Ancient Hoplites

Ancient Hoplites

Saturday, February 11, 2012

“Memorial” by Alice Oswald – A Review

"Memorial" is a poem based on the Iliad in which the prize winning English poet Alice Oswald seeks to capture the spirit more than the narrative of the ancient work in modern language. Or, as Alice Oswald words it in her introduction: it is “a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story.” This is an audacious task, to say the least, and hence the most remarkable thing about Oswald’s work is that it succeeds remarkably well.

The Iliad is a lengthy, complex work in which Gods, heroes and mere mortals interact on a grand canvas that stretches from the fertile valley of the Eurytus across the broad Aegean to the towering walls of Troy. The names of the principal protagonists have echoed down the centuries: Achilles and Hector, Helen and Paris, Menelaos, Agamemnon, Ulysses, and the rest. The Iliad, for most of us, stands for the story of Helen’s abduction (whether voluntary or not), and the war that ensued, ending in the utter destruction of a great city. The Iliad is about ambition, hubris, pride, lust, jealousy, cowardice, betrayal, conjugal and fraternal love, heterosexual and homosexual love, vengeance, grief – and just about any other human emotion that I may have overlooked.

Oswald’s poem, in contrast, is just 70 sparse – not to say laconic - pages. Nor does it attempt to reconstruct a story that Oswald (like Homer himself) expects her readers to already know. The charm of “Memorial” is that reminds us that the Iliad itself was intended as a verbal memorial to the dead. Oswald draws the reader’s attention to the Greek tradition of “lament poetry.” This was burial ritual of the ancient world in which the mourners remembered the dead in verse composed specifically to record the deeds of the deceased. The Iliad is littered with the laments for individual combatants.

Oswald’s poem makes us stop and consider these men – Protesilaus, Echepolus, Elephenor, Simoisius. Never heard of them? That is exactly the point. These are men, mortals, not the demigods, the kings, the heroes. Yet they too gave their lives. Oswald’s poem reminds us of them.

Oswald’s images are brutal because she has translated the original, which was infamous for its reality. Thus, “Diores...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….” Or: “Pherecles…died on his knees screaming. Meriones speared him in the buttock and the point pierced him in the bladder.”

Yet this poem is anything but an orgy of blood and guts. On the contrary, rather than glorifying the violence and brutality, it makes it all the more horrible by directing it at individuals that are – sometimes with only the barest outline or a mere brush-stroke in words -- given individuality and humanity. Thus Pherecles was “brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen,” while Pylaemenes had a heart “made of coarse cloth and his manners were loose like old sacking.” Harpalion was “not quite ready for life, not quite solid, always shifting from foot to foot, with his eyes sliding everywhere in fear.” Yet another woman’s son “was the tall one, the conscientious one, who stayed out late pruning his father’s fig trees.” Or simply: “Koiranus…of Crete was a quiet man, a light to his loved ones.”

And their families too are brought to life with vivid urgency: “The priest to Hephaestus, hot-faced from staring at flames, prayed every morning the same prayer, “Please God respect my status, protect my sons Phegeus and Idaeus, calm down their horses, lift them out of the fight…Hephaestus heard him, but he couldn’t hold those bold boys back, riding over the battlefield too fast they met a flying spear….” Or: Laothoe, one of Priam’s wives, never saw her son again. He was washed away. Now she can’t look at the sea. She can’t think about the bits unburied being eaten by fishes.”

Yet even this might have been too much blood, guts and grieving, if Oswald had not interspersed her laments with sublime similes that are so evocative they are breath-taking.

Like winter rivers pouring off the mountains,
The thud of water losing consciousness
When it falls down from the high places….


Like fawns running over a field
Suddenly give up and stand
Puzzled in their heavy coats


Like the blue flower of the sea
Being bruised by the wind
Like when the rain-wind
Bullies the warm wind
Battering the great soft sunlit clouds
Deep scoops of wind
Work the sea into a wave
And the foam follows wandering gusts
A thousand feet high

Other images, however, evoke more than nature itself. Like a flash of lightning, they briefly illuminate scenes from the age of Homer, or offer vignettes of everyday life in the age of Achilles.

For example:

Like a good axe in good hands
Finds out the secret of wood and splits it open

Like two mules on a shaly path in the mountains
Carrying a huge roof truss or the beam of a boat
Go on mile after mile giving it their willingness
Until the effort breaks their strength

Like a goatherd stands on a rock
And sees a cloud blowing towards him
A black block of rain coming closer over the sea
Pushing a ripple of wind inland
He shivers and drives his flocks into a cave for shelter.
Memorial is a poem, not an epic poem, novel, play or history. Its magic lies in its ability to evoke an image and an emotion with the minimal use of words. As such, it is both laconic and laconian. I recommend it.

Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad, by Alice Oswald, faber and faber, London, 2011.

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