I have never read The Iliad and unfamiliarity with the Classics leaves me confused as to names, relations and stories.  But none of that matters when you pick up Alice Oswald’s stunning new poem which is, as the author says, a lament, ‘a kind of oral cemetery’.  This powerful anti-war poem is a memorial to the dead soldiers of The Iliad.  It begins with a list of the soldiers who died during the ten-year siege of the city of Troy, Greeks and Trojans, their names written in capital letters:

PROTESILAUS
ECHEPOLUS
ELEPHENOR
SIMOSIOS
LEUKOS
DEMOCOON

– the names continue, echoing across thirty-one centuries, for another eight pages.

The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington
The Vietnam War Memorial in Washington

The poem is, Alice Oswald states in an introduction,  ‘a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story’. She calls it a ‘reckless dismissal of seven-eighths of the poem’.  The way that Oswald goes about this is to draw upon Homer’s stories, briefly eulogising each soldier with a concise description of his death, followed by a simile that is repeated twice as a refrain.

Oswald is a classicist – she read classics at Oxford – and in her introduction she notes that just about every critic since Matthew Arnold has tended to praise the Iliad for its nobility.  She prefers the ancient critics, who praised Homer’s enargeia, his ‘bright unbearable reality’.

Alice Owald and the cover of Memorial

Alice Owald and the cover of ‘Memorial’

The words are as clear as everyday conversation; the twice-repeated similes, each of which begins with ‘like…’ have the force of a blues.  Here are three passages that give a sense of the whole:

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

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind‐murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land‐ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn‐stalks shake their green heads

*****

IPHIDAMAS a big ambitious boy
At the age of eighteen at the age of restlessness
His family crippled him with love
They gave him a flute and told him to amuse himself
In his grandfather’s sheep‐nibbled fields
That didn’t work they gave him a bride
Poor woman lying in her new name alone
She said even on his wedding night
He seemed to be wearing armour
He kept yawning and looking far away
And by the next morning he’d vanished
Arrogant farmhand fresh from the fields
He went straight for Agamemnon
Aiming for the soft bit under the breastplate
And leaning in pushing all his violence
All his crazy impatience into the thrust
But he couldn’t quite break through the belt‐metal
Against all that silver the spear‐tip
Simply bent like lead and he lost
Poor Iphidamas now he is only iron
Sleeping its iron sleep poor boy
Who fought for Helen for his parents’ town
Far from his wife all that money wasted
A hundred cattle he gave her
A thousand sheep and goats
All that hard work feeding them wasted
Grief is black it is made of earth
It gets into the cracks in the eyes
It lodges its lump in the throat
When a man sees his brother on the ground
He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere
Lashing without looking and that was how COON died
First he wounded Agamemnon
Then he grabbed his brother’s stiffened foot
And tried to drag him home shouting
Help for god’s sake this is Iphidamas
Someone please help but Agamemnon
Cut off his head and that was that
Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man
That was their daylight here finished
And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

Like when two winds want a wood
The south wind and the east wind
Both pull at the trees’ arms
And the sound of smooth‐skinned cornel whipping to and fro
And oak and ash batting long sticks together
Is a word from another world

****

And HECTOR died like everyone else
He was in charge of the Trojans
But a spear found out the little patch of white
Between his collarbone and his throat
Just exactly where a man’s soul sits
Waiting for the mouth to open
He always knew it would happen
He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running
All women loved him
His wife was Andromache
One day he looked at her quietly
He said I know what will happen
And an image stared at him of himself dead
And her in Argos weaving for some foreign woman
He blinked and went back to his work
Hector loved Andromache
But in the end he let her face slide from his mind
He came back to her sightless
Strengthless expressionless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground

Memorial is a lament for the dead of all wars: the friends who die side by side,

In a daze of loneliness
Their conversation unfinished

or the boy who was a famous hunter but dies

Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

But a spear stuck through his eye
He sat down backwards
Trying to snatch back the light
With stretched out hands

On the Gists and Piths blog, Simon Turner in Notes on Alice Oswald’s Memorial writes that:

Memorial … doesn’t feel like a reduction of the Iliad, but rather a concentration.  Oswald is forcing the poem to speak across centuries: the numbering and naming of the war-dead is as vital an act of public memorial and mourning now as it was 100, 500, 3000 years ago.

Memorial differs from previous poems that have used Homer’s poetry as a jumping off point – Logue’s War Music and Simon Armitage’s version of the Odyssey spring to mind – because its act of reduction is formal rather than narrative.  Logue strips the Iliad down to brass tacks to tell the story of Achilles’ rage more readily, whilst Armitage recasts Homer in his own blokey idiom, chopping two thirds of the tale in the process.

Oswald is as ruthless in her editing, but her interests lie elsewhere: her intention, it seems to me, is to make the poem more contemporary by, paradoxically, stripping it of all but the aspects of Homer’s work that precede Homer.  Writes Oswald in her preface: “This version . . . 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”.  Oswald sees these two poles of the poem as deriving from distinct sources: the pastoral lyric and the formal lament, both with their roots in the oral tradition. […]

The poem itself is startling, relentless in its close focus on violence and death, like the first fifteen minutes of Saving Private Ryan spread across 80 pages.  With the narrative gone, the function of the Homeric simile – where the action pauses momentarily and we are whisked away from the combat zone into the realm of the natural world – becomes doubly important: there’d otherwise be no breathing room at all.  Oswald seems to have been aware of this, with the similes in many instances being repeated, like the chorus of a song.  The reader is literally being forced to slow down for just a moment before rushing back headlong into the fray.  It’s very effective, no more so than at the poem’s conclusion, which provides an epilogue of disembodied similes that might be read as collective elegies for the war dead…

As Simon Turner notes, the poem ends with a series of similes of multitudes – leaves blowing in the wind, chaff at threshing time, thousands of water birds massing in the air:

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matters no more than the leaves

And then:

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone.

The view from Troy across the plain of Ilium to the Aegean Sea

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