Names assume epic proportions when listed. The Roman Catholic church’s First Eucharistic Prayer seduces with its exotic incantations, the priest intoning the names of the saints through a haze of incense: Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus. In the opening pages of Memorial, Oswald presents her reader with the names of the warriors Homer records as having fallen on both sides of the Trojan War. These names are as alien as those of the saints: Protesilaus, Echepolus, Elephenor but, in this context, the reader sees the parallel between this list and those homespun names, lovingly immortalised in books of remembrance and on war memorials across the world. Usually, a typeface serves only the demands of legibility but here Oswald’s Roman capitals invite the reader to see stone instead of paper, and marks inscribed with hammer and chisel rather than printed serifs. She transports us not only to antiquity but to the Menin Gate and the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial. Oswald’s act of eloquent, austere simplicity distills war, and views it in human terms.
When reading the Iliad, Oswald’s source material for this poem, it is easy to caricature war as something out of Zack Snyder’s 300, as, in the heat of battle, individual heroes rack up an insane amount of kills: it’s more Call of Duty than All Quiet of the Western Front. However, Oswald’s decision to translate the death scene of every soldier negates that gung-ho heroism and creates something fragile and elegiac:
‘SIMOISIUS born on the banks of the Simois / Son of Anthemion his mother a shepherdess / Still following the sheep when she gave birth / A lithe and promising young man unmarried / Was met by Ajax in the ninth year of the war / And died full tilt running onto his spear / The point passed clean through the nipple / And came out through the shoulder blade / He collapsed instantly an unspeakable sorrow to his parents’.
The sheer repetition of these death scenes allows the reader to see and feel the horror of life cut tragically short: mother bereaved and unmarried. In Oswald’s hands, the accumulated weight of these small and insignificant deaths amounts to something significant indeed. The pain of war: both on and off the battlefield, is powerfully evoked in Memorial.
Each of these vignettes is followed by an epic simile, which is repeated twice:
‘Live leaves / Sometimes they light their green flames / And are fed by the earth / And sometimes is snuffs them out’.
Read aloud, Oswald’s restructuring of Homer gives her poem a gentle, elegiac and incantatory quality. This is a hymn to the dead of all wars and feels absolutely timely. In the United Kingdom, our news media has been rhythmically punctuated by images of the repatriation of fallen services personnel, killed on duty in Afghanistan. In Pat Barker’s Regeneration, (the character of) the poet Wilfred Owen says that ‘Sometimes, in the trenches, you get the sense of something, ancient. One trench we held, it had skulls in the side, embedded, like mushrooms. It was actually easier to believe they were men from Marlborough’s army, than to think they’d been alive a year ago. It was as if all the other wars had distilled themselves into this war, and that made it something you almost can’t challenge. It’s like a very deep voice, saying; ‘Run along, little man, be glad you’ve survived’. In Memorial, Alice Oswald takes this idea and nails it.
- Alice Oswald on the Dart river (guardian.co.uk)
- Alice Oswald on the Devonshire landscape: ‘There’s a terror in beauty’ (guardian.co.uk)