Memorial, by Alice Oswald

Memorial, by Alice Oswald. (Faber & Faber, 2011)

I have spent all weekend feeling somewhat dazed by this poem. I read it twice yesterday; I have spent today picking it up, leafing to favoured passages, putting it down again. I have bailed people up about it all over the internet. I am in the first flush of love, and I think this will be a life-long relationship.

Memorial is Oswald’s re-writing (rather than a retelling) of the Iliad. She has stripped out all the narrative, all the alliances, the bickering, the backstory, the begging and threatening, blustering and posturing, the fate, the hubris, the tragic story arc. She has fined down the poem to two of its key features, ones perhaps obscured by the golden stories of Troy; brief descriptions of the non-heroic characters, and similes of nature, death, power, time. As she writes in the introduction:

This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story. Matthew Arnold (and almost everyone ever since) has praised the Iliad for its ‘nobility’. But ancient critics praised its ‘enargeia’, which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality’.It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves. This version , trying to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping. What’s left is a bipolar poem made of similes and short biographies of soldiers, both of which derive (I think) from distinct poetic sources: the similes from pastoral lyrics (you can tell this because their metre is sometimes compressed as if it originally formed part of a lyric poem); the biographies from the Greek tradition of lament poetry.

The poem begins with eight pages of names: all caps, one per line, marching in formation down the page

PROTESILAUS
ECHEPOLUS
ELEPHENOR
SIMOISIUS
LEUKOS
DEMOCOON
DIORES
PIROUS

As you read, you unconsciously slow your pace. You roll each unfamiliar syllable in your mouth. Some names spark a memory – most are just a litany of men. Named men. Dead men.

Then we launch into the poem

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower‐lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus Iton Pteleus Antron
He died in mid‐air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half‐built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Each man is given his due – a word, a sentence, a stanza. We are told of homes, families, mothers, wives, characters. ‘SIMOISIUS born on the banks of the Simois / Son of Anthemion his mother a shepherdress / Still following the sheep when she gave birth / A lithe and promising man unmarried.’ And ‘ECHEPOLUS a perfect fighter / Always ahead of his men / Known for his cold seed-like concentration’. And death comes to them ignobly, dirtily, bloodily, sharp and hard.

And PEDAEUS the unwanted one
The mistake of his father’s mistress
Felt the hot shock in his neck of Meges’ spear
Unswallowable sore throat of metal in his mouth
Right through his teeth
He died biting down on the spearhead

Interspersing these small stories of doom are the similes – some two lines long, some eight or twelve lines. Oswald takes Homer’s descriptions of armies like swarms of bees, of hunting and hunted animals, of soldiers like stands of corn in the wind, and respins them. Each is printed twice, breaks over you once quickly and once more slowly.

As if it was June
A poppy being hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
Its exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down

As if it was June
A poppy being hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
Its exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down

I could quote and quote and quote from this book. It is some of the most marvellous writing I have ever read – smooth, soft and hard, small words that surprise you. Oswald has made the epic poem sing for me anew; has focused my eye, slowed my breathing, touched my heart.

DIORES son of Amarinceus
Struck by a flying flint
Died in a puddle of his own guts
Slammed down into the mud he lies
With his arms stretched out to his friends
And PIROUS the Thracian
You can tell him by his knotted hair
Lie alongside him
He killed him and was killed
There seem to be black flints
Everywhere a man steps

Like through the jointed grass
The long-stemmed deer
Almost vanishes
But a hound has already found her flattened tracks
And he’s running through the fields towards her

Like through the jointed grass
The long-stemmed deer
Almost vanishes
But a hound has already found her flattened tracks
And he’s running through the fields towards her

…..

SCAMANDRIUS the hunter
Knew every deer in the woods
He used to hear the voice of Artemis
Calling out to him in the lunar
No man’s land of the mountains
She taught him to track her animals
But impartial death has killed the killer
Now Artemis with all her arrows can’t help him up
His accurate firing arm is useless
Menelaus stabbed him
One spear-thrust through the shoulders
And the point cam out through the ribs
His father was Strophius

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

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