Listen to T.S. Eliot prize-winner Alice Oswald read the final section of her book-length poem, Memorial, which, instead of attempting a direct translation, retells the Illiad as a series of memorials for the many who died in the Trojan War. Free of the grand narrative of Homer’s epic, Memorial acknowledges the terrible cost of the war on a person-by-person basis. Notice Oswald does not once look down at a text. There is none. That’s not a book on the lectern; it’s the Warwick Prize plaque. She recites, as Homer did, from memory. The result is mesmerizing. You can watch the video here.
In this final section of Memorial, she tells the story of the death of Hector, Troy’s prince and champion, and follows it with a series of similes describing the passing of the many souls slaughtered in the war, and the passing of the war itself. Hector is only one man. The pages of Memorial are filled with the individual stories of hundreds of the war dead.
Oswald honors the many killed by isolating each individual’s story as worthy of attention. She pauses over each death, and requires the reader or listener to do so. The cumulative effect is a massing of a kind of universal sadness for any death, the brevity of an individual life, and the scale of the cost of war. Oswald manages to reverse Stalin’s famous statement that “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” She makes us feel personally for each and every death, and mourn the massiveness of the loss of human life.
The scale of the tragedy is only underscored by the similes that remind us of the brevity of the war itself when compared to the expanse of human history or geological time. The great war at the center of an epic passed down for millennia is no more than a flash in the sky.
This dual vision, of intensely close scrutiny of the minutest detail while maintaining the grand perspective, also informs Dart, another of Oswald’s book-length poems. For years, Oswald studied the river Dart, interviewed those who lived along its banks and drew their livelihood from it, and meticulously assembled a detailed journey down the length of the river. To read the poem is to take such a journey. Like Memorial, it’s a book that can be dipped into and sampled anywhere to powerful effect, but which also compels the reader to go from beginning to end to experience the full sweep of the poem.
Oswald makes the specific universal. The result is that ancient history has the immediacy of personal experience, and alien landscapes feel as familiar as our own home ground.
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