Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: Memorial by Alice Oswald

Book: Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad

Author: Alice Oswald

Publisher: W. W. Norton Company

Pages: 90 Pages

Format: Paperback

Source: Purchased through my university bookstore

In this daring new work, the poet Alice Oswald strips away the narrative of the Iliad--the anger of Achilles, the story of Helen--in favor of attending to its atmospheres: the extended similes that bring so much of the natural order into the poem and the corresponding litany of the war-dead, most of whom are little more than names but each of whom lives and dies unforgettably and unforgotten in the copious retrospect of Homer's glance. The resulting poem is a war memorial and a profoundly responsive work that gives new voice to Homer's level-voiced version of the world. Through a mix of narrative and musical repetition, the sequence becomes a meditation on the loss of human life.

Every once in a while, a book comes along and hurts you. It pushes you around, and it forces you to feel all the emotions that you don't want to feel, and when you think it's over, it pushes back harder and more intensely. And at the end of it, you can't do anything but thank it. You thank it over and over again, because of how beautiful and poignant it is.

This was my experience with Memorial.

Memorial is, as the title says, an excavation of Homer's Iliad, but the Greek epic is not required reading in order to get this book. What Memorial does is remember, grieve, and memorialize the fallen soldiers of the Trojan war. The collection starts by listing 200 names. Yeah. The first 8 pages are just names -- Greek and Trojan names intertwined, in the order in which they die in the Iliad. The book then goes to explain the deaths, and give context for almost each death that is just glossed over in the epic.

Each memorial is followed by a simile, which is then sometimes repeated. The way in which Oswald presents these similes makes them seem more important than the memorial itself, saying more about the death than the remembrance. The shift that Oswald makes from the first page to the last page, ignoring the main story in the Iliad, and ignoring the implications of the war in general, and focusing on the micro elements like the individual lives and bonds, and the small elements of nature, create an incredibly intimate retelling of the Iliad.

Oswald ignores the size of each character, giving Patroclus the same amount of time as a fallen horse, not letting any one character's memorial overshadow anyone else. And the time and emotion which she gives to each person is heartbreaking. This book is a eulogy for the victims of war, and this fact is repeated in the afterword by Eavan Boland. Boland writes: 

"They all die in front of us before the poem is over. And we shouldn't be surprised. There can be no other ending... But why, the reader might ask, do these young men need to die again? ... What we see above all is that the atmosphere of epic has no expiry date. The soldiers here are not ciphers any more than they are merely symbols in the Iliad. In fact, the opposite is true. They are the brothers, husbands, sons of every war. And as we put down Memorial, we wonder whether we first met them in Homer's epic or saw them on last night's news bulletin."

Reading this gave me chills. It's so true, and I didn't realize it until I read it. This story is giving a voice to, and memorializing those whose deaths are not publicized. Oswald turns the focus from the Gods, those who dominate over the war, and force us to realize how many deaths go unnoticed in these expansive fits of violence. It's eerie, heartbreaking, and ultimately brilliant.

I was utterly shaken by this book, and while I believe it is beyond a star rating since it really was a spiritual experience for me, I still gave it 5/5 stars. And I will leave you with my favourite simile from the book, in the hopes that it will hit you in the same way it hit me

Like leaves who could write a history of leaves
The wind blows their ghosts to the ground
And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods
Thousands of names thousands of leaves
When you remember them remember this
Dead bodies are their lineage
Which matter no more than the leaves

Happy reading