There is something marvellous about lists. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, when the hunter Actaeon is turned into a stag by the goddess Diana, his dogs turn on him. Before they tear into his flesh, the poet pauses to name 33, along with their qualities (“Aello the stout runner”) and their breeding. The effect is hypnotic: these hounds meant something to their owner, who now, dehumanised, tries to call out their names but cannot.
The same is true of the Catalogue of Ships in Homer’s Iliad, in which all the leaders and their countries are named. Little insights into their lives create a strange beauty, localising and focusing our attention.
Alice Oswald has sensed this too. She starts the first part of her magnificent new poem, Memorial – shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize – as a list, in capitals, of the dead heroes in The Iliad. Those who know Homer’s text will feel the keenness of “PEDASUS / SARPEDON / EPIGEUS”. Sarpedon is the son of Zeus, king of the gods, his end foreshadowing deaths to come. When Oswald comes to the end – “AINIOS / OPHELESTES / HECTOR” – the blank page after those two final bold syllables is heartbreaking. The rest is silence. There is no need to know the epic or its use of similes – here are names, with their own magical resonance, side by side; it doesn’t matter if they are Greek or Trojan, what matters is that they were men, and that they are dead.
The second part of Memorial fleshes out the names. To turn around the metaphor, Oswald has achieved this through a filleting of Homer’s poem. She has sliced out the sharp bones: the deaths of the heroes, and the similes. There is no context; we don’t get the tenor of the similes, only the vehicles, and they are repeated, which enhances the prophetic effect. There is no punctuation, which, far from rushing the poem, lends a solemn gravity.
This is not a direct translation. It’s as if Oswald has looked behind the Greek into another world both uncanny and familiar. Her poetry is alive to sound patterns: “Hephaestus / Hot-faced”; “the world simplifies into cliffs and clefts”. The young men she memorialises come from “flower-lit cliffs”; one has “cold seed-like concentration”, another “wore his hair long at the back”. They are the sons of priests and gods, shepherdesses and kings, even prophets.
But it doesn’t matter if you can see into the future or not: “Death / Was already walking to meet them”. The father of “ABAS and POLYIDOS… could tell the future” yet it doesn’t stop Diomedes killing his sons. Meanwhile, “ADRESTUS and AMPHIUS/ Everyone knew they were going to die / They were the sons of Merops the prophet / He begged them to stay at home but they couldn’t listen / Their own ghosts were calling them to Troy”. (Isn’t that “couldn’t” brilliant?)
Sometimes a few words paint a whole life: “SCAMANDRIUS the hunter / Knew every deer in the woods”; PEDAEUS is “the unwanted one”. The occasional anachronism has an ameliorative effect: there are two brothers who come home “proud as astronauts / And didn’t want to farm any more / And went riding out to be killed by Agamemnon”. “Astronauts” is perfect here, triumph and overreaching coiled into one word.
Set against the often brutal deaths are the gorgeous textures of the similes: a girl clinging to her mother’s clothes, “Like staring up at that tower of adulthood / Wanting to be light again / Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted / And carried on a hip”. This is taken from a speech Achilles makes to Patroclus (in Book 16); woven in here, it becomes a startling gloss on the nature of fighting.
This beautiful, bleak poem comes down to the insanity of war. Here is “Diomedes a madman a terrible numbness / Turned inside-out and taking over everything”. (Diomedes isn’t slain, so he remains uncapitalised). War turns everything inside out – people, places; Troy will be torn out from its heart, its women and children scattered.
Oswald has achieved a miraculous feat. She’s exposed a skeleton, but found something magnificently eerie and rich. She has truly made, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Spender, a “miniature Iliad ”, taut, fluid and graceful, its tones knelling like bells into the clear air, ringing out in remembrance of all the untimely dead: “All vigorous men / All vanished”.