unforgettable" get bandied about pretty freely, Alice Oswald's work deserves it more than most. It's safe to say that she is one of the most important English/British/English-language poets now working, and some would call her the most important.
On Thursday night I went to Southbank (the Purcell Room) to see Alice Oswald perform her new work, Tithonus. This was the second time I'd seen her and the first, about a year and a half ago, was a revelation as I was only slightly familiar with her work at that point and had no idea what kind of performer she was. It is more accurate to describe her appearances as "performances" - she recites by heart rather than reading, but "recital" doesn't exactly cover it. When I saw her at the T S Eliot Memorial Meeting, performing an excerpt from Memorial and shorter lyric poems, I was totally mesmerised and knew I had to read more, and hopefully see her again.
Following Oswald's radical reframing of the Iliad in Memorial, Tithonus is another look at a tragic story from Greek mythology. Tithonus was a Trojan who became the lover of the dawn. When she asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, she forgot to ask that he stop aging. Eventually he became unimaginably ancient and the dawn locked him in a room, where he sat babbling to himself. In this version of the story, he meets the dawn at midsummer.
I bought my ticket for this event (part of the London Literature Festival) a while ago and it came at a good time in a fairly stressful week. By the time I got to the front of the bar queue, I'd had to listen to the annoying publishing types behind me alternately raving about how marvellous Alice Oswald was when they didn't see her at Hay, and "the horror" of a new novel by a famous rock star. At that point I was more than ready to sit in the dark and listen.
The performance lasted 46 minutes, which was the length of midsummer dawn, and the first five minutes were in near-complete darkness. Oswald was accompanied by Griselda Sanderson on the nyckelharpa, an unusual instrument which I may or may not have come across in the Nordic parts of my childhood. The lights on stage came up very gradually and the effect was beautifully and subtly done to resemble dawn light.
Oswald called Memorial "a trauma" and has said how difficult it was for her to perform it. Tithonus is plainly also about trauma, in part, and an enormous tension ran through the whole performance, counterpointed by the weirdly soothing nature of half-darkness and the sounds of the nyckelharpa. Oswald holds herself totally still while performing and never falters. This had a particularly shocking effect in the passages where Tithonus really lapses into a traumatised babbling ("behind that cloth another cloth behind that cloth another cloth and then another and then another cloth and then another..."). These frantic moments in the piece contrasted with long pauses and descriptions of dawn sounds and sights, along with Tithonus' visions of himself as a sort of dogged survivor in the natural world. These had both a delicate, accurate charm and an almost unbearable sadness.
and getting accustomed to
surviving like a bramble very good
at growing anywhere you ought to
praise me for this trailing bloom this
must be the heart this is only a dream
It's hard to describe an experience like this and do it justice. I bought a copy of the limited edition pamphlet of Tithonus on sale at the event, and re-reading it allows me to relive it to a certain extent. I think that it is enormously impressive even if only experienced on the page, but the combined effect of the lighting, the music and especially Oswald's performance was overwhelming.
Oswald and Sanderson signed the pamphlet for me afterwards. Oswald looked tired and drained, although she was gracious, so I didn't ask her questions, just said "Thank you, it was amazing", to which she said "Good" and smiled. Her signature was a small diffident scrawl and she said "My signature is disappearing" a bit wryly. The signature might be self-effacing, and so is the poet, despite the almost frightening power of her performances: everything is given to the poem, when she recites. But this is a voice which, in its blend of tradition, avant-garde modernity and simply great art, is likely to outlast that of most contemporary poets.