Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)
Introducing his translation of The Divine Comedy, Clive James reminded us that it wasn’t just a story, but a poem. In creating her ‘excavation’ of the Iliad, Alice Oswald leaves the story out altogether. In a way, that makes the book a perfect companion to the Marvel comics Iliad (though I may be unfair in assuming that Marvel just tells the story: comics have come a long way since I was an avid reader of Classics Illustrated comics).
So what is left of Homer’s epic of the Trojan War if you take out the narrative? The short answer is: a powerful lament / memorial for the slain, interspersed with lyrical evocations of the natural world, Homer’s similes cut loose from the things they refer to. The whole poem is presented here, the author tells us in her introduction, as ‘a kind of oral cemetery’: where you would expect to find a table of contents there are eight pages of single names, in capital letters, one name to a page, so by the time you reach the first poem, which begins
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 __Peteleus __Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushing out clawing her face
it’s as if you’ve already been strolling among the tombs. What follows, page after page, is heartbreaking and beautiful, like the AIDS quilt. Every war should have its narrative stripped away like this.
Actually, that’s all I want to say.
Alice Oswald won the Warwick Prize for Memorial last year. She read the final section of the book at the award presentation. You can watch it here. You don’t have to worry about spoilers: everyone named in capital letters dies.