12 March, 2012Issue 18.5LiteraturePoetry

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Visible Vanishing

Chloe Stopa-Hunt

BritishAlice Oswald
Faber and Faber, 2011
84 pages
ISBN 978-0571274161


In the foreword to Memorial, her stripped and inventive re-writing of the Iliad, Alice Oswald describes her own poem as “a kind of oral cemetery”. Memorial opens with a catalogue of the Homeric dead, but the poem affords them little rest, intertwining their temporally unstable biographies with iterative similes which amplify and reanimate the idea of death. On the page, the opening list at first seems flatly symbolic, evoking the fixity and pastness of a cenotaph. Read aloud, though, it tunes the ear to this poem’s particular name-crowded language, in which the Hellenic syllables are a repeating knell. Memorial was withdrawn from the T.S. Eliot prize shortlist at Oswald’s request, in response to ethical concerns over the award’s sponsorship by an investment management firm. Yet the poem itself seems likely to outlive this controversy: versions of Homer face the high standard set by Christopher Logue’s War Music, but Oswald meets the challenge with this lyrical and dazzling elegy.

Memorial tries to winnow out the enargeia (which Oswald translates as “bright unbearable reality”) of the Iliad. Oswald trained as a classicist, but the poem is never linguistically reverential. On the contrary, Oswald, whose luminous, muscular nature poetry (in collections including Woods etc. and The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile) is grounded in the Hughesian tradition, also follows Ted Hughes’s free approach to classical adaptation. Memorial dispenses with the Iliad‘s core narrative, re-framing the Trojan story as one composed of crowds and individuals, not of heroes: the poem sustains a balance between specificity and vastness, as though Oswald’s poetics were equipped with a zoom lens.

Oswald’s abbreviated biographies of the dead abound in the sort of details which are convincing and at the same time deeply sad. Often a foible stands for a whole life: “EUPHORBAS died / Leaving his silver hairclip on the battlefield”. Dozens of characters are deftly caught, from Elephenor, who “wore his hair long at the back”, to Hector, “who was so boastful and anxious / And used to nip home deafened by weapons”. The ease and inconsequence of “nipping” may feel like a rupture of epic decorum, but it vividly establishes the quotidian nature of this Ur-war. Nipping home is also a domestic image, preceding by only a few lines the moment when the dead Hector returns to Andromache, “Asking only to be washed and burned / And his bones wrapped in soft cloths / And returned to the ground”. These qualities of intimacy and destruction twine around each other in Memorial, which, although it hands on a structural skeleton of masculine names, carefully situates many of those it memorialises in social and familial contexts:

Against all that silver the spear-tip
Simply bent like lead and he lost
Poor Iphidamas now he is only iron
Sleeping its iron sleep poor boy
Who fought for Helen for his parents’ town
Far from his wife all that money wasted
A hundred cattle he gave her
A thousand sheep and goats
All that hard work feeding them wasted

Wastage spreads here like ripples: Oswald sifts the effects of the death, her loosely oral poetics making room for na√Øf lament (“poor boy”) alongside the remembered labour of animal husbandry. We are surely supposed to wonder who will feed the livestock now, for Memorial never ignores the plight of survivors, who are forced to confront an irremediable human gap. A father bereft of both sons realises that “all his savings will go to other people’s children”, and when Othryon, Cassandra’s betrothed, dies: “everyone laughed and laughed / Except Cassandra”.

Oswald is particularly adept at capturing death as an inextricable composition of physical and metaphysical elements. Echepolus dies “Letting the darkness leak down over his eyes”, an image in which failing consciousness and blood-loss collapse into each other. Democoon’s death is conflated with the blow that delivers it: “the darkness hit him with a dull clang”. The men are also shocked by one another’s deaths. Coon, the brother of Iphidamas, is one of the most tragic figures in Memorial, so surprised and appalled by his brother’s death that he can scarcely believe that no one is interested and nothing is being done about it:

First he wounded Agamemnon
Then he grabbed his brother’s stiffened foot
And tried to drag him home shouting
Help for god’s sake this is Iphidamas
Someone please help but Agamemnon
Cut off his head and that was that
Two brothers killed on the same morning by the same man
That was their daylight here finished
And their long nightshift in the underworld just beginning

The anachronism of the “nightshift” is eerily and eccentrically lyrical, as when Oswald describes Asius, who at the point of death “feels so luminous stupid / Sitting in god’s headlights trembling / In the narrow opening to the grave”. The core moment in this passage, though, is Coon’s outraged cry, “this is Iphidamas”, which echoes the whole project of Memorial, a poem determined to repeat this again and again until it has captured the quiddities of its flocking cast of dead.

