By Rob Packer
Homer is normally—and justifiably—seen as the starting point for Western literature and has been adapted and readapted since it was composed 2700 years ago. One of the latest is Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. The whole title is important: like an archaeologist sifting through soil and using a fine brush to reveal an arrowhead, Oswald has pared down the text to just Homeric similes and biographies of the war dead, removing its narrative and presenting “the whole poem as a kind of oral cemetery”.
This epithet-less, god-less and aheroic adaptation does feel strange: there is no rosy-fingered dawn or white-armed Hera, the heroes mostly have bit parts, and even the rage of Achilles at the Iliad’s centre is mostly absent until the end. But Oswald’s aim is very different: “to retrieve the poem’s enargeia”, which she defines as “bright unbearable reality”. The poem begins with eight pages of Greek and Trojan names in widely spaced capitals and reading them evokes a wall of names at a war memorial in Northern France, where familiar or repeating names, like PATROCLUS or HECTOR, leap out at you, while the sheer number of unrecognized names terrifies.
This emphasis on the dead makes the Trojan War feels more like a twentieth-century conflict. On the one hand, it feels unpartisan and democratized in that a shepherd boy is put on equal footing with the Homeric heroes and the distinction between victor and defeated is irrelevant—it would be impossible to tell in the text whether someone is Greek or Trojan. On the other, it becomes more senseless when “Twelve anonymous Thracians were killed in their sleep / Before their ghosts had time to keep hold of their names”. I think that a comparison with modern war looks particularly relevant at the odd reference to a motorbike or lift doors, or when one arrow shoots through seven soldiers:
And now the arrow flies through GORGYTHION
Somebody’s darling son
As if it was June
A poppy hammered by the rain
Sinks its head down
It’s exactly like that
When a man’s neck gives in
And the bronze calyx of his helmet
Sinks his head down
The poppy is the quintessential image of the First World War and its appearance here makes an inevitable mental link in the reader’s mind between the memorials of that war and this Memorial. Meanwhile, the anonymity of Gorgythion’s parents evokes unknown soldiers and I found this simile so powerful that it had me clutching for the Iliad (the Robert Fagles translation; sorry, guys, no Greek):
As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
dropping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet.
Both versions are excellent and I particularly like Oswald’s, which creates mutual metaphors within the simile between weapon-like hammers and the “bronze calyx” (part of a flower). More interesting is that Gorgythion isn’t just “somebody’s darling son” in the Iliad: Homer, he is in fact, “a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince”. But what is striking about this short section is that while the original describes Gorgythion’s mother’s beauty, Oswald aims at anonymity but manages to create pathos similar to the original.
From the start, Memorial feels like an interesting experiment in stripping away at one of the most important (and best) epics in history to leave its essence. It is ultimately successful because by removing the Iliad’s narrative, Oswald foregrounds the most poetic side: the similes with their nature, tranquillity and domesticity. By combining them with the entry and exit wounds of ordinary blokes on the battlefield, she also emphasizes another aspect of the poem: its humanity.
Alice Oswald, Memorial, Faber & Faber 2011