Author: Miller Oberman

Publisher: Princeton University Press

ISBN: 978-0-691-17683-3

Voices calling out to one another from century to century permeate this debut collection of verse by the Medieval-enthralled multiple-award-winning poet-scholar, Miller Oberman. Juxtaposing wholly new translations of Old English poems aside those of his own making, Oberman renders vivid and immediate, in clearly articulated poesy, the profound concerns of humankind across the ages, from cradle to grave. Whether in masculine or feminine voice (with two of the poems, ‘Wulf and Eadwacer’ and ‘The Wife’s Lament,’ appearing to be in the latter), the lyrics, riddles and charms that fill these pages are as intriguing as they are insightful.

As a Medieval scholar, Oberman is intensely aware of the wholeness and integrity of the original text, so that, even where there are gaps in the extant work (with most of the Old English text, on which his translations are based, having been drawn from the physically damaged Exeter Book), he respectfully and reverently indicates such by means of the insertion of parentheses, rather than resorting to the method of trying to fill in the blanks himself, which many other translators have done before him. The spaces that are present in such poems as ‘The Ruin’ not only befit the theme, but also reflect the silences that are integral to the essential meaning of such texts, especially in the light of the aeons that have passed since the verse was first composed.

The Unstill Ones is structured in such a way as to render its content most meaningful, with it being divided into three parts, in accordance with the three runes: ehwaz (poems of progression and change, and the harmony that is attainable thereby); algiz (poems that ‘figure forth’ courage in the face of fear); and dagaz (poems that exhibit the experiencing of an epiphany leading to bold and transcendent change). The individual poems themselves, stretching from Oberman’s initial translation of Cædmon’s inspirational Hymn, in which homage is paid to the “master almighty”, the “holy maker”, to the man-centred poem, ‘Breakwater,’ in which the poet declares “I was wrong to think stars / more holy than soap,” the contents of The Unstill Ones seem to reflect the poet’s own evolution of thought, from idealistic aspiration to a grounding in self made porous and open to further experience on an earthly plane. As a debut work, therefore, Oberman’s The Unstill Ones can be seen as a true coming-of-age in poetic form, and should be applauded as such.

Oberman’s poetic metaphor bears close resemblance to the imagery that is found in the writings of such Metaphysical poets as George Herbert, while his meter closely parallels the natural cadence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Yet, despite the poet’s clear awareness of the intrinsic, deep-seated call of the spiritual realm, his verse has a ruggedness and a virility that finds its home in the epicentre of man, rather than in an unearthly and transcendent sphere. The alliterativeness and kenning that characterise expressions of the Old English ethos are omnipresent throughout The Unstill Ones, giving a resonance to the poems that, if phrased in more contemporary terms, would likely not have been as effective.

The depth of insight made manifest in these poems and translations auger well for Oberman’s future as an outstanding scholar and poet. As such, this book is well worth the many hours that can be spent reflecting on the vast array of meanings that can be accessed through the fine text.