Monday, January 8, 2018

Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad by Alice Oswald

Hardcover, 112 pgs, Pub Sept 10th 2012 by W. W. Norton Company (first published October 6th 2011), ISBN13: 9780393088670, Lit Awards: Warwick Prize for Writing (2013), T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry Nominee (2011), Popescu Prize for translation (2013)

The poetry of Alice Oswald is preternatural…preternaturally gorgeous, preternaturally immediate and relevant and precise. We want to sink into that language and be in that bright place—perhaps not to live (among the flashing swords), but to die there, amongst one’s brethren, with poetry read and songs sung in one’s honor.

Everything about this book is beautiful, and new and bright and contemporary. The Afterword written by Eavan Boland answers all the questions one has while reading this wholly original poem, this ‘oral cemetery’ memorializing the men who fought the Trojan War. I am tempted to suggest you read the Afterword first, but no, of course you must proceed directly to the glory that is the language exploring the feel of the Iliad, a story with so many deaths, so many deaths of young and old and brave and foolish and handsome men.
EPICLES a Southerner from sunlit Lycia
Climbed the Greek wall remembering the river
That winds between his wheat fields and his vineyards
He was knocked backwards by a rock
And sank like a diver
The light in his face went out…

…Even AMPHIMACHOS died and he was a rarity
A green-eyed changeable man from Elis
He was related to Poseidon
You would think the sea could do something
But it just lifted and flattened lifted and flattened.
Oswald gives the names she memorializes at the beginning of her work and then proceeds to tell in startlingly immediate language, how exactly they met their end, or some tiny biographical note that makes them, contrarily, come alive.
EUCHENOR a kind of suicide
Carried the darkness inside him of a dud choice
Either he could die at home of sickness
Or at Troy of a spear wound
His mother was in tears
His father was in tears but
Cold as a coin he took the second option…
The ancient critics of the Iliad praised its ‘enargeia,’ or ‘bright unbearable reality.’ And that is exactly how we perceive the language Oswald gives us: all the bright young brave men, all dead.
ECHEPOLUS a perfect fighter
Always ahead of his men
Known for his cold seed-like concentration
Moving out and out among the spears
Died at the hands of Antilochus
You can see the hole in the helmet just under the ridge
Where the point of the blade passed through
And stuck in his forehead
Letting the darkness leak down over his eyes.
Oswald strips the narrative from the oral tradition and gives us a kind of lament poetry aimed at translucence rather than translation. She wants to help us see through to what Homer was looking at. But the context is remarkably unnecessary. It is about young men at war. We understand immediately, sadly.
And IPHITUS who was born in the snow
Between two tumbling trout-stocked rivers
Died on the flat dust
The poetry of war. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking.

Alice Oswald reads a portion of Memorial

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