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This review is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

Rosy-fingered Yawn alice oswald, Memorial (Faber) £12.99

Alice Oswald's Memorial is a translation of The Iliad that chucks the dull stuff (the plot points, all that talking) and retains the choice bits (the violence, the similes). It is Homer cutting to the chase - Homer cut to the quick. Thin, with a blood-red cover, you can read it in an hour. Swear.

Had I a young ward in my charge, one who could do with some culture, that's how I'd pitch Oswald's book to him. He would want to return to his World of Warcraft, his Game of Thrones. But I would counter him his entertainments by reading aloud the following verse paragraphs, from pages nineteen through twenty of the Oswald:

Beloved of Athene PHERECLES son of Harmion
Brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen
It was he who built the cursed fleet of Paris
Little knowing it was his own death boat
Died on his knees screaming
Meriones speared him in the buttock
And the point pierced him in the bladder

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

'That's fucked up!' my ward would have no recourse but to observe. 'Lemme see that.' I would yield the book to him, thereby launching an amateur on a life of poetry.

He would be right to say so, too; Oswald's book is 'fucked up'. It starts with a long roll call of soldiers who get killed in The Iliad, a narrow column of names -

PIROUS [etc.]

- that runs down the left-hand side of the page, for seven whole pages, which some might judge boring, a waste of paper. They can't, these philistines, appreciate the aura contrived by unused space in books, nor do they recognise that the names accrete to form a kind of concrete poem and war memorial - the sort of slab that squats in parks and is meant to overwhelm you with a sense of many lives wasted, provided you linger on the thing.

Traditionally, The Iliad has been understood to be about the Trojan War, which was triggered when Helen ditched her husband, Menelaus, King of the Argives, for Paris of Troy. (We are more sophisticated now; we understand Homer's epic poem to be about a battle between the forces of good and evil - a scapegoat and her oppressive patriarchy.) But while Homer's poem dwells on the parrying of patriarchs - heroes packing spears - Oswald's zeroes in on many of the wasted lives: the grunts on the receiving end of the spears; the small print on the slab in the park.

Following the opening roll call, Memorial alternates between what Oswald calls 'short biographies of soldiers', which tend to be violent, and Homer's nature similes, which the translator tends to repeat. So after the bit where the guy bites the spearhead, the book offers up the following, for counterpoint:

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

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

The book then lurches to the next scene of violence - and so on. (Oswald calls Memorial 'bipolar'.) Towards the end, it isolates a lone simile per page, for twelve pages. War is hell, the book seems to say. Give poetry a chance.

You should certainly give Memorial a chance. It contains some memorable formulations - 'flower-lit cliffs', for instance, and 'a huge birdfair a valleyfull of voices'. At its sharpest, the poetry is as serrated as one of Wyndham Lewis' Timon of Athens illustrations; detailing the death of Agelaos, the poet observes, 'When a spearshot pushed through his shout and out through the chest / He fell made of metal banging on the ground.'

But sometimes Oswald relies, for effect, on a kind of willed breathlessness. The first red flag is waved in the very first sentence of the preface. 'This is a translation of the Iliad's atmosphere,' Oswald asserts, 'not its story.' For the sake of 'atmosphere', she proceeds to drop commas, run sentences together, go for the gross-out:

Then Socus who was running by now
Felt the rude punch of a spear in his back
Push through his heart and out the other side poor Socus
Trying to get away from his own ending
Ran out his last moments in fear of the next ones
This is black wings coming down every evening
Bird's feathers on your face
Unmaking you mouthful by mouthful
Eating your eyes your open eyes...

Oswald says she's stripped away Homer's narrative to 'retrieve the poem's enargeia', which she translates to mean 'something like "bright unbearable reality"'. Surely the run-ons and lack of punctuation have been deployed to blind us with brilliance or, at the very least, get all up in our helmets. But these are the sort of easy, go-to solutions a poet will grab for when she's after some violent spontaneity. They assure some fantasy of a complacent reader that what he's supposed to be experiencing is discomfort, what with all the Brutal Hyperreal Lyricism going on.

If I call Memorial 'Anne Carson-lite', it is not to suggest that Carson, the Canadian poet and classicist, is especially weighty; it is to suggest, rather, that Memorial updates the classical world with but a touch of the weirdness that is often attributed to the not-very-weird poetry of Carson. Oswald, less radical than rascal, slips in references to 'parachutes', 'god's headlights', and 'astronauts'. Near the end, Hector is compared to a man 'in full armour in the doorway' who leaves 'his motorbike running'. The problem is not just that Hector was a convertible man; it's that there's something predictable, even calculated, about Oswald's choices. Of course the book is subtitled 'An Excavation of the Iliad'; archaeology would be the appropriate metaphor for a post-Foucauldian project that seeks to recover a subjugated narrative - that '"bright unbearable reality"'. Of course Oswald describes her 'approach to translation' as 'fairly irreverent' and that she's 'aiming for translucence rather than translation'; what translator today is declaring her goal a stuffy, cautious fidelity? We're supposed to be irreverent now, aren't we?

Don't get me wrong; as the bodies pile up and the similes diffuse between them like so much battlefield dust, Memorial isn't without the power to compel. But the book-length stunt grows a bit boring by the end, and I would hope those novices who start with Memorial (a notch on a bookworm's spear) would eventually find their way to The Iliad - perhaps Robert Fagles' vibrant translation, which has all of the violent energy of Oswald's and none of the fashionable manoeuvres. Until then, Oswald's book should help conscript a few novices into a cause that's at least as old as Homer: trying to get folks to appreciate an oral art that's always dying, which is to say only as alive as its last breath.


This review is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

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