Head of a Dandelion
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties
like an old woman taken by the neck
and shaken to pieces.
This is the dust-flower flitting away.
This is the flower of amnesia.
It has opened its head to the wind,
all havoc and weakness,
as if a wooden man should stroll through fire…
In this unequal trial, one thing
controls the invisible violence of the air,
the other gets smashed and will not give in.
One thing flexes its tail causing widespread devastation,
it takes hold of the trees, it blows their failings out of them,
it throws in sideways, it flashes the river upriver;
the other thing gives up its skin and bones,
goes up in smoke, lets go of its ashes…
and this is the flower of no property,
this is the wind-bitten dandelion
worn away to its one recalcitrant element
like when Osiris
blows his scales and weighs the soul with a feather.
Alice Oswald, “Head of a Dandelion”, Woods. London: Faber and Faber, 2008.
I like the fact that this poem has strong imagery. Almost every line forms an image that lingers for long, even when you have forgotten all other texts on the book.
I also like the fact that it is inspired by a spontaneous plant of fragile and unremarkable appearance – a dandelion. It is precisely the frailty of this flower, permanently on the brink of coming apart, but also of being taken by the wind or by the puff of a passer-by, that makes it an important referent. The dandelion is associated with the act of thinking and with the human brain, and it points to the way our poor heads are, too, so often close to crumbling.
Let us consider, like Oswald does, that thinking represents an “unequal trial,” depicted in the poem in the images of the old woman taken by the neck and shaken to pieces and the wooden man who strolls through fire, somewhat unheedingly. The relation between the dandelion and memory is made clear through the referencing of amnesia, in the head opening to the wind, “all havoc and weakness,” which underlines the vulnerabilities of the human mind and the consequences of its dwindling.
In the final couplet, Osiris weighs a soul with a feather. We are in the habit of valuing some things (precious metals, food, events, eventually literature) by their weight. Nevertheless, according to this Egyptian myth, bodies outbalancing a feather were to be devoured by a monster, whereas those lighter than a feather would be granted eternal life. In a similar way, the poem points to an apparently frail figure that unveils its strength throughout the lines: in the end we reckon that lightness might be more valuable than anything else.
Oswald leaves us with this unexpected inversion, with no explanation on what qualifies lighter souls – or what they have done to deserve their weightlessness. To figure this out, we might need to hold on to the dandelion’s lesson, a flower which simultaneously has “no property” and a “thousand faculties,” and that, when faced with the violence that jolts it, “worn away to its one recalcitrant element,” simply sheds what appeared important but was expendable after all.
Building from these simple, but visually and conceptually powerful images, Alice Oswald offers us a brief poem that, like the dandelion, sends its seeds to the wind. Some of them will stick to our clothes and hair, leaving us to ponder on the disproportion between our small thoughts and the powerful forces they meet; on the role memory plays in our relationship with the world and ourselves; and also on what’s essential or expendable.
Translation Francisco Matos Moreira
Alda Rodrigues is a translator and proof-reader; she has also worked in publishing and lexicography. She co-authors Cinéfilo Preguiçoso. Her relationship with poetry is informal and carefree.