Alice Oswald & Bright Unbearable Reality

by Emily Frisella ’16

aliceoswald1SMALL

I discovered Alice Oswald‘s book-length poem Memorial midway through my year at Oxford University, when a tutor suggested I go see her read at a nearby college. But, it turned out, Oswald doesn’t really read. She recites, and her voice—like her poetry—is precise, measured, and utterly electrifying.

Oswald is not a performance poet, and her recitations owe more to lyric poetry’s early history as an oral form than to contemporary spoken word poetry. Memorial is an adaptation and translation of the Iliad, but Oswald describes the poem in more essential terms; Memorial, like so many poems, is “an attempt to remember people’s names and lives.”

Memorial begins with a list of 412 names: the men killed in the Iliad, listed chronologically by death date. With the names printed one to a line in capital letters, the seven-page list looks like a war memorial, and, importantly, reads like one: by the end of the first page, the unfamiliar names begin to run together. The physical presence of the names is striking, but their sheer volume makes it difficult to focus on any single name. The reader begins reading without really reading and becomes, instead, a viewer who simply looks at the words. Memorials listing war dead can have the same effect. Unlike the obelisks and victory arches once used to commemorate military victories, a list of names places emphasis on the human cost of war. Yet names alone can be strangely impersonal; they only mean something to people who knew the soldiers behind the name. For readers without detailed knowledge of the Iliad, the names filling the opening pages of Memorial have this quality of impersonality without anonymity.

Oswald builds the rest of the poem around the list of the dead, surrounding the names, still printed in capital letters, with a series of “biographies” and similes. In the biographies, which she describes as “paraphrases of the Greek,” Oswald offers a portrait of each man at the moment of his death, hinting at his life before the war.

Many of the men are minor characters who make it into the narrative of the Iliad because of their deaths at the hands of more important men. Oswald offers stark, lucid descriptions of violent deaths—in one passage she writes that Pherecles “died on his knees screaming / Meriones speared him in the buttock / And the point pierced him in the bladder”—but she does not define each character through the manner of his death alone. Even when the Iliad provides little exposition, Oswald chooses to focus on each man’s relationships. Of “LEUKOS friend of Odysseus,” she writes, “Little is known of him except his death.” Each man on the battlefield is “Somebody’s husband somebody’s daughter’s husband.”

Hector, the only major character included in the list, is the last to die. Hector’s name is recognizable because his story is recognizable. Hector is the Iliad’s most politically significant casualty, but Oswald writes, “HECTOR died like everyone else.”

Oswald writes in the introduction to Memorial that “ancient critics praised [the Iliad’s] ‘enargeia,’ which means something like ‘bright unbearable reality.’ It’s the word used when gods come to earth not in disguise but as themselves. This version, trying to retrieve the poem’s enargeia, takes away its narrative, as you might lift the roof off a church in order to remember what you’re worshipping.” When Oswald lifts away the spires and domes of Homer’s poetry, she finds herself looking not towards god, precisely, but towards the death. Oswald’s “excavation of the Iliad” lifts away the familiar mythology of royal politics and divine intervention. What remains is a series of striking, intimate moments of brutality and tenderness.

 

from Memorial

an excavation of the Iliad

The first to die was PROTESILAUS
A focused man who hurried to darkness
With forty black ships leaving the land behind
Men sailed with him from those flower-lit cliffs
Where the grass gives growth to everything
Pyrasus    Iton    Pteleus    Antron
He died in mid-air jumping to be first ashore
There was his house half-built
His wife rushed out clawing her face
Podarcus his altogether less impressive brother
Took over command but that was long ago
He’s been in the black earth now for thousands of years

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads

Like a wind-murmur
Begins a rumour of waves
One long note getting louder
The water breathes a deep sigh
Like a land-ripple
When the west wind runs through a field
Wishing and searching
Nothing to be found
The corn-stalks shake their green heads

Advertisements

One thought on “Alice Oswald & Bright Unbearable Reality

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s