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This article is taken from PN Review 246, Volume 45 Number 4, March - April 2019.

on Alice Oswald

That Whip of Sparks
Some Notes on Alice Oswald
Rowland Bagnall
TOWARDS THE END of September, I went to see Brink Productions’ adaptation of Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial (2011) at the Barbican. It was ambitious, featuring a chorus of two hundred or so choreographed performers accompanying a minimalist orchestral arrangement, the stage at times flooded with bodies standing for the excavated Greek and Trojan soldiers of Oswald’s poem, what she refers to as her ‘translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere’. The poem itself was delivered by the Australian actor Helen Morse, whose command of the poetry I can’t contest: at the very least, her recital of the poem constitutes a feat of memory of the kind I’ve long since given up, though there were moments of what seemed like genuine pity leaking through her voice. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling conscious that I wasn’t hearing Oswald speak the poetry herself, that just as the American imprint of Memorial is subtitled a ‘version’ of the Iliad, so Morse’s delivery of the poem was somehow other than the original: not worse, but not it.

Oswald has performed Memorial, several times, in its entirety, though it seems unlikely that she’ll resurrect the poem anytime soon. ‘It’s very horrible to do,’ she suggests to Max Porter in an interview for The White Review: ‘Before I do it I have this feeling of pressure. This line of soldiers queuing up that has to move through my head. I have every muscle tensed.’ Oswald’s reputation as a memorable and captivating reader of her poems was all but cemented around the time of these performances. ‘I saw you recite the ...


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