Review: Alice Oswald’s Memorial

If Alice Oswald’s Memorial is not the greatest English-language war poem of modern times, I can hardly wait to discover a better one.

Alice Oswald’s idea was simple but brilliant. Writers talk sometimes about encountering a work that they wish they had written themselves, and Memorial would be such a work for me, if I did not have to acknowledge that Oswald did it so well that I cannot imagine its having been done better by anyone else.

Memorial is one of those books that you want to hurry through in order to start again from the beginning, but also want to never reach an end.

Using characters from the Iliad might suggest more emulation than creativity, but Oswald’s structural device and her brilliant imagery convince me that she could have written as powerful a poem had she written about the Battle of Towton and invented all of the names and circumstances of death.

Like Christopher Logue before her, Alice Oswald decided to write a version of the Iliad. Not a translation, but a reworking. “. . . Instead of carrying the [Greek] words over into English,” she tells us, “I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.”

So she strips out the narrative, the conversations, the set speeches, the meanwhiles on Olympus, the story itself. What she and we are left with is a series of brief descriptions of how each of many soldiers died, followed by an apt simile. The power of this distillation is astonishing, heightened by the variation Oswald employs within the structural repetition of death-and-simile.

Some of the death scenes are a dozen lines long, and others are far briefer, yet all the deaths seem abrupt and unexpected. No passage is typical, but here are three brief ones:

DAMASOS the Trojan


Running at a man thinking kill kill


In years to come someone will find his helmet


Shaped like a real head

 

.

.

 

ILIONEUS an only child ran out of luck


He always wore that well-off look

His parents had a sheep farm


They didn’t think he would die


But a spear stuck through his eye


he sat down backwards


Trying to snatch back the light


With stretched out hands

 

.

.

 

And KLEITOS it goes on and on

His empty cart clattering away through leafless trees

 
 

Alice Oswald’s similes begin with “like” rather than “as,” but this becomes less jarring as the poem progresses. Here are three examples.

Like a boat


Going into the foaming mouth of a wave


In the body of the wind


Everything vanishes


And the sailors stare at mid-air

.

.

Like a fish in the wind


Jumps right out of its knowledge


And lands on the sand

.

.

Like when the wind comes ruffling at last to sailors adrift


Trying to manage the broken springs of their muscles


And lever and lift those well-rubbed oars


Making tiny dents in the ocean

Oswald shrewdly frames her sequential pairings of death scenes and similes. She begins her poem with a list of all of the dead we will encounter in the poem, visually evoking war memorials. Not knowing most of the individual names, we are mostly aware of the group, but we still know that the group is made up of individual people, however lost their individuality might be.

After the last death, after all the individual names fade away, Oswald closes with twelve more similes, or rather eleven with the last one repeated. This closing section recalls the list of possibilities Walt Whitman considers when a child asks him, what is the grass? The list suggests both the inadequacy of a single understanding and the multiple connections between war deaths and violence in nature.

Alice Oswald’s final similes employ plurals — leaves, chaff, crickets — to rise above individual deaths as a camera might pull back from an individual combat to reveal a battlefield, and from a battlefield to reveal a landscape.

Her last, repeated simile leaves us with a vast, universal reminder of one classic recognition of eulogies, the brevity of human existence. However wasteful and tragic were the deaths we were told of, one at a time, Memorial closes with a counterposed sense of inevitability. Life is difficult. If not this way of death, then another.

Like the Iliad itself, which has been seen by some readers as glorifying war and by others as emphasizing its vast horror, Memorial balances a tragic sense of waste and loss on the one hand, with a counterbalancing elegiac acceptance on the other.

 
 

This review first appeared on poetsandwar.com in 2013.

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