“This is” leads Oswald to thisness, an attention to haecceity which is reminiscent of Hopkins, but concentrated as much upon human life as upon the matter of the natural world. The repeating epic similes which break up Oswald’s biographies all draw upon a relatively familiar repertoire of images within English poetry, from hawks to deer, and the Hughesian note is strongest in these passages. The repetition is not always effective, and Oswald achieves more, poetically, when she departs from a straightforward echo. An extended simile of hunting is stripped down to three repeated lines: “And at last at evening a lion appears / A huge angel wandering the hills laying claim to the dead / And the dogs scatter”. Here, a narrative narrows into a moment.

This technique of collapsing time illustrates the overweening tendency of Memorial—which is also its most substantial contribution to the epic genre it is overwriting, and to the elegiac mode in which it unfolds. Oswald unpeels language: beneath the incisive, personalised death-charting which is the poem’s apparent object, Memorial is aware that such projects are never-ending and beyond all words. About halfway through the poem’s central section are the “Twelve anonymous Thracians” whom Diomedes—”Red-faced quietly like a butcher keeping up with his order”—has killed “in their sleep”. The unnamed represent one border of what is possible in elegiac epic; at the other extreme, there are those who reappear with a story no longer, or scarcely longer, than their first entry in the grand inaugural list:

And HIPPODAMAS died […]

And HYPEIROCHOS died […]

And us

Now STICHIUS has gone and ARCESILAUS […]

The poem’s typography is critical to its revisionist treatment, functioning as a visual code by which the reader can instantly parse any encounter, distinguishing the killer from the killed. There is no element of surprise: “Protect my sons PHEGEUS and IDAEUS”, a priest implores Hephaestus, and the prayer’s failure is seeded in its visual and typographical existence on the page, for only the dead appear in upper case. Memorial creates a specialised and temporary reading experience in which a man’s name signals, contains, and creates his death: “APISAON / ARETUS”. These names, like the list at the beginning, are unadorned even by “And”, because the poem has generated its appositional mode so completely that extra language is no longer needed.

Oswald arrives at this kernel, but does not accept it. Memorial discovers its linguistic superfluity, and this discovery means that its continuance is an act of faith, both in poetry and in the memorialising it has undertaken. The poem’s final section consists of unrepeated similes, suspended in isolation, one to a page. Almost all of them return to the crowd imagery which has pervaded the whole poem; here, especially, Oswald uses the metaphors of crowds of insects or friable leaves. These tiny creatures—crickets and flies, locusts and bees—are, even more obviously than men, part of what Oswald imagines as the earth’s “leafwork”: endless makings and unmakings; unimaginable dissolution. One of Oswald’s earlier similes likened fire to a “visible vanishing”, and much of what Memorial undertakes consists of giving to absence a fleeting visual shape. With her last simile, Oswald returns to repetition, freezing into four lines the elegiac ambivalence which pervades the poem:

Like when god throws a star
And everyone looks up
To see that whip of sparks
And then it’s gone

This moment is all-embracing, taking in “everyone”, from the dead at the front of the book to the far larger crowds, hinted at again and again, who will be their successors; subsuming also the reader—any and all readers. Its four-line story is, like the poem, one of loss: absolute mutability, even of the heavens. This loss is a complete, specialised, and singular event, as any death is, yet we have only to turn the page and it will happen again, identical—repeatable as long as leafwork lasts.

Chloe Stopa Hunt graduated in 2010 with a BA in English from New College, Oxford. She is the poetry reviews editor at The Cadaverine.