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As if it was June
A poppy being 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

Someone was there
And the next moment no one

Like fire with its loose hair flying rushes through the city
The look of unmasked light shocks everything to rubble
And flames howl through the gaps

Alice Oswald, 2011. Memorial. London: Faber and Faber.

This powerful adaption of Homer’s Iliad, subtitled an ‘Excavation of the Iliad’, consists essentially of a haunting list of the named men who die in it, in the order in which they die, each with perhaps some small biographical detail or story of how they die. Protesilaus is first; Hector is last. It is simultaneously a retelling, abridgement, and translation. Interspersed though these deaths are similes, always repeated. The similes Oswald says ‘are translations’, but of a irreverent kind, and that they are ‘openings through which to see what Homer was looking at’. Oswald stated aim is for ‘translucence rather than translation’. Her stated aim was to recover the enargeia of the poem, its ‘bright, unbearable reality’. And enargeia we certainly have in shocking abundance.

And PEDAEUS the unwanted one
The mistake of his father’s mistress
Felt the hot shock in his neck of Mege’s spear
Unswallowable sore throat of metal in his mouth
Right through his teeth
He died biting down on the spearhead

Like suddenly it thunders
And a stormwind rushes down
And roars into the sea’s ears
And the curves of many white-parched waves
Run this way and that

This poem is beautiful in its austere remembrance of the dead heroes of Homer’s epic, and beautiful in its sorrow. The severity in stripping away from Homer the background of the war, the feuds of Zeus and Hera, Athena and Ares and the other gods, the speeches, reviews, catalogues and endless epithets and leaving just the short and powerful stories of the men who are killed, the manner of their deaths, and a brief lyrical eulogy to their memory, is to my opinion a stroke of genius. Some men are sons, brothers, and husbands, some men die the brave death of a hero, clashing bronze that smashes through flesh, others just die, yet others have only their names recorded.

And ENIOPEUS with high hopes
Drove Hector into battle
Into the terrifying anti-world of the wounded
The wheels kept slewing over bodies
But he held tight he was good with horses
Until a spear shocked him in the nipple
He vanished backwards and hit the ground under their hooves
Clang his soul burst into the open

It is a wondrous thing to read. Oswald’s use of language is ascetic and sparing; yet the poem still mediates Homer’s intense beauty. Whether you’re a hardened Classical Historian, a passionate lover of Greek Epic or a confused neophyte daunted by the many lengthy and cumbersome English translations of the Iliad, I would heartily recommend that you read this short and stunningly beautiful poem.

I will leave you with one last sample;

Like the hawk of the hills the perfect killer
Easily outflies the clattering dove
She dips away but he follows he ripples
He hangs his black hooks over her
And snares her with a thin cry
In praise of her softness

There was a blue pool who loved her loneliness
Lay on her stones clear-eyed staring at trees
Her name was Abarbarea
A young man found her in the hills
He took one look at her shivering freshness
And stripped off his clothes
In the middle of his astonished sheep
He jumped off a rock right into her arms
And from that quick fling there were two children
They died at Troy on the same day

Here is its entry in Amazon UK’s catalogue. Here is a review in The Guardian, and another review in the (UK) Telegraph. This is a link to a half-hour long Guardian books podcast in part of which you can hear a snippet of Alice reading her poem (recommended to listen – it was hearing this podcast which prompted my purchase!). This is a link to the book on the publisher’s site.

(this review is based on a much simpler version I wrote on Amazon)