The Blank Succumbing World


Memorial, Alice Oswald (84pp, 12.99, Faber)


Memorial returns to Homer, and in a series of vignettes almost, strips away the narrative, the epic, to describe the manner of each soldier's death from the The Iliad. As I read it I was haunted - appropriately enough - by several things: the small war memorial I pass as I walk my dog, in the tiny village of Treslothan; our younger son insisting that the soldier on the cenotaph in Truro was the great-grandfather of his school friend; a friend's complicated anger at the blandness of a war memorial which listed her father amongst thousands of others. Too tidy, too ordered, the memorial's list of names allowed only the pieties of national remembrance. My friend, whose father was lost in WWII, has little or no memory of him. The memorial gave her none, but merely confirmed the nation's possession of him all over again.

But this is what war memorials do: they tidy away the mess of both living and dying; and they offer the dead for further consumption. We tried to explain to our younger son that the Truro soldier was no-one and yet every one of those who have died in conflict. For if we erected a statue for each soldier lost, and moreover, in the manner of his or her dying, we could not move for the piles and bits of dead. That would be a memorial worth the name, which had to be negotiated every day. But this not what war memorials do. In fact, they allow us to forget, by putting remembrance in its place, physically and temporally, as one day a year, we gather at that site, bow heads, pray/sing etc. and then return to forgetting. My local memorial, its wreaths refreshed every November, is spare of names; sadly this is indicative of the size of the parish rather than the loss which would be all the keener proportionately. The names are also blank comprising only initial and surname, not even rank or regiment; a democratizing gesture, but one which compounds the erasure as we cannot even hazard ploughboy, farmer, gentry. The paradox of the war memorial: remembrance as the anodyne of forgetfulness.

So, reading Oswald's Memorial
is an exercise in undoing that paradox. The first eight pages offer the very sort of list we now encounter as street furniture: the names, all in upper-case, of those who were killed in action. Reading Memorial is like revisiting one's local memorial to find however, under each name, a short biography, a description, an anecdote or two, and finally, most significantly, a graphic account of that soldier's death. In short, the memorial of memories. And in attendance, the raised voices of lament of lovers, mothers, sons and daughters - those who have lost and now only have memories. But reading Memorial also reveals the blankness of the public war memorial to be perhaps a blessing. For the long poem briefly resurrects the soldiers (Trojan and Greek) only to kill them again:

     Beloved of Athene PHERECLES son of Harmion
     Brilliant with his hands and born of a long line of craftsmen
     [...]
     Died on his knees screaming
     Meriones speared him in the buttock
     And the point pierced him in the bladder

Then there is, or was

     ILIONEUS [...] an only child ran out of luck
     He always wore that well-off look
     His parents had a sheep farm
     They didn't think he would die
     But a spear stuck through his eye
     He sat down backwards
     Trying to snatch back the light

Or, LYCAON:
 
     He was the tall one the conscientious one
     Who stayed out late pruning his father's fig trees
     Who was kidnapped who was ransomed
     Who walked home barefoot [...]
     [...]
     Lycaon naked in a river pleading for his life
     Being answered by Achilles No

Lycaon's mother sees this over and over again, we are told. Imagine reading that on the town's cenotaph.

Each death is waited upon by a lament, a series of similes which, in anguish, seek to repair or explain, through repetition and analogy; more often than not, they deal with the natural world, the elements, and creatures or natural phenomena haplessly caught in an indifferent force or cycle:

     Like bird families feeding by a river
     [...]
     When an ember of eagle a red hot coal of hunger
     Falls out of the sky and bursts into wings

The lament (for I think it can be read as continuous and single, like a chorus) piles up its sorrow as the bodies pile up, and is marked often by the sheer mass of the event it draws upon: 'thousands of names thousands of leaves'; 'locusts lifted rippling over fields on fire'; 'the shine of a sea-swell' that 'dreams of its storms'. Hunger too, insatiable hunger, features frequently: 'a deer in the hills wounded/Keeps running in pain [...] gives up / And the dogs set about eating her'; 'restless wolves never run out of hunger // Lapping away [...] blackness with thin tongues / And belching it back as blood / [...] killing and killing'. The lament also repeats itself - as this war and all wars do. Oswald intended the repeated stanzas as relief from the rawness of the grief; but we are not allowed to sink thankfully into the blindness of repetition for its own sake. At one point, the Oswald lists several names without biographies, dropping them on to line after line, then suggests that they fall '[l]ike thick flocks of falling snow' which buries and blots out 'every living twig' until the very world is wiped out: 'That's how blank it is when the world succumbs to snow'. This blankness of names, this mass of leaves, bodies: this is what Oswald's poem reverses, scribbling the blankness away. And if you miss this the first time, somehow the repetition snags your glance second time around. We cannot succumb.

In a slightly grumpy or disappointed review of the poem/s, Steven Matthews (Poetry Review
Winter 2011) observes that it is a 'strange enterprise' in 'method' and 'results', failing to help us 'rethink our understanding either of war or of Homer'. This misses the point, for me. Oswald has said that her project was to free Homer's epic from its 'heroes', Agamemnon and Achilles, and throw light on the stories of those others, who only appear as they die. For Homer does not flinch from the pity and brutality of war, as any reader of The Iliad knows; his Achilles in his grief-maddened rampage is no hero either. But their absence here, throws a relentless light on the repeated futility of lives cut short, compels us to confront how conflict robs us of those we love best, privately and particularly, by refusing to give them back even in death. In this sense, Memorial does not simply rewrite Homer, but every war memorial you have ever seen.

         Kym Martindale 2012