Lydia, I hear you say, not everything is about the Iliad. An interesting point, but consider this: the Iliad is the most important tale of all time and, perhaps, the only thing in this world that really matters.
I first read Alice Oswald’s Memorial in 2018 and after reading Country it called to me again. The concept of this poem is best summed up by its full title: Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Oswald has cut to the heart of one of the most important aspects of the Iliad: the stories and lives behind the characters we meet whose lives are cut short by the brutality of war. It is not quite a re-telling, not quite a translation, but a wonderful combination of the two – and so much more.
The book starts with a list of every named character who is killed in Homer’s Iliad. Seven and a half pages of death. Oswald then constructs a memorial to these characters, as she leans into the Homeric and writes about the lives that they led before they died on the battlefield. Extended metaphors of the natural world are interspersed, helping the reader to visualise the ways that these people had their lives ripped from them, how they spent their final moments, how the world moved around them.
Like the shine of a sea swell
Lifting and flattening silently
When the water makes way for the wind
And dreams of its storms
Huge waves hang in a hush
Uncertain which way to fall
Until a breeze breaks them
Oswald’s writing is gut-wrenching and this poem will forever be one of my favourite interpretations of the Iliad. Though the poem is focused on death, the tales of these characters’ families, their loved ones, their childhoods, ensures that the richness of life shines through its pages. This makes the scale of the trauma that beats throughout the Iliad, and this poem, all the more affective. Oswald captures the complexities of life and death and grief and memory in this fitting tribute to a classic epic.
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