• Sun. May 19th, 2024

Poem of the week: ‘The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards’ by Alice Oswald

ByEleonora Soteriou

Mar 3, 2021

The lines of Alice Oswald’s poem ‘The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards’ ring with the feeling of liberation, but at the same time so much loss as the titular woman’s life seems to unravel in every stanza…

Being born from the earth, rather than a mother figure, seems to prevent the speaker from having any cultural associations. Rising straight from the ground, in which all humans have our roots, therefore makes her a more unitary global female voice. 

She lays in her grave inhaling ‘the grief of the world’, dissociated from her own ‘wispish’ essence – an image which cries through the voices of all silenced and oppressed women. We watch her preparation as she ‘crease[s]’ and ‘uncrease[s]’ until she is ‘pulled from the ground at the appointed hour’, when the world is ready for change and she is charged with the power of her reclaimed essence.

There is such glory and zest in her leap ‘from the bed to the floor to the door to the air’, that it really seems like nothing can stop her – a mind-set that all women should nourish within themselves as well as encourage in other women. 

However, she finds that ‘with the past all spread out already in front of [her]’, she is gradually, painfully stripped of all the labels which bind her life together: motherhood, work, and wedlock. And because of this, she finds herself utterly perplexed as she goes ‘back into nothing/complete with all my missing hopes’. This line felt so unsettling upon my first reading… how could one live having no hopes at all? It therefore draws out the most tragic part of womanhood lived before the first waves of feminism: being denied all hope of choosing one’s own life.

This poem thus captures the importance of women having the option to choose and create their journeys, rather than having their path carved out by societal and cultural expectations (which are too often internalised). So, just like the poem says, we should celebrate, cultivate and conceptualise women’s empowerment so that ‘like a rose, once opened it/cannot reclose, it continues’.

The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards

I’ll tell you a tale: one morning one morning I lay  

in my uncomfortable six-foot small grave,

I lay sulking about a somewhat too short-lit

life both fruitful and dutiful. 

It was death it was death like an inbreath fully inhaled 

in the grief of the world when at last 

there began to emerge a way out, alas

the in-snowing silence made any description difficult. 

No eyes no matches and yet mathematically speaking

I could still reach at a stretch a wispish whiteish

last seen outline any way up, which could well be my own 

were it only a matter of re-folding. 

So I creased I uncreased and the next thing I knew 

I was pulled from the ground at the appointed hour 

and rushed to the nearest morgue to set out yet again 

from the bed to the floor to the door to the air. 

And there was the car still there in its last known place 

under the rain where I’d left it, my husband etc.

even myself, in retrospect I was still there

still driving back with the past all spread out already in front of me. 

What a refreshing whiff with the windows open! 

there were the dead leaves twitching and tacking back 

to their roosts in the trees and all it required

was a certain minimum level of inattention. 

I tell you, for many years from doorway to doorway

and in through a series of rooms I barely noticed

I was humming the same tune twice, I was seeing the same 

three children racing towards me getting smaller and smaller. 

This tale’s like a rose, once opened it

cannot reclose, it continues: one morning 

one terrible morning for maybe the hundredth time 

they came to insert my third child back inside me. 

It was death it was death: from head to foot 

I heard myself crack with the effort, I leaned and cried 

and a feeling fell on me with a dull clang

that I’d never see my darling daughter again. 

Then both my sons, slowly at first

then faster and faster, their limbs retracted inwards

smaller and smaller till all that remained

was a little mound where I didn’t quite meet in the middle.

Well either I was or was not either living or dead

in a windowless cubicle of the past, a mere

8.3 light minutes from the present moment when at last  

my husband walked oh dear he walked me to church. 

All in one brief winter’s day, both

braced for confusion with much shy joy,

reversed our vows, unringed our hands

and slid them back in our pockets God knows why. 

What then what then I’ll tell you what then: one evening

there I stood in the matchbox world of childhood

and saw the stars fall straight through Jimmy’s binoculars,  

they looked so weird skewered to a fleeting instant. 

Then again and again for maybe the hundredth time 

they came to insert me feet first back into nothing  

complete with all my missing hopes—next morning  

there was that same old humming thrum still there. 

That same old humming thrumming sound that is either 

my tape re-winding again or maybe it’s stars 

passing through stars coming back to their last known places,

for as far as I know in the end both sounds are the same. 

Image: Hudson Valley Writers Center via Flickr

Image is an portrait of Alice Oswald

‘The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards’ is taken from Alice Oswald’s collection Woods etc., published by Faber & Faber