Notes on Alice Oswald’s Memorial: a version of Homer’s Iliad
with an afterword by Eavan Boland. W.W. Norton & Company.
“Like fire with its loose hair flying rushes through a city
The look of unmasked light shocks everything to rubble”
Alice Oswald’s Memorial: a version of Homer’s Iliad is a merciless, fully compassionate and all too relevant reading of The Illiad. This short, immensely weighted book drops the unresponsive body of narrative to reveal a poetry of pure heart: “I write through the Greek, not from it— aiming for translucence rather than translation.” Memorial is heart-rending into its specificity, enumerating the names of the dead in a litany reminiscent of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I almost wrote ‘fallen’, the word of memorialists since the Great War.
Oswald enlists “‘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 superfluous narrative. Instead, Oswald evokes through similes traditional Greek pastoral and lament. But why or why does she not use the more assuaging and mellifluous ‘as’ instead of the obstreperous ‘like’ when introducing her similes… Perhaps she prefers the bluntness of ‘like’.
I misspelled history as ‘histroy’ and Spell Checker suggested, appropriately, his Troy. “The Iliad is a vocative poem. Perhaps even (in common with lament) it is invocative. It always addresses Patroculus as ‘you’, as if speaking directly to the dead… a kind of oral cemetery”. The poem presents in a phrase or epithet a man’s whole history as well as the manner of his death. The olive tree is granted slightly more space in Oswald’s astonishing simile of life’s cycle:
“Like a man put a wand of olive in the earth
And watered it and that wand became a wave
It became a whip a spine a crown
It became a wind-dictionary
It could speak in tongues
It became a wobbling wagon-load of flowers
And then a storm came spinning by
And it became a broken tree uprooted
It became a wood pile in a lonely field.”
Another Alice Oswald was my English teacher at Medway High School: a dry stick we considered ancient. A dry stick who would burst to flame when reciting Keats’s ode. The image on the cover of PERFORMING WOMEN honours that flame as well.