From The Guardian, October 2 2011
by Kate Kellaway
Alice Oswald made her name with a book-length poem: Dart. A tribute to the Devon river made up of her own and other people's voices, it won the 2002 TS Eliot prize. On the face of it, her latest book – an "excavation" of Homer's The Iliad – is not comparable, except that, like Dart, it is an extended homage. It's a poem written out of love for a story that matters to her as much as the rivers that have inspired her. Oswald is a classicist and, in her preface, writes of her hope that the poem does not depend upon "context" – readers are not obliged to lean on Homer. She need not fear: the poem stands by itself.
Having said that, it was reading Memorial alongside The Iliad (in Robert Fagles's translation) that made me feel the full force of Oswald's achievement. The task she has set herself is a poetic filleting (or, as she describes it, the "reckless dismissal" of seven-eighths of Homer's narrative) and a memorialising of every soldier, juxtaposed with extended similes – a Greek chorus of them. She describes herself as trying to retrieve the poem's enargeia, which translates as "bright, unbearable reality", and writes that she is doing this "as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you are worshipping".
The opening pages list the names of more than 200 dead. Reading them is equivalent to the poignancy of skimming surnames on a war memorial. But as the poem gets going, the risk Oswald runs is obvious: if each death is a foregone conclusion, the danger is of monotonous tragedy – each new casualty is likely to have less impact than the one before. Yet the miraculous thing is that this danger is somehow averted. The poem works in the opposite way: it builds. All poetry has a memorial aspect – the fixing of a moment, a place, the passing of a life. But this is remembering on a grand scale. This is a concentrated, intense, multi-tasking elegy. And it is written with a freshness to match Homer's own – as if each soldier had died on the day of writing.
What Oswald does is to give each doomed person an extra breath of life, a moment in the sunlight of her attention, even though, sometimes, there is little or nothing to record about the life. It is death that characterises the man and each death is different.The style is urgent, simple and spare. There are no ornamental phrases to hide behind: "Grief is black it is made of earth/ It gets into the cracks in the eyes/ It lodges its lump in the throat." It is a disturbing idea: grief as burial. Elsewhere, too, humble images are powerful. One soldier, in death, is described as like a child clinging to a mother: "Wanting to be light again/ wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted/ And carried on a hip."
Homer is full of marvellous images of armies as swarming bees, flattened fields of corn, waves that come in convoy. Oswald's poetic structure itself contains grand rhythms – rather like the sea. The extended similes are printed twice. They come at you like repeated waves. They push the poem forward and draw it back. There is a line in Homer that translates as the "trance of war" and this describes the poem's atmosphere. I long to hear Memorial performed; it would be tremendous. As the death toll rises, one becomes aware that only one thing survives – a life force carrying everything with it: the poem itself.
Grief is black it is made of earth
It gets into the cracks in the eyes
It lodges its lump in the throat
When a man sees his brother on the ground
He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere
Lashing without looking and that was how COON died
First he wounded Agamemnon
Then he grabbed his brother's stiffened foot
And tried to drag him home shouting
Help for god's sake this is Iphidamas
Someone please help but Agamemnon
Cut off his head and that was that
Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man
That was their daylight here finished
And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning
The above is an extract from Alice Oswald's Memorial