Thank the gods, Greek or otherwise, for Alice Oswald.
She describes her new volume, Memorial, as ‘a translation of The Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story,’ a ‘reckless dismissal’ of seven-eighths of the work. The skeleton of what remains begins the poem: a list of every dead Greek and Trojan. Are you supposed to painstakingly process this catalogue, or skim it to reach the first stanza?
Either way, it is impossible to assimilate. Oswald gives us no option but to face what a strange kind of memorial a name makes: a proof of extinguished existence which is nevertheless in danger of offering us nothing beyond itself. As she writes of the father of Xantus and Thoon, ‘Now he will have to live off nothing | But his sons’ names.’
The rest of the work moves through this list again, elaborating on (most of) the names and titles through a combination of biography and simile. Each biography claims something tangible and individual back for the lone name – even if only in the blunt, moving brevity of a line such as ‘MELANIPPUS not really a fighter more a farmer.’ But each simile turns to the world, either for an image of transience, ‘Like a wind-murmur / Begins a rumour of waves,’ or a thunderbolt instance of mortality, ‘Like a knife-winged hawk’ plunging amongst valley birds.
The similes are all printed twice, and this begins to generate a wavelike momentum which suggests an erosion of the terra firma of biographical lament – ‘grief is black it is made of earth.’ For Oswald, the thrum of the world has a kind of benign indifference, ‘Like a stone / Stands by a grave and says nothing.’ Its processes undermine the efforts of remembrance.
But this is no cause for doom, gloom and a darkened room. Oswald’s vision of ‘man in his world’ is just too fabulous. I challenge you to indulge in nihilism when you are shown ‘the blue flower of the sea | Being bruised by the wind.’ A hard, gem-like moment of luminosity (one of countless) which exemplifies Oswald’s masterful imagistic compression, making the natural world humanly physical, combining grandeur with delicacy.
It is a common movement of Oswald’s eye and ear to locate the human in the elemental. It is integral to voicing the river in Dart, to the portraits filling Weeds and Wild Flowers. Here, it seems to resolve the human name into the anonymous, and infallible, memorial of natural process itself – ‘The wind blows their ghosts to the ground / And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods / Thousands of names thousands of leaves.’
You’ll turn from this book to the world with new wonder.
The Harker provides a platform for young (unpaid) writing talent.
A discussion of Alice Oswald’s Memorial and other versions of the Iliad
Chaired by Philip Dodd on BBC3′s Nightwaves, 5th October 2011