‘The mud-spattered recollections of a woman who lived her life backwards’ by Alice Oswald
Updated: Mar 8, 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’